This post is about Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons. But really, it’s about how teams value and conceive of defense in the game of baseball … and what his upcoming free agency could tell us about it.
On the one hand, it’s rather straightforward: preventing runs is as good as creating them. It’s an oversimplification, but for the most part the name of the game is simply to turn would-be baserunners into outs.
Things get quite a bit more complicated when you wade into an attempt at valuing a given player’s impact on a team’s ability to make outs and prevent runs. Avoiding miscues is obviously a big part of the picture, but that hardly provides the full picture of a defender. (Past a diving Jeter, anyone?) Range — the ability to get to more balls — is obviously of critical importance. And there are a host of subtle skills to consider … catcher framing, perhaps, being the most susceptible of statistical precision. But how do you value a tagging maestro, for example? And how do we account for contemporary baseball’s ceaseless shifting, particularly given that much of it is engineered by analysts rather than players’ gut instincts on positioning?
While it’s pretty easy to get a sense of a hitter’s profile and productivity from a glance at a stat sheet, it’s obvious that truly understanding defensive value requires more. Even the most sophisticated analytical systems have struggled to reach anything like the kind of precision that we’d need to make fine distinctions. Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and the more recent Statcast-based Outs Above Average all have their merits and aid in the understanding of a ballplayer. But it’d be a stretch to say that you could look at the numbers they produce and use them to determine that player A is superior to player B at fielding his position.
All that said … shouldn’t we listen when all the stats, and all the scouts, and all that we see with our own eyes tell us that one particular player is in his own particular category when it comes to defensive play? On a rate basis, no infielder comes particularly close to Simmons in UZR. To understand how that translates to value when estimating runs saved and tabulating wins above replacement … well, just look how many more innings it took guys like J.J. Hardy and Jimmy Rollins to accrue similar total value above replacement at the shortstop position. And it’s not just UZR. Far from it. By measure of DRS, Simmons has been outlandishly superior to the rest of the shortstop field. Statcast, at least, shows some competition over the past three seasons from Nick Ahmed, but it too agrees that Simmons is an exceptional performer. (It’s also less than clear that Statcast is as useful for infielders as it is for outfielders.)
It doesn’t seem wild to presume, for purposes of this post at least, that Simmons is a historically amazing defensive performer. Teams no doubt have their own ways of translating fielding performance to value, but it’s generally reasonable to believe they’ll put a high price on run prevention. Even if you’d rather market a slugger than a glove-first shortstop, there’s no general reason to prefer the former to the latter from a competitive standpoint.
Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that a truly elite defender is all the more valuable to a team — especially in this day and age. Positioning defenders to account not only for hitters, but defenders, has long been a part of the sport. But it’s now done with much greater sophistication and frequency. The Reds just signed Mike Moustakas to play second base after watching the Brewers try him there despite a career spent at third. For creative ballclubs looking for ways to shoehorn every advantage into a lineup, the ability to deploy a human vacuum/cannon on the left side of the infield could convey even greater value than that player’s directly attributable individual contribution.
It’s truly fascinating to imagine what teams might envision doing with Simmons … and wondering how much they’ll be willing to pay. (Setting aside the likely market-skewing impact of the coronavirus-shortened season, anyway.) The Diamondbacks just made a fairly significant outlay to Ahmed, despite the fact he has never really come close to league-average offensive productivity over a full season and was still a year from free agency. Even if you believe Ahmed has approached Simmons in defensive capabilities, he hasn’t done it as long. And Simmons has a far superior overall track record at the plate, with a lifetime batting output that’s about the same as Ahmed’s single-season peak. Supposing Simmons is in typical form in 2020 — unparalleled glovework and league-average-ish offense — he ought to fetch a fair sight more on the open market … particularly if big-market teams get involved with big ideas about how to squeeze value from such a unique player.