SweetSpot: Andrelton Simmons

Defensive player of year: Andrelton Simmons

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
Mike Zarrilli/AP PhotosThere's nobody better on defense than Andrelton Simmons.

Our selection for Defensive Player of the Year for 2014 is the same as our pick for 2013.

And if we were guessing right now, Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons could win this award every year through the end of the decade.

It was a close vote among our 11-person voting panel (which included ESPN.com writers and "Baseball Tonight" analyst Doug Glanville), but Simmons edged out his teammate, right fielder Jason Heyward for the top spot.

Simmons received four first-place votes and 35 points (voting was a 5-3-1 system for the top three spots). Heyward got three first-place votes and 29 points.

Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy finished third, ahead of Mets center fielder Juan Lagares, Royals left fielder Alex Gordon and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

Throughout the season, I received comments on Twitter from followers who thought that the shortstop they follow is better than Simmons. I am here to tell them it's not true.

We've written a lot about Simmons' glovework in this space, so we'll keep the details on his success brief, other than to say that the comparisons to Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel still seem legit.

Simmons led all shortstops with 28 Defensive Runs Saved, nine more than the player with the next most at the position (Zack Cozart of the Reds). Using Baseball-Reference.com’s conversion methods, that equates to 3.9 Defensive Wins above Replacement, the most for any player in the major leagues.

Over the last two seasons, Simmons has 9.3 Defensive Wins Above Replacement. The next-closest is Lagares at 6.9.

As good as Simmons was in 2013, and even though his overall Defensive Runs Saved total declined from 41 to 28, there were some areas in which he actually improved in 2014.

Simmons still excelled at fielding balls in the shortstop-third base hole, with a prowess unmatched by anyone else. His conversion rate on double-play opportunities (as either fielder or relay man) jumped from 62 percent to 75 percent.

Simmons also stood out on video review, by Baseball Info Solutions’ system of tracking Good Fielding Plays (30 categories) and Defensive Misplays & Errors (nearly 60 categories). His ratio of Good Plays to Bad Plays went from 1.9 (76 to 39) to 2.5 (69 to 28). Only two shortstops -- Alexi Amarista (2.6) and Troy Tulowitzki (2.5) -- had a better ratio and both played fewer games at the position than Simmons.

Heyward was a very worthy runner-up. He led all major leaguers in Defensive Runs Saved with 32. But we're willing to bet that even he would acknowledge that Simmons is the best in the business and will be for quite some time.

Simmons best defender of September

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
Amazingly, we almost got through a full season without naming Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons our Defensive Player of the Month.

Alas, Simmons finally won our vote for September. He won on the strength of five Defensive Runs Saved, which trailed only Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants among shortstops. Crawford had seven Defensive Runs Saved, but Simmons garnered more favor for having nine Good Fielding Plays and only two Misplays and Errors compared to Crawford’s 10 and 7 for the month.

After a slow start, Simmons finished the season with 28 Defensive Runs Saved and should be a lock to win the National League Gold Glove at shortstop.

Simmons didn't lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved. His teammate Jason Heyward did, finishing with 32. Simmons placed tied for second with New York Mets outfielder Juan Lagares, who won this award in August.

Simmons had 14 Defensive Runs Saved in his first 109 games, than had 14 in his last 37 games of the season (helped by plays like this one).

At one point in mid-August, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart had a seven-run advantage over Simmons for the most of any shortstop. He finished nine runs behind Simmons for the season.

So even though the Braves offense may have gone in the tank at the end of the season, at least one defender was playing pretty hard and pretty well on the defensive end.

* * * *

Alexi Amarista
I also want to give a salute to San Diego Padres utility man Alexi Amarista, who finished as the runner-up in our voting. Amarista had only one Defensive Run Saved for the month, but was credited with 25 Good Fielding Plays by the video trackers at Baseball Info Solutions, by far the most of anyone for September.

Examples of the handiwork by the player known as "Superninja" to the Padres broadcast crew can be seen here, here and here.

Amarista played five different positions this season. Shortstop was his best, the one at which he got seven of his 10 Defensive Runs Saved.
1. A big night in the AL Central.

The Royals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins 6-1 ... which came a couple hours after David Price allowed -- not a typo -- nine consecutive hits in the third inning as the Yankees scored eight runs. Most of the hits were not cheapies, either. The inning went:

Single, double, single, double, single, single, single, infield single, single. Four of the hits were ground balls but only two of those were soft. Price became the first pitcher since Bob Forsch in 1989 to allow nine hits in a row. As our friend Jonah Keri tweeted, the Yankees scored more runs that inning than Drew Smyly has allowed in his five starts with Tampa Bay since being traded for Price.

As for the Royals, here's a stat: Before Tuesday, the Twins had lost just two games all season they led heading into the eighth inning. The Royals rallied two nights in a row in the ninth and eighth innings.

2. Speaking of Smyly ... he's good.

You don't want to overreact to five starts, but in those five starts Smyly has allowed just six runs. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday and allowing just two hits in seven innings, he became the second Rays pitcher to pitch at least seven innings and allow two hits or fewer in consecutive starts. Bottom line: For those who think the Rays didn't get enough in return for Price, think again; Smyly is more than just a back-end starter.

