Saturday, May 9, 2015

Simba's Improvement

Nobody can match Andrelton Simmons in the field. His Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS, is other-worldly. His range is endless. And that arm? If this was the middle ages, minstrels would sing of Simba's greatness. Now that I think about it, that wouldn't be too bad of an idea for the modern age. Every time he comes to the plate, a minstrel could sing a new song. Atlanta, make this happen!

Andrelton's defense is enough to make a legitimate claim to the best shortstop in baseball. You shouldn't make that claim, but there's enough in his defense to at least suggest he's an elite shortstop. However, Simmons wasn't sought on anyone's fantasy baseball roster unless the league included modern defensive metrics. No matter how good a player is in the field, he needs to hit and this is where Andrelton's case for the best shortstop in baseball fell short. Oh, sure, he could be a 4.5 fWAR player in 2013, but offensively, he was too often a black hole.

Last November, I contended that if the Braves compete in 2015, it was dependent on Simba. That may have been a hyperbolic statement and the many trades that followed certainly played a role, but the idea behind the post was solid. The Braves simply couldn't play Simmons, along with other black holes, and expect to compete. They needed production at the plate from their shortstop. Production they failed to get in 2013 when he slashed just .248/.296/.396. Nor did they get production the following year when his numbers slipped to .244/.286/.331. The Braves needed more.

More is what the Braves have received through 29 games this year. Simmons has raked at the tune of .294/.364/.459. He's walked a bit more so far, though that could easily disappear. Most noteworthy so far has been a line drive rate that was formally woeful and is now too good. At 24.5%, Simmons's line drive rate has improved 6% to 8% over the previous season and his career mark. That seems unlikely to continue, though the rate is not impossibly high to maintain. Now is a .294 BABIP that is 31 points higher than last year.

Some takeaways from Andrelton's improvement: He's swinging more, but has still seen a small decline in pitches swung at outside the strikezone. Meanwhile, he's swung at slightly more pitches inside the strikezone. Despite swinging at less pitches outside the zone, he's making more contact on them. He's been noticeably better against fastballs over previous years so far. In addition, while he still pops up a bunch of balls to the infield, he has brought his flyball rate down nearly in line with the increase in his line drive rate.

Will Andrelton continue to produce at this level? Possibly not. After all, it's a long season and we are essentially a month into it. He still could be the guy who makes too much bad contact just to make contact. But let's stay positive because this season is definitely going to test that ability. So far, so good. Simmons can be a better hitter than we have seen. This year is as good as any to see it.

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