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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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Whether to backhand a groundball in the hole off the left or right foot is an ongoing, and somewhat academic, debate in infield circles. In a sense the issue is theoretical, for the point is to make this very difficult play however possible, and come game time you can’t always do it the way you’ve rehearsed. But the ideal is to internalize the correct technique until the form becomes second nature. The problem with the doctrine of the left is that in fielding the groundball off that foot, your back is facing first base so to turn around and make the throw you have to plant the right foot. The advantage is that planting generates a lot of power to make the long throw across the diamond. However, those favoring the right—as usual—have a larger portion of reason and nature on their side. Picking the ball up off the right foot, you are already facing the infield and have saved a step with your right foot that might be the difference between getting the out or the runner reaching safely. With the ball fielded, now it’s merely a matter of shifting your weight from the right foot to the left to make the throw and complete the play. The problem is in generating enough power to make that throw, the longest possible throw in the infield—and herein I think is one of the keys to Simmons’s ability.

Writing on the Grantland blog, Michael Baumann compares Simmons’s backhand technique to the way Derek Jeter goes into the hole, fielding the ball then jumping to twist and throw. Jeter of course is regularly knocked for his poor range, but the fact is he’s one of the best shortstops in the history of the game with stats and World Series rings to prove it. He’s a great athlete, which is why he’s able to play at such a high level despite the fact that he’s got too many moving parts on his 6’3” frame. That is, Jeter is great in spite of the fact that he doesn’t have great body control, which you can see contrasting his jump-throw to the way Simmons makes the play in the hole.

Both Jeter and Simmons pick up the ball off their right foot, but it’s because Jeter’s momentum keeps driving him forward that he has to turn and jump to throw. Simmons however has his body entirely under control. Baumann seems to be suggesting that Simmons normally makes the play in the hole sliding on his right leg and then popping back up to make the throw. It seems that when necessary the Braves infielder will slide and then pop back to throw (here’s another example), but I don’t think it’s his regular technique. Among other things, if he always went down like that and braced himself on his throwing hand he’d break it again, after fracturing it last year sliding headfirst into second. I suspect that in the clip Baumann is highlighting, Simmons either slipped or, more likely, was about to overrun the ball and instead of letting his momentum carry him forward as it does with Jeter, he brought himself to a halt, picked the ball and fired across the diamond flat-footed.

Oddly, this rendition of what seems to be a nearly flubbed backhand illustrates the Platonic ideal of fielding the ball of the right foot. Note that what generates the power on Simmons’ throw isn’t his legs, never mind the throwing shoulder and wrist. Rather, it’s what personal trainers now commonly refer to as the “core,” or that part of the torso from the rib cage to the hips that drives almost all athletic power, from a golfer’s drive to a tennis forehand to a boxer’s right cross. Here’s a video of Simmons picking a backhand with what I take to be his regular technique. Instead of going to the ground, he stays on his feet and with enough time to set them, his throw gets to first as quickly as if he were throwing across a softball diamond. Here’s another clip of Simmons going into the hole, again with his body under full control but with much less time to beat a speedy runner.

Simmons’ ability to make strong throws from strange angles is what impresses many of his admirers. Here, for instance, is Simmons breaking to cover third in a bunt situation and, when the ball is batted up the middle, turning on a dime to field it, stepping on second and then throwing across his body to complete a double play. But what makes a truly great shortstop isn’t acrobatic skill, rather it’s body control—it’s what allows him, in the language of baseball cliché, to make the tough plays look easy. Jeter on the other hand makes the tough plays look as tough as they really are, so difficult that only a great athlete could manage the feat.

Simmons however is all silk. Consider, for example, this gem, where he races in from short to field a slow bouncing ball just as it’s crossed the pitcher’s mound. Watch how quickly he makes the exchange, from his glove hand to his throwing hand and then he fires to get the out at first. It’s almost sleight of hand—yes, magic. The whole thing looks effortless, and yet among the thirty men who do this job for a living, only Andrelton Simmons could make it look this easy. Now, in order to earn his place on Parnassus and take his place next to Ozzie, the Blade, Aparicio, Jeter and the rest of this great tradition, all Simmons has to do is keep doing the same for the next ten to fifteen years. It will be a great joy to watch.

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