We all loved this trade for the Tigers because we overfocused for the Tigers, but it's fair to ask: How much is Dave Dombrowski sweating right now?

3. The Cubs are worth watching down the stretch.

I mentioned Javier Baez in non-pennant race news on Tuesday, and now we discuss Jorge Soler, the dynamic Cuban right fielder who debuted for the Cubs on Wednesday ... and promptly slammed a Mat Latos fastball for a home run in his first at-bat. Soler is the same physical presence as Baez but his minor numbers suggest a swing with a little more control: He struck out 48 times in 200 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A (hitting .340/.432/.700) compared to Baez's 130 K's in 388 at-bats. That's still a high strikeout rate, so he may face the same initial struggles as Baez. Soler's biggest issue has been staying healthy: He had a fractured tibia last year and had injuries to both hamstrings that forced him to miss most of April and May this year. But with 15 home runs in 62 minor-league games, the power potential resembles Baez's.

Now ... let's hope the Cubs call up Kris Bryant. I don't want to hear about service time and all that. He's ready for the big leagues.

4. Eric O'Flaherty, A's closer, for now.

Oakland's first save opportunity since Sean Doolittle went to the former Braves lefty, who has pitched well in limited action for the A's so far. He gave up a run to the Astros but preserved the 5-4 win. (The A's scored three off Chad Qualls in the top of the ninth, with Sam Fuld hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer.)

Also note: Drew Pomeranz, good outing. Pomeranz didn't replace Jason Hammel in the rotation, but was taking a start to give Sonny Gray an extra day of rest. But he pitched well enough if that Bob Melvin may give him another one.

5. Give these guys Gold Gloves.

1. Alex Gordon.
2. Juan Lagares.
3. Andrelton Simmons.

Maybe the three best defensive players in the game.

Braves need their lineup stars to step up

August, 9, 2014
Aug 9
Maybe it’s a matter of sympathy for a team that lost much of its rotation to the surgeon before a pitch had been thrown. Maybe it’s because we all love prospects, and indulge them their shortcomings while anticipating their glorious futures. But with the Atlanta Braves, as we move into the season’s final third, it’s time to acknowledge that this isn’t much of a contender as teams go. If anything, it’s a team that should consider itself fortunate to be .500. The Braves are three games over now, with an expected record a game or two worse than that.

That might be enough to win the increasingly feeble NL East, but the question is where you might reasonably expect the Braves to improve, because it’s a club with a lot of areas for improvement -- especially in the lineup. Despite the presence of star slugger Justin Upton, the much-ballyhooed breakthrough of Evan Gattis, and the continuing development of young stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, the Braves rank 13th in the league in runs scored and -- adjusting for a pitcher-friendly home park -- 11th in OPS+. The only other contender trying to do as much with as little offense is Cincinnati, in fourth place in the NL Central but a direct threat to Atlanta’s chances should the Braves fail to win the NL East.

A big problem has been the team’s power outage: The Braves are tied for 10th in the National League in isolated power. The Cardinals’ slugging shortage has been a season-long talking point, but through Friday night’s action they had more extra-base hits than the Braves (293 to 290).

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/David GoldmanChris Johnson's impatience at the plate has hurt the Braves' offense this season.
Even swapping in Tommy La Stella for Dan Uggla (and Ramiro Pena, and Tyler Pastornicky) hasn’t been enough to compensate for the multiple empty slots in the Atlanta lineup. The teamwide OPS before that move was .681, but it’s .680 since La Stella got called up. That isn’t on La Stella but rather on the stack of guys not named Uggla who still aren’t contributing on offense.

In part, the Braves reap what they sow because they decided to rely on some fairly extreme hitters, extreme in that they’re guys who contribute entirely in some departments but not others: Andrelton Simmons, Gattis and Chris Johnson don’t walk and never have, and La Stella has no power and shouldn’t be expected to provide much. Although you can accept excuses for Simmons and Gattis because they’re at up-the-middle positions and -- at least in Simmons’ case -- provide “best in baseball”-grade defense, if you rely on too many extremes like that, you wind up with reasons why a lineup doesn’t function as a whole. Among every-day players, Upton and Simmons are in the bottom 10 in OPS among batting-title qualifiers; Johnson is just 11 points from sharing this “distinction.” The Braves are last in the league in WAR at third base and center field.

With this year’s disaster piled on top of his first season in Atlanta, B.J. Upton might represent the biggest disappointment in the history of Braves outfielders since Claudell Washington or Brad Komminsk. There is no reason for optimism. Upton’s strikeout rate is still north of 30 percent, and his walk rate is down from his career norms. Add in his mediocrity afield and he’s one of the least valuable players in the game before you even get into what the Braves are paying for the privilege of employing him. The decision to bat him leadoff most of the time in the past 40 games has helped undermine much of the value they received from adding La Stella, while giving the most at-bats to a guy who would be the worst starting player in most big league lineups.

If their worst player isn’t Upton, it’s Johnson. That might surprise you because last year he threatened to win a batting title. And when he’s hitting .320 and slugging .450, he’s an asset. But Johnson has been especially impatient at the plate this year, seeing his strikeout and swinging strike rates rise to their highest level since his rookie season while his pitches per plate appearance clip has dropped to its lowest since then, and his power production is at an all-time low (.109 ISO). This year, an even more aggressive approach has reduced a hitter whose signal virtue was that aggressiveness and plate coverage into the epitome of an empty batting average.

