- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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If the measure of a man's talent is how pumped-up people get when you bring up his name, then Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons might not merely be bound for greatness. He might be bound for Cooperstown.
"I get excited just talking about the kid," said one longtime scout.
"He's incredible," said his first baseman, Freddie Freeman. "The balls he gets to. He's so quick. [When he throws to first], it's like the ball doesn't even go in his glove."
"Exceptional athlete," said his hitting coach, Greg Walker. "His hand-eye is off the charts."
"Great range. Great arm. Quick hands," said Simmons' double-play partner, Dan Uggla. "It's fun to watch him do his thing out there. The sky's the limit."
We could go on, but you get the idea. The more people in this game watch Andrelton Simmons play, at age 23, the more convinced they are that he's about to become the best shortstop in baseball. Possibly in, like, the next 20 minutes.
But here's what makes this story especially amazing: The guy was drafted as a pitcher. And that, the Braves were convinced, was his future. But he wasn't convinced. What he wanted to be was a shortstop.
So the Braves said: Why not? Then they sent Simmons off to play shortstop in rookie ball, far from certain he would ever hit. That was as recently as June 2010. So how mind-warping is it to see what's happened since?
By 2011, he'd won a minor league batting title in the Carolina League. By spring training 2012, the Braves were seriously debating taking him north -- before he'd ever played a game in Double-A.
Three months later, he was their starting shortstop in the big leagues. He won a National League rookie-of-the-month award in his first month in the league. And now here he is, about to begin his first full major league season, ready to take over the world. Wow. Talk about meteoric.
"He does so many things so instinctively well," said Braves general manager Frank Wren. "I mean, he threw 98 [miles per hour] off the mound, so there's no question about his arm. He's got sure hands. He has an uncanny ability to read hops and get hops. And if he doesn't get the hop, he still catches the ball. I think that's what I've marveled at. And with the bat, the growth we've seen in three years is incredible. He just doesn't look overmatched. And it doesn't matter who's out there."
And that's one more astounding aspect to this saga. This is a guy who wasn't supposed to hit. Yet he's struck out only 98 times in three professional seasons combined (in 1,224 plate appearances). His career minor league on-base percentage was .352 (and got better every season). And he's about to lead off for one of the best lineups in baseball. Makes you wonder what kind of hitter he'll be when he figures it all out.
"He's really taught himself how to hit," said Walker. "For a young guy, he's just got a knack for the game. We don't say much to him, because if he ever does take a bad swing, he'll just step out, think about it for a second and get right back in there and clean it up."
Right. Of course he does. But impressive as all that is, it's with the glove that Andrelton Simmons really lights up the sky.
His UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games) last season was an insane 31.6, the highest FanGraphs has ever recorded for a shortstop who played at least 400 innings in any of the 11 seasons they've computed that stat. True, it's a small sample. But when you ask his teammates to talk about their favorite Simmons play, they provide a whole new definition of ultimate zone rating.
They tell stories of routine ground balls to the second baseman or third baseman that the shortstop gobbles up. They talk about the fly ball to medium center field that Simmons ran down during the World Baseball Classic and calmly wheeled and turned into a double play with a beam-of-light throw to first.
"You watch him make that throw and look like he's barely even trying," pitcher Paul Maholm said with a laugh. "And then the ball carries 200 feet. Unreal."
So what you have here is a guy who can play three infield positions, plus center field, practically by himself. This is King And His Court material.
"He doesn't realize," Wren joked, "how much payroll he's going to save us by playing all those positions."
But the men around him in Atlanta realize exactly what they're watching: It's this sport's next great shortstop, climbing baseball's mountain at warp speed.
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