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.
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.
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.