To make matters worse, the Braves’ bench has contributed next to nothing at the plate, and that’s as much a matter of design as accident considering the players Atlanta has. Losing Gattis for the better part of a month exposed career bench jockey Gerald Laird and an unready Christian Bethancourt behind the plate; Uggla’s implosion put Pena and Pastornicky on the spot. Ryan Doumit has struggled badly as the primary pinch hitter. This shortage of alternatives inspired the acquisition of Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs. He doesn’t walk or bop, but he might nevertheless be a sporadic upgrade on B.J. Upton or Johnson.

Beyond their problems with their worst players, the Braves’ additional problem on offense is that most of their good players are generally just that -- good, but not great enough to compensate for some of the worst regulars in the game. Freeman and Heyward have to be called out for what they’ve been: solid regulars with plenty of upside. But despite years of hype, they’re not yet dominant players at their positions. Freeman’s WAR (2.2) lodges him among guys such as Matt Adams and Adam LaRoche, and well behind Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo in terms of value at first base in the NL. Heyward gets rated highly in overall WAR because of his value on defense, but rank him for his offensive production (oWAR) at an offense-first position like right and he’s just sixth among NL right fielders. He ranks that high only because Ryan Braun has spent time on the DL.

It’s reasonable to hope Freeman and Heyward will break out, in the same way you want to bank on them in the long term. But although Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projected an OPS of .839 for Freeman in the second half at the All-Star break, Freeman has been at .708. More happily, Heyward’s been cranking at a 1.024 clip since the break (projected for .757); now, just imagine if that were back at the top of the order instead of B.J. Upton. Coming back from injury, Gattis has struggled (.620 OPS, projected for .808).

Barring a waiver-trade pickup or two, the Braves have little choice but to let it ride. What hope they should really harbor for a big stretch-run improvement on offense rests with Gattis, Freeman and Heyward finally cementing themselves as top players at their positions. As Szymborski projects, you can hope that’s the case, but there’s no time like the present.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Eric and myself discuss two of my favorite plays from April -- one involving Andrelton Simmons and another where the Rays recorded a double play with both outs coming at home. You can see the plays in the video.

Here are a few more candidates -- some quirky, some spectacular -- with the link to the video.

April 4: Giancarlo Stanton blasts a 484-foot homer, the longest of the month.

April 9: David Ortiz breaks the previous "record" by nearly two seconds while taking 33.39 seconds to round the bases after a home run.

April 13: White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton robs David Murphy of a hit with a great jump and diving catch.

April 14: Orioles pitcher Wei-Yin Chen fields a swinging bunt down the third-base line and gets the out.

April 17: The Yankees turn a triple play.

April 18: Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado literally knocks the cover off the ball.

April 21: Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar runs a long way to catch a foul pop. (Ruben Tejeda and Daniel Murphy of the Mets turn a nice double play in that video as well.)

April 25: The Rays turn another unusual double play.

April 27: Orioles left fielder made three diving catches in a week, but this one was the best. Look how shallow he was playing.

April 30: A Reds fan snags a foul ball while holding his son.

Doug Wachter of Baseball Info Solutions helped with some recommendations on the defensive plays -- we were looking not just for plays that looked spectacular but were made where plays usually aren't. The Eaton catch may not look as fancy as some other diving catches, but few plays are made in that area of the field when factoring in the short time the ball was in the air.

In fact, two of the plays Doug recommended weren't even archived on MLB.com: Brett Gardner's diving catch on April 3 against the Astros and Adrian Gonzalez robbing Brandon Belt of a hit with a nice play up the line.

SweetSpot TV: Who is No. 2?

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24

Keith Law has his list up of his 25 best players under 25. Obviously, Mike Trout is No. 1. But who should be No. 2? Eric and myself discuss and debate.
Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons hasn't struck out yet in 45 plate appearances. He's also yet to commit to an error. Have I mentioned that I love Simmons?

This won't keep up, of course. At some point he'll face Jose Fernandez and Fernandez will throw a 3-2 slider that will break from behind Simmons' rear end to the opposite side of the batter's box and Simmons will flail helplessly and wonder how somebody can throw a cowhide-covered piece of cork and yarn like it's a Wiffleball.

Still, it raises the fun idea: Is it possible for a player to have more errors in a season than strikeouts? In this day and age, with strikeouts in abundance and errors down, it's a difficult ratio to achieve. (Simmons had 14 errors last year while striking out 55 times.) But not impossible. In the past 10 seasons, four players have fanned 30 or fewer times in a season of at least 502 plate appearances: Jeff Keppinger (2008), Placido Polanco (2005 and 2007), Nomar Garciaparra (2006) and A.J. Pierzynski (2004). Marco Scutaro had the lowest total last year with 34 K's in 547 PAs.

Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez has led the majors in errors each of the past two seasons with 27. Ian Desmond committed 34 in 2010. Mark Reynolds, when he was playing third base, had two 30-error seasons. Garciaparra had a 25-error season in 2002 (alas, he struck out 63 times that year). So we just need somebody with Scutaro's contact ability and Alvarez's hands.

