Bad bat? Not if we turn Andrelton Simmons’ defense into offense

Say this for new Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons: He makes things pretty easy. You can look at the regular numbers, or you can look at the more complicated numbers, or you can just watch video of Simmons playing so you can evaluate him with your own eyes. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll always arrive at the same place. This is a player who hasn’t yet been a very good hitter. But this is also a tremendously skilled defender. Simmons is obviously an excellent shortstop. He’s pretty obviously one of the best defensive talents in baseball right now.

For however much complaining there is that we still aren’t great at measuring defensive performance, Simmons isn’t a shortstop to be debated. This is an open and closed case — he’s great. He’s great by observation. He’s great by reputation. He’s great by the way he’s discussed within the industry.

And the numbers are there. Since Simmons broke into the league, he’s been the game’s best defensive shortstop according to Defensive Runs Saved. He’s been the game’s best defensive shortstop according to Ultimate Zone Rating. He’s been the game’s best defensive shortstop according to Inside Edge, another data source. And he’s been the game’s best defensive shortstop according to the Fan Scouting Report, a project that asks baseball fans every year to make their own defensive evaluations. This intro has probably gone on too long, because it’s not like you need to be convinced. No one needs to be convinced about Andrelton Simmons.

Still, there’s the concern you can’t get away from. It’s concern that in part led to the Braves trading Simmons in the first place. The defense is always there, but hitting numbers are always more visible, and Simmons hasn’t been an offensive threat. Last season he slugged .338; the season before he slugged .331. He doesn’t seem to be improving very much, and there are people who wonder if he hits enough. People who think the offense is a big problem, no matter what happens on the other side of the ball.

Let’s talk quickly about Simmons’ hitting. Below is a table, showing Simmons’ career, and the wOBA statistic. wOBA is scaled to resemble on-base percentage, and the higher the wOBA, the better the hitter. You see Simmons’ performance, the league-average hitting performance (excluding pitchers), and the league-average shortstop hitting performance, specifically.

wOBA, 2012 – 2015
Season Simmons League Overall League SS
2012 0.324 0.320 0.300
2013 0.303 0.318 0.298
2014 0.273 0.315 0.297
2015 0.290 0.318 0.297
Career 0.292 0.318 0.298

Simmons, for his career, has been a below-average hitter, and he’s also been a below-average hitter for a shortstop. As promising as he looked in his first cup of coffee, he got worse the next season, and then he fell on real hard times in 2014. Last year was a bit of a bounce-back, but it still left Simmons below the mean.

You’re still not hearing anything you didn’t already know. But now I want to try something, turning Simmons’ defense into hypothetical offense. This kind of gets to the same sort of place as WAR, but I think it’s a little easier to think about. What does Simmons do in the field? For the most part, if you simplify, Simmons turns would-be singles into outs. It’s not all he does, but it’s a lot of what he does. And is there any difference between Simmons preventing a single, and Simmons hitting a single? A single is a single, right? Sure, when Simmons comes up to bat during a rally, you might wish he were someone else. But Simmons can also interfere with other rallies, enemy rallies, stealing clutch singles as often as he doesn’t hit them.

A single is a single, so for this little thought experiment, why don’t we try to move some singles from Simmons’ defense to Simmons’ offense, to create an equivalent sort of shortstop with a stronger bat?

This doesn’t make for a better or worse player — it just makes for a different style of player. But I think this perspective can help drive home that Simmons really is a valuable player, that complaining about his offense misses the bigger picture. If he were a better hitter and a worse defender, he might sometimes feel more useful, but he’d be the same amount of help.

For this exercise, I’m not going to make use of Simmons’ specific yearly defensive stats. Instead, I’m just going to estimate his skill. Some sources think Simmons has been 15-20 runs better than the average shortstop in the field per year. Some sources say more like 25-30 runs. I’m going to show another table, including the same information from the table above. This table also has three extra columns. You’ll see hypothetical Simmons wOBAs, assuming a certain number of extra singles. The +20 column assumes Simmons saves an extra 20 singles per full year. +25 assumes 25, +30 assumes 30. I’ve just turned those defensive singles into offensive singles. So those are would-be Simmons wOBAs at the plate, along with his being an average defensive shortstop.

It’s up to you which column you pick. Do you think he’s a +20-single shortstop, or more of a +30-single shortstop? It’s good to have options.

wOBA and Hypothetical wOBA, 2012 – 2015
Season Simmons League Overall League SS +20 Plays +25 Plays +30 Plays
2012 0.324 0.320 0.300 0.358 0.366 0.374
2013 0.303 0.318 0.298 0.329 0.336 0.343
2014 0.273 0.315 0.297 0.306 0.313 0.321
2015 0.290 0.318 0.297 0.323 0.330 0.338
Career 0.292 0.318 0.298 0.323 0.330 0.338

The actual Andrelton Simmons, as established, has been a below-average hitter. But now look over at those new columns. If you give him 20 extra singles per full year, he’s a strong offensive shortstop, and a slightly above-average hitter overall. If you give him 25 extra singles per full year, he gets better; go to 30 and he’s better still. He hardly resembles the same guy. Those singles add up fast.

Let’s put some name identifiers to these. Simmons, since 2012, has actually hit like Dustin Ackley. Or like Andrelton Simmons. A roughly league-average hitter has been Gerardo Parra. If you go with the +20 column, then Simmons’ offense looks like Trevor Plouffe. At +25, he has the same wOBA as Evan Gattis. At +30, he has the same wOBA as Curtis Granderson. To simplify that, one more time: That would be Granderson-level offense, from a now average defensive shortstop. That’s not what Simmons has been, in specific detail, but that’s sort of what he’s been, just in a different sort of way.

It shouldn’t matter what you do with the singles. Whether you keep them in the field or give them instead to Simmons’ bat, it’s the same amount of singles, and the same amount of value. You might prefer more balance in your players, but it’s unlikely that it actually makes a big difference. Simmons isn’t an offensive zero. And he’s going to end opposing rallies by making plays in the hole.

This says nothing about any potential Simmons offensive upside. He’s shown power before, he doesn’t strike out, and he’s just 26. He could still develop more on that front, and last year he took a step forward in hitting the other way. Some people will point out that Simmons’ defense will only decline, and they’re right, but that decline is going to be gradual. And Omar Vizquel showed you can remain a quality defensive shortstop almost forever. You know who people just fell in love with last month? Alcides Escobar. Escobar is a worse offensive shortstop than Simmons, and Escobar is a worse defensive shortstop than Simmons. The Royals still love him. The Angels will love their guy.

Don’t focus too much on Simmons’€™ bat. No, it isn’t the best. But shortstops in general aren’t very good, and if you keep just watching Simmons hit, you’re going to miss a hell of a show.