Of the 39 most awesome jobs in America, only the nine members of the Supreme Court have lifetime tenure. Major League Baseball’s 30 shortstops, on the other hand, are always looking over their shoulder. Every ground ball in the hole, every slow roller dribbling past the mound, every relay throw from the outfield is another test, another risk to be replaced by some slick-fielding Dominican phenom lighting up Double-A ball. Still, it’s safe to say that Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons’s job is his for some time to come, for the 24-year-old has established himself as the best defensive shortstop in the game. Indeed, some are already wondering if, in only his second year of big league ball, Simmons has entered the pantheon of baseball’s greatest glovemen, taking his place among the likes of Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, and Mark Belanger.
Like Texas Rangers rookie second-baseman Jurickson Profar, Simmons is from Curaçao, a tiny Caribbean island with a population of fewer than 150,000 people, and therefore unlikely to be the next San Pedro de Macoris, the Dominican city known as the “cradle of shortstops.” If the Dominican Republic is the foreign country that has produced the most major league shortstops (Julio Franco, Tony Fernandez, Alfredo Griffin, Rafael Belliard, Mariano Duncan, etc.), Venezuela may have given birth to the best, including Dave Concepcion, Ozzie Guillen and two of the all-time greats, Omar Vizquel and Aparicio. Before Simmons’s 2012 rookie year, the most famous big-league Dutch Antillean infielder was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, who retired in 1998.
An outlier apart from geographical trends for shortstops, Simmons also breaks with the physical prototype that became one of the game’s most important developments over the last three decades. In the late 90s, shortstops like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra added offensive punch to a position often filled by “Punch and Judy” hitters, with Yankees Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto as the exemplary model. Of course it was Cal Ripken Jr., replacing Mark Belanger in 1981, who set the new template for power-hitting shortstops, a tradition best embodied today by the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki. At 6’2” and 170 pounds, Simmons is closer in size to the 6’1” 170 pound Belanger, but with much broader shoulders than the man known as the Blade. Simmons has some pop in his bat—his 15 home runs this year are more than half of Ozzie Smith’s career total of 28—but it’s his glovework that has left teammates, sportswriters and fans awestruck.