Diane Firstman of the Value Over Replacement Grit blog did more research on the topic and discovered the "record" since divisional play began in 1969 is nine more errors than strikeouts, by Gary Sutherland, who had 21 errors and 12 strikeouts in 1971, and Felix Fermin, who had 23 errors and 14 strikeouts in 1993.

She also found the all-time leader in this area. Check her blog for more info!

PHILADELPHIA -- After beating up on the Washington Nationals all weekend, the Atlanta Braves reached a point Monday night where they appeared to be rolling toward a nice, methodical win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Then the momentum began whipsawing in umpteen different directions and vertigo took hold in the dugout, and it was the kind of game when bald managers make jokes about how they’re glad they don’t have any hair to turn gray.

“It was almost like two different games out there tonight,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Brian Garfinkel/Getty ImagesDan Uggla admires his second home run of the night -- and of the season.

Atlanta’s second most reliable reliever, Luis Avilan, morphed into a human line-drive dispenser in the eighth inning to turn a 5-1 lead into a 6-5 deficit. Then Dan Uggla, a power hitter who entered Monday night with a .195 average and zero homers in his first 41 at-bats this season, lofted a grand slam into the left-field seats in the top of the ninth to give the Braves a 9-6 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

And then, when the bullpen gates swung open and everyone expected All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to come jogging out to nail it down, out came David Carpenter, who was pressed into service because Kimbrel has a sore right shoulder. (Nothing serious, Kimbrel insists. But he still might require a “few days” of rest and maintenance to get back on the mound.)

It’s hard to tell precisely what lesson to draw from the aforementioned sequence of events. But if you begin with the premise that resilience is paramount during a 162-game season, that’s a pretty good start.

“That’s baseball,” Uggla said. “A comfortable win turns into an uncomfortable loss sometimes -- or an uncomfortable win. It’s just the way the game is. You can never think that things are going to work out a certain way.”

If anyone can grasp that concept, it’s the Braves, who have to be feeling pretty good about themselves with their 9-4 start, given the numerous unsightly alternatives.

Think back a little more than a month ago, when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy learned they would need Tommy John surgery and the Atlanta rotation bordered on wrecked beyond repair. A pessimist might have described the projected Opening Day rotation as “Teheran and Wood, and not very good.”

Things have fallen into place quite nicely since then. Aaron Harang, picked up by Atlanta in late March after he was released by Cleveland, has been terrific, with a 0.96 ERA and a .145 batting average against in three starts. Reinforcements are on the way, with Mike Minor close to returning from a shoulder issue and Gavin Floyd (recovering from his own Tommy John surgery) not far behind. And the Braves just might have found themselves a new ace in Ervin Santana, who is giving Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales a primer on how an unemployed free agent can cut his losses and make the best of a bad situation.

Like Morales and Drew, Santana was trapped in free-agent compensation hell before downsizing his expectations and signing a one-year, $14.1 million deal with Atlanta on March 12. Two starts into his tenure with the Braves, he has a 0.64 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings, and he’s showing that a full complement of spring training innings can be highly overrated.

[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsErvin Santana has settled in quickly as a rotation solution for the Braves.

Santana was lights-out in his National League debut with eight scoreless innings against the Mets, and was almost as formidable against the Phillies. He struck out 11 batters in six innings, with every one coming on a swing and miss. Santana complemented a mid-90s fastball with an effective slider and changeup that induced an abundance of tentative, awkward swings.

“He has three plus pitches and he attacks hitters,” said a scout who watched Santana at Citizens Bank Park on Monday. “A lot of swings and misses. We all wondered how he stayed out there on the market that long. Money, I guess. But he’s pretty good.”

Santana insists he doesn’t have any extra motivation after a winter of anxious unemployment. But it’s clear he made the right decision to take the plunge and go back on the market when he did.

“I don’t have to prove anything,” Santana said. “Just be me and pitch every time I take the mound. It was tough for me to get a job with the draft compensation being part of the deal. I don’t want anything bad for anybody. But injuries happen. That’s part of the game. When [the Braves] reached out to me I said, 'OK, let’s do it.’”

Gonzalez knew Santana would be a good fit in Atlanta when Kansas City GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, two old friends, both called him and raved about Santana as a person, a professional and a competitor from his days with the Royals. If Gonzalez is surprised about anything to this point, it’s that a pitcher as slight as Santana can summon so much life from that right arm. The dreadlocks merely add to Santana's aura.

“If you took a poll of people who didn’t know baseball and said, ‘What does that guy do for a living?’ I think baseball would be the last thing they’d think,” Gonzalez said. “They’d probably say this guy is an artist or a singer.”

Santana is 1-0 through two starts, and Atlanta’s supporting cast showed enough signs of life to bode well for him and the rest of the Atlanta staff moving forward:

Evan Gattis, who hit two home runs Monday, is a career 4-for-20 at Citizens Bank Park. All four of those hits are home runs.

Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta’s all-world defensive shortstop, went 3-for-5 and is now hitting .341 this season. He has yet to strike out in 41 at-bats.

