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A Short History of Shortstops

Is the Atlanta Braves' Andrelton Simmons the best ever?

3:36 PM, Sep 16, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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There is plenty of statistical evidence to show that Simmons has put together an extraordinary season with the glove. One metric, Total Zone Rating, shows that Simmons is having the best defensive season since the 1906 campaign of a long forgotten old-timer named Terry Turner. Based on the 39 runs that Simmons has saved with his glove so far this year, writes one baseball scribe, his 5.1 wins above replacement may be the highest figure ever, higher than two of the game’s greatest shortstops’ best years— Ozzie Smith's 4.7 in 1989 and Belanger's 4.9 in 1975.

Part of Simmons’s defensive genius resides in his powerful right arm. As a junior college pitcher in Oklahoma, he was clocked at 98 mph, which suggests that when Braves management drafted him in 2010 they understood they were signing a special talent. It’s rare that an amateur player who distinguishes himself both as a position player and a pitcher is not destined for full-time duty on the mound, especially when the talent tops out that high on the radar gun. Then consider the fact that over the last twenty years the Braves have built a reputation for developing young arms and might well have primed Simmons as a top-flight starter or a premier closer, just as the Atlanta organization did with another former junior college shortstop, Simmons’s teammate Kris Medlen. After all, pitching is always at a premium and middle infielders are, relatively speaking, a dime a dozen—unless they’re just so obviously not.

At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s baseball blog, David O’Brien has a long post speaking with Simmons’ teammates and former players about him. Ozzie Smith never had a cannon like that, says Smith’s former Cardinals teammate and now Braves first-base coach Terry Pendleton. Simmons’ arm reminds Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson of former Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston. The difference, says Simpson, “is that every time Dunston got the ball in his hand, he threw it as hard as he possibly could.” Simmons, however, just airs it out when he needs to. And when he does, says Kris Medlen, you can hear the ball whistling going across the diamond. “It’s so cool," says Medlen.

Simpson, God bless him, adds that Simmons also reminds him of Mario Mendoza. The much-maligned Mexican-born infielder who played with the Pirates, Mariners, and Rangers from 1974-1982 saw his name become a byword for offensive futility—a batting average below .200 is still referred to as under the “Mendoza line.” But Mendoza, as Simpson recalls, was “an outstanding shortstop who had a tremendous arm, and it was real loose and rubbery and he could throw from any angle.”

As a teenage infielder, I had the honor of getting to speak, albeit very briefly, with this master craftsman during batting practice at Yankee Stadium early one summer evening. Mendoza, with the Rangers at the time, had wandered over to the third base side of the stands to sign autographs for the home team’s fans and, as a journeyman who would finish his nine-year career with four home runs, found few takers. I saw my opening. In a game the night before I’d seen on TV, Mendoza had ranged deep in the hole to backhand a groundball, turn and gun the runner down in plenty of time for the out. “Mr. Mendoza,” I said. He turned and put out his hand for a pen and paper assuming I wanted him to sign his autograph. Instead I asked him, “When you go in the hole, do you try to get the ball on your left foot or your right one?” He squinted at me through his thick wire-rimmed glasses. “Left,” he said in heavily accented English. “Plant and pivot.” “Thanks,” I said, meaning to add “maestro” to my valediction, but he was already gone.

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