Eric Karabell and I go over some players in the National League MVP discussion -- and their less-heralded teammates who should be getting more recognition.
In baseball, we have a hard time letting go of the past. For example, when we think of the greatest defensive players at each position, the legends pretty much already have been cast in stone:
C -- Johnny Bench
1B -- Keith Hernandez
2B -- Bill Mazeroski
3B -- Brooks Robinson
SS -- Ozzie Smith
LF -- Nobody really talks about great left fielders, although it's Barry Bonds
CF -- Willie Mays
RF -- Roberto Clemente
There's some discussion of other players -- Ivan Rodriguez and now Yadier Molina at catcher, maybe Roberto Alomar at second base, and Omar Vizquel had his vocal minority. But that's basically the group. Mazeroski eventually made the Hall of Fame based on his defense (although Hernandez, a much better all-around player, has failed to receive similar support).
At third base, however, Graig Nettles may have been every bit the equal of Robinson, and even had a spectacular World Series one year with the Yankees, but never matched Robinson's brilliance in the eyes of the public. Same thing with Scott Rolen or Adrian Beltre. Manny Machado faces the same test if he remains at third base -- although Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer, a teammate of Robinson's, said Machado has made plays Robinson couldn't.
In center field, Andruw Jones may have been better than Mays -- but good luck getting many outside of Atlanta to admit that. Ichiro Suzuki has won 10 Gold Gloves and has a sterling defensive reputation, but it's still Clemente in right field.
So that gets us to Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons. He's not really in the MVP discussion, considering his .246 average and .294 on-base percentage. But he has been one of the most valuable players in the NL thanks to his brilliant defensive work. Mark Simon has written about Simmons' defensive work on this blog, I've tweeted about it, others are writing about it -- Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs last week and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus the other day, to name two.
The crux is that Simmons is having one of the greatest defensive seasons of all time, whether you go by the metrics, or by the eye test. Maybe his reputation isn't quite at Ozzie-level yet, which is understandable because it takes time to build a reputation, and Simmons is in his second season.
At ESPN, we like to use Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved metric, which BIS has tracked with video review since 2003. According to DRS, here are the best defensive seasons since 2003:
1. Andrelton Simmons, Braves, 2013: plus-37 runs
2. Brett Gardner, Yankees, 2010: plus-35
3. Adam Everett, Astros, 2006: plus-34
4. Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners, 2009: plus-32
4. Jack Wilson, Pirates, 2005: plus-32
6. Manny Machado, Orioles, 2013: plus-31
6. Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 2007: plus-31
6. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies, 2007: plus-31
9. Scott Rolen, Cardinals, 2004: plus-30
9. Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, 2004: plus-30
9. Craig Counsell, Diamondbacks, 2005: plus-30
9. Chase Utley, Phillies, 2008: plus-30
9. Michael Bourn, Astros, 2010: plus-30
Simmons already tops the list, with five-plus weeks left to play. Baseball-Reference.com uses a metric called Total Zone prior to 2003. Combining the two, here is B-R's list of best defensive seasons:
1. Darin Erstad, Angels, 2002: plus-39
2. Simmons: plus-37
2. Barry Bonds, Pirates, 1989: plus-37
2. Frankie Frisch, Cardinals, 1927: plus-37
5. Andruw Jones, Braves, 1999: plus-36
6. Gardner: plus-35
6. Jones, Braves, 1998: plus-35
6. Mark Belanger, Orioles, 1975: plus-35
9. Everett: plus-34
9. Terry Turner, Indians, 1906: plus-34
I'm guessing none of us can be witness to Turner's defensive excellence, but all of those guys had great reputations. By the way, Ozzie's best season was a plus-32 in 1989 and Robinson's best season a plus-33 in 1968, so it's not like the metrics don't like their defense. And for those who think defensive metrics are as valuable as a bunt in the first inning, at least consider that Baseball-Reference's highest-rated fielders of all time are Robinson, Belanger, Ozzie, Jones (Andruw, not Ruppert) and Clemente.
As for Simmons, he has as strong an arm as I've ever seen on a shortstop -- right up there with Shawon Dunston and Cal Ripken, but also with a quick release and athleticism. As Mark has written, what makes Simmons' defensive metrics rate so high are not just the spectacular range plays, but that he makes all of the routine plays more often than other shortstops.
With help from the columns Jeff and Sam wrote, here are links to five outstanding plays Simmons has made:
This is my favorite. With Nationals pitcher Craig Stammen squaring around to bunt, watch Simmons break to cover third. He's completely out of the screen when Stammen chops the ball up the middle. Somehow, he turns two while twisting out toward right field as he throws to first.
A diving stop and throw to start a double play. Watch it again. The stop was amazing, but the throw while falling down may be even more impressive.
Here he shows off his strong arm. The great shortstops make the difficult play look routine.
Oh, yeah, he's good on popups, too. As Braves announcer Joe Simpson says, that's as good a play as you'll see.
As for the MVP thing, Ozzie finished in the top 10 in the voting just once in his career, in 1987 when he finished second. But he hit .303 that year with a .392 OBP, 104 runs and 43 steals, offensive production that Simmons lacks. Right now, however, Simmons ranks sixth among NL position players in WAR at 5.3. He's worthy of top-five consideration and I'd probably put him fifth on my ballot (if I had one) behind Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt and Yadier Molina.