• Uggla committed a throwing error, but he made two sensational plays in the field and sent two balls into the seats. If the Braves plan on maintaining their early momentum, they need Uggla, Gattis and the rest of the lineup to give Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton some help over the coming weeks and months.

“We have a lot of guys who can change the game with one swing,” Uggla said.

For now, the Braves are just happy to be in “weathered-the-storm” mode. After hitting rock bottom in spring training, they're fully prepared for the wild emotional swings that a baseball season brings. Some nights that trait comes in handier than others.

I don't know which stat is more amazing: After homering off Tim Lincecum last night, Paul Goldschmidt is now 13-for-24 with seven home runs off Lincecum; or, Goldschmidt's opposite-field home run was just the eighth by a right-handed batter at AT&T Park over the past eight seasons. (And you wonder why Giants pitchers often have big home/road splits.)

According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.

Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."

You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.

Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.

Thoughts on other games ...
  • Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
  • I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
  • With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
  • Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
  • After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
  • Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.

The wondrous Andrelton Simmons led all fielders with 41 Defensive Runs Saved last season, the defensive metric that Baseball Info Solutions measures by tracking every batted ball.

How good of a season was it? Here are the top 10 DRS totals over the past 10 seasons:


Over or under on Andrelton Simmons earning 31.5 Defensive Runs Saved?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,127)

1. Andrelton Simmons, 2013: +41
2. Carlos Gomez, 2013: +38
3. Gerardo Parra, 2013: +36
4. Manny Machado, 2013: +35
5. Adam Everett, 2006: +34
6. Franklin Gutierrez, 2009: +32
(tie) Jack Wilson, 2007: +32
8. Troy Tulowitzki, 2007: +31
(tie) Albert Pujols, 2007: +31
10. Six players with +30.

So Simmons had an amazing year on defense. Was it a career year? Can he actually find a way to get better? Will the changing makeup of the pitching staff affect his DRS total? (More opportunities to make a play means more opportunities to help your DRS.)

Defensive numbers can certainly vary from year to year and it seems a little unreasonable to expect 41 DRS again from Simmons. Let's put the over/under at 31.5 Defensive Runs Saved.
Andrelton SimmonsPouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves/Getty ImagesSoon we will be able to really calculate just how good Andrelton Simmons is on defense.
BOSTON -- While MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference tilts heavily toward the NBA, MLB Advanced Media took center stage Saturday when CEO Bob Bowman and Vice President Joe Inzerillo unveiled tracking technology that will be introduced this year and revolutionize the game.

The tracking system, which will debut this year at Citi Field, Miller Park and Target Field, uses multiple cameras around the field to capture player movement in multiple dimensions.

This will allow us to track every player movement. So, for example, when a fly ball is hit, we can see how far the outfielder ran to catch it, his direct route and his route efficiency, which is his direct route relative to his overall route. In other words, we can now prove which fielders take good routes to batted balls.

This "route" statistic just scratches the surface, but it is a major step toward definitive defensive metrics on par with offensive stats. This tracking technology will also allow teams to measure baserunner speed and angles, and give us another level of batted-ball statistics, such as velocity of the bat and trajectory.

The plan is for the other 27 parks to have this implemented over the course of the year so that every park has the tracking technology for Opening Day 2015. The future is now.

Takeaways from the MLB analytics panel

Before MLBAM made its presentation, there was a separate MLB analytics panel earlier Saturday morning, which was moderated by MLB Network's Brian Kenny and featured Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver, SABR's Vince Gennaro, former ESPN writer Rob Neyer (now of Fox), and Bloomberg Sports exec Bill Squadron.

Here are three key takeaways.

1. Location is everything

"Will we get to a point where a team moves its best defender to different positions from hitter to hitter based upon analytics?"

That was a question asked by the audience that really seemed to resonate with the panelists.

As Neyer noted, the Pittsburgh Pirates showed last year just how much defensive positioning can help a club when the field staff buys into, and Silver posited that it would only make sense, if you had a superlative defender with a variety of skills, to put him in the space where the ball is most likely to be hit.

So if you're the Braves and you've decided to "shift" Ryan Howard, instead of just shifting everyone to the right, you would put Andrelton Simmons exactly where Howard is most likely to hit it, whether or not that is right next to the first baseman or up the middle. Squadron made the point that it's surprising that teams don't flip-flop their left and right fielders more often depending on the hitter, and quite frankly this makes a lot of sense. There are a number of teams on which the guys in left and right have extremely disparate defensive skills, and this is an easy, yet logical, switch.

Luhnow said that another potential gain is using your left-handed relief specialist in the outfield for a batter or two if the opposition has two lefty hitters separated by a batter or two. He said Brad Mills did this with Houston two years ago, and I have been in favor of doing this ever since Davey Johnson did it with the 1986 Mets. Of course, Johnson was forced to do it because half of his bench got kicked out of an extra-inning game after a brawl with the Reds, but it worked! (You can get the full context of that game by watching this).

2. Positive contact

There was a two-part discussion on the rise of strikeouts, with Neyer focusing on the aesthetic aspect and Silver and Luhnow discussing how the game might adapt.

Neyer worried that strikeouts have made for a less entertaining game, and that when you combine that with defensive shifts, we're not seeing as many doubles and triples, which make the game exciting. He'd like to see a rule change or two to reduce the number of whiffs.

Silver countered with the point that just because something is increasing -- in this case, strikeout rates -- doesn't mean we should expect it to keep rising, and that teams will value different kinds of players, such as high-contact hitters, to counter the K's and shifts. This is something Dave Cameron touched on recently for ESPN Insider, when he wrote that Freddie Freeman's spray-hitting ability makes him impossible to shift, and therefore more valuable.

Luhnow echoed Silver's sentiments and said that the Astros acquired prospect Ronald Torreyes from the Cubs specifically because he had the lowest strikeout rate in the minors last year.

Perhaps we are looking at a new generation where Placido Polancos will rule the world.

3. What's a win worth?

Toward the end of the panel, Kenny brought up Mike Trout and asked the panelists how much his performance is worth. Squadron replied by saying, "I come from a Bloomberg perspective, so I say he's worth what the market will pay."

The other issue, as Gennaro pointed out, is the rise of lucrative local cable deals, which change the value of a player depending on the team. A team making billions from its deal might find a guy such as Trout more valuable if he can improve ratings by even a fraction of a point. In other words, there is no absolute value you can put on Trout, or any player.

And although WAR has become an accepted metric, the tracking technology unveiled by MLBAM will change the way we can value players. Earlier in the discussion, Luhnow said that the Astros are trying to put run probabilities on batted balls based on the velocity off of the bat and trajectory. And if tracking technology eventually allows us to put a number on defense like we can on offense, we might find that Trout's true value is actually 15 wins above replacement -- or possibly 5.

Brian Kenny, friend of sabermetrics and host on the MLB Network, suggested this after the Braves signed Andrelton Simmons to a seven-year, $58 million contract extension -- the largest average annual value ever given to a player with less than two seasons of major league service time. Not bad for a player who hit .248 with a .296 on-base percentage.

Simmons, of course, didn't earn his value in 2013 with his bat, although he wasn't a complete zero with 17 home runs and 50 extra-base hits -- the same number of extra-base hits as Buster Posey and more than Ian Kinsler, Pablo Sandoval or Brandon Phillips. It was with the glove that Simmons drew comparisons to Ozzie Smith, winning the Gold Glove Award and tying with Gerardo Parra in leading the majors with 41 Defensive Runs Saved. Those 41 runs saved are highest figures since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking every play in 2003. Here the 10 highest totals by a shortstop since then:

1. Simmons, Braves, 2003: +41
2. Adam Everett, Astros, 2006: +34
3. Jack Wilson, Pirates, 2005: +32
4. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies, 2007: +31
5. Wilson, Pirates/Mariners, 2009: +28
6. Brendan Ryan, Mariners, 2012: +27
7. Alex Gonzalez, Blue Jays/Braves, 2010: +27
8. Clint Barmes, Rockies, 2006: +26
9. Brendan Ryan, Cardinals, 2009: +25
10. Everett, Astros, 2005: +25

Because of those Defensive Runs Saved, Baseball-Reference.com valued Simmons at 6.8 Wins Above Replacement in 2013, sixth-best in the National League and fourth-best among NL position players.

FanGraphs, using a different defensive metric, valued Simmons at 4.8 WAR (25 runs above average on defense). Baseball Prospectus credited him with 27 runs saved on defense and 5.8 WARP. No matter how you slice it, the defensive metrics back up what we saw with our eyes: Simmons is as good as it gets at shortstop.

Simmons' contract takes him two seasons past his free agency year and he'll earn $13 million in 2019 and $15 million in 2020. If he's still saving even 20 runs a year on defense then he'll be a bargain for the Braves even if he doesn't improve with the bat. But do the Braves give this deal without metrics providing an estimated value to Simmons' defense?

Kenny may be right, but I pointed out on Twitter that Smith was the highest-paid player in baseball in 1988. Ben Jedlovac pointed out that Smith had signed that following a 1987 season in which he had hit .303 and finished second in the NL MVP voting (the only top-10 MVP finish of his career). OK, fair enough. But Smith was still the ninth-highest paid player in the NL in 1985, a year after hitting .257 with one home run. He was the fifth-highest paid player in the majors in 1986. My point: The Cardinals certainly awarded Smith for his defense, so it's not necessarily true that Simmons doesn't receive this deal without metrics (although I'm sure they helped the Braves confirm they're not just hoping he improves at the plate).

Of course, Ozzie Smith was pretty special.

But so is Simmons.

Best defender of 2013: Andrelton Simmons

October, 29, 2013

Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves/Getty ImagesAndrelton Simmons was baseball's best defender in 2013 with plays like this.

Who was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013?

In our view, it's not a close call. The SweetSpot voting panel named Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons as its Defensive Player of the Year.

Simmons took nine of the 10 first-place votes from our panel to win easily. Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez edged Orioles third baseman Manny Machado for second place by one point (Machado got the only other first-place vote). Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra finished fourth. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia placed fifth.

Simmons and Parra both finished 2013 with 41 Defensive Runs Saved, the highest single-season total in the 11 years that Baseball Info Solutions has compiled the stat.

Why Simmons won
What separated Simmons was how much better he was than everyone else at his position. No other shortstop finished the season with more than 12 Defensive Runs Saved.

Baseball-Reference.com computes the defensive component of WAR and credited Simmons with 5.4 Wins Above Replacement just for his glove work, nearly a full win better than the runner-up (Gomez, 4.6).

Simmons twice won our Defensive Player of the Month award this season, and we've provided ample description of his skill sets on many occasions. His strength is that he makes every type of play, from the routine to the difficult. He made the rest of the infield better with his presence.

Two of the stats that most validate his selection are:

1. Baseball Info Solutions’ plus-minus system calculates that Simmons made 49 more plays than the average shortstop would have made against the same series of batted balls.

2. Braves opponents reached safely on only 22 percent of ground balls hit to the left of the second base bag. That was the lowest success rate in the majors.

Other worthy candidates
That's not to say that the other defenders cited weren't worthy of strong consideration.

Gomez finished with 38 Defensive Runs Saved, the most by a center fielder in the 11-year history of the stat. He robbed five hitters of home runs during the 2013 season. No other player had more than two homer robberies.


Who is your Defensive Player of the Year?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,283)

Machado led all third basemen with 35 Defensive Runs Saved and rated highest in the game's other primary defensive metric, Ultimate Zone Rating (31.2). He excelled at the flashy play, finishing with the most Web Gems in the majors.

Parra shares the Defensive Runs Saved record with Simmons after catching him with a September that earned him Defensive Player of the Month honors. Parra had the best combination of range and arm. His 130 "Out of Zone plays" (plays in locations in which a fielder turned the ball into an out less than half the time) were the most in the majors for an outfielder. He also earned 10 Defensive Runs Saved with his arm, the most of any outfielder in 2013.

Pedroia led all second basemen in Defensive Runs Saved. Baseball Info Solutions does video review, tagging Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays into different categories. Pedroia finished the regular season with 89 Good Fielding Plays and 23 Defensive Misplays, the best ratio of any middle infielder. He's solidified that with a strong postseason performance as well.

Do you agree/disagree with our selection? Feel free to cast your vote here and share your thoughts in the comments.

SweetSpot's 2013 NL All-Star team

September, 29, 2013
I did my American League All-Star team yesterday. Here's my National League squad. A few more tougher calls in the NL.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals (.319/.359/.477, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Two questions: Is Molina a legitimate MVP candidate and how will he fare in the voting? Sure, he's a strong candidate, although I have Andrew McCutchen as my clear No. 1 guy. Due to his relatively low runs plus RBIs total (he has 68 runs scored), Molina would certainly be an unconventional MVP candidate. Wins Above Replacement accounts for some of Molina's defense -- such as throwing out runners -- but can't measure some of the intangibles, such as the confidence he gave to the young St. Louis starters. Molina's offense numbers are similar to last year, when he finished fourth in voting, so I wouldn't be surprised if he jumps up to second this season.

First base: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (.302/.401/.553, 36 HR, 124 RBI, 7.1 WAR)
Goldschmidt or Joey Votto? It's not quite as simple as Goldschmidt's 51-RBI advantage as both put up similar numbers otherwise, with Votto having the edge in on-base percentage (.436) and Goldschmidt in power (36 home runs to 24). Both were extremely durable -- Goldschmidt has missed two games, Votto zero -- and solid defenders. The one big difference is an advanced metric called Win Probability Added, a category Goldschmidt led all NL position players in, thanks in part to his .350 average in high-leverage situations and nine home runs in late and close situations (second-most in the majors to Chris Davis). I'm confident Goldschmidt is the right choice here.

Second base: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (.320/.394/.484, 11 HR, 78 RBI, 6.7 WAR)
An easy choice as Carpenter leads the NL in runs, hits and doubles while ranking in the top 10 in numerous other categories. I'm guessing Molina garners more MVP support, but Carpenter is just as worthy to finish in the top five.

Third base: David Wright, Mets (.308/.393/.516, 18 HR, 57 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Pedro Alvarez leads the NL with 36 home runs and has knocked in 100 but a .233 average and sub-.300 OBP means he created a ton of outs to generate those runs. Ryan Zimmerman waited too long to start hitting. Chris Johnson hit .321 for the Braves. None were above-average defenders. So almost by default I'll go with Wright, who easily has the highest WAR even though he missed 50 games.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Braves (.244/.292/.390, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 6.5 WAR)
I've been raving about Simmons all season so I can't change now. Troy Tulowitzki was great once again and relatively healthy (125 games), although he hit 61 points higher at home. Hanley Ramirez was the best on a per at-bat basis but played just 86 games. Ian Desmond flew under the radar year for the Nationals. But Simmons is my guy, even with that sub-.300 OBP. His defense was that good.

Left field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (.302/.367/.591, 26 HR, 70 RBI, 5.1 WAR)
Starling Marte had an excellent all-around season (41 steals, great defense) for the Pirates and Matt Holliday was solid for the Cardinals. Gonzalez's season was similar to Wright's -- if he'd remained healthy, he'd be the obvious choice, but he missed 50 games. Unlike Tulo, he actually hit better on the road, so it's not a Coors-inflated season. I'll go with CarGo just barely over Marte.

Center field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.317/.404/.508, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 8.2 WAR)
Carlos Gomez would be an MVP candidate if he had better teammates. Shin-Soo Choo gave the Reds exactly what they needed, a leadoff hitter who got on base. But this was McCutchen's season as he often carried a mediocre Pittburgh offense and hit .339/.441/.561 in the second half, helping keep the Pirates in the division title race. He's the likely MVP winner and not a "weak" MVP, as some have speculated. His WAR is higher than the past three NL MVPs, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Votto. He may not drive in 100 runs or score 100 (he's at 97), but it was the best all-around season in the league.

Right field: Jayson Werth, Nationals (.318/.398/.532, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 4.8 WAR)
A loaded position, and that's with Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton missing significant time. Jay Bruce, Yasiel Puig, Hunter Pence and Marlon Byrd all have their supporters (and Gerardo Parra leads in WAR). The knock against Werth, like Wright and Gonzalez, is that he missed significant time (129 games). But Bruce has a .329 OBP. Puig didn't get called up until June and Pence's monster September (11 HR, 29 RBI) came after the Giants had long been eliminated and arguably against dubious September pitching.

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kersaw, Dodgers (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 8.0 WAR); Cliff Lee, Phillies (14-8, 2.87 ERA, 7.2 WAR); Jose Fernandez, Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 6.3 WAR); Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (19-9, 2.94 ERA, 6.2 WAR); Matt Harvey, Mets (9-5, 2.27 ERA, 5.4 WAR)
Oh, Cliff Lee is still good. There were no shortage of top starters in the NL as 18 qualified starters have posted an ERA of 3.25 or under, the most since 17 did it in 1992 and 10 more than last year.

Left-handed setup guy: Luis Avilan, Braves (5-0, 1.55 ERA)
Part of Atlanta's dominant bullpen, Avilan fanned just 38 in 64 innings but allowed a .173 average and just one home run. He gets great movement on his two-seam sinking fastball, resulting in fewer K's but a lot of groundballs. Honorable mention to Pittsburgh's Justin Wilson.

Right-handed setup guy: Mark Melancon, Pirates (3-2, 1.39 ERA)
He had a couple rough outings in September, but was dominant throughout the season, first setting up Jason Grilli and then earning 16 saves when Grilli was injured.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (4-3, 50 saves, 1.23 ERA)
He did blow four save chances and wasn't quite as statistically dominant as last season -- and still finished with 1.23 ERA and 50 saves.

Defensive player of month: Juan Lagares

September, 2, 2013
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Juan Lagares has made tough catches look routine since being recalled by the Mets.

New York Mets rookie outfielder Juan Lagares had to beat out the best of the best to win the Defensive Player of the Month award for August.

Lagares topped two-time 2013 winner Andrelton Simmons and impressive Colorado Rockies rookie Nolan Arenado to take the award this month.

It was well-earned. Lagares led the majors with 12 defensive runs saved in August (one more than Simmons, three more than Arenado). That value came both from his ability to range far outside his position to catch balls and from a throwing arm that has ranked among the best in the sport since his arrival.

Lagares was credited with 22 "Out of Zone" putouts by Baseball Info Solutions in August, with an Out of Zone catch defined as one made in an area in which center fielders turn batted balls into outs less than 50 percent of the time.

Lagares had 67 Out of Zone plays in 663 2/3 innings in center field through the end of August. His rate of one Out of Zone catch for every 9.9 innings (basically one per game) played ranks best in the majors at that position.

Good examples of his glove work include these two plays, one in which he came in to rob Jedd Gyorko of the San Diego Padres and this one in which he went all the way back to the fence to steal a hit from Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Lagares, a converted infielder, didn't even figure to be the team's top defender coming through their farm system. That honor belonged to recent call-up Matt den Dekker, who made ESPN's Top 10 plays a couple of times before even making the majors. But when den Dekker got hurt this spring, and the Mets needed a lift from their outfield reserves after Collin Cowgill fizzled in an initial tryout, Lagares took advantage of his opportunity.

"His confidence is sky high as far as going to get balls," Mets outfield coach Tom Goodwin told ESPNNewYork.com's Adam Rubin prior to Sunday night's game against the Washington Nationals. "You lose that instant excitement when you first get here, and the jitters, and he doesn't have that anymore. He just goes out there and plays the game. That's the biggest compliment I can give him. He's really matured beyond his years."

Lagares leads the National League and ranks second in the majors in outfield assists with 12, trailing only Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon. He's become a deterrent to baserunners both due to his positioning (he likes to play shallow) and his instincts (he gets to balls quickly).

"You'll see him get to some balls where they're line drives and he's getting to them on the first hop, instead of two or three hops later," Goodwin said. "His routes are outstanding. His reads are outstanding. And when he comes in, he makes good, strong, accurate throws."

Simmons had what has become a typical Simmons month with his 11 defensive runs saved. He has 39 defensive runs saved and will break the record for most defensive runs saved in a season, which was set by New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner with 35 in 2010. Arenado (30 defensive runs saved) and Manny Machado (31) are neck-and-neck for the lead for third basemen.

Also impressive this month were Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who led the majors with 25 "good fielding plays" (think plays that would be Web Gem nominees), and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who despite the struggles we noted last week had seven defensive runs saved.