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Agreed to extension with SS-R Andrelton Simmons for seven years and $58 million. [2/20]

In 2013, PECOTA projected Andrelton Simmons to produce 2.9 WARP. This year, PECOTA projects him to produce 4.3 WARP—to be, in fact, the 14th-best player in the game, tied with Buster Posey. It takes a lot to make PECOTA change its mind so dramatically in just one year, but Simmons did a lot: He had a season that, statistically, might qualify as the greatest defensive performance of all-time (and, certainly, qualifies as one of the greatest). More importantly, he had a season that showed he could hit, and that suggested strongly that he could hit even more. This isn’t really an MVP candidate, because MVP votes aren’t the same as WAR leaderboards, but this is an Internet Baseball Awards Player of the Year candidate, with a skill set that should simultaneously make for a relatively low floor. He’s an impact player, a relatively sure thing, and totally affordable. There’s nothing not to like.

The floor
Colin Wyers was fond of saying that the aging curve for defense is a misnomer. Regarding two other young shortstops who would sign early extensions—Starlin Castro and Elvis Andrus—he wrote last spring that “the defensive aging curve is pretty much a straight slope down. I don't know if starting off from a really high point on defense changes the curve any.”

There have been, besides Simmons and Jean Segura, eight 25-or-under players who have produced a 20-FRAA season at shortstop. Flip ahead a few years and you can understand Colin’s gloom. Of the eight, five rated as negative defenders from ages 28 to 30. One of the eight, Troy Tulowitzki, is positive but has two years left to fall below 0. Only Ozzie Smith and Chris Speier, of the eight, remained impact defenders.

But, of course, we know that one year of exciting defensive stats doesn’t mean the guy is necessarily an exciting defender. The eight players who topped 20 FRAA produced, on average, just 4.9 FRAA the very next year. And five of them were in their first full year when they produced the 20+ season, making it difficult to say with the confidence of multi-year samples that their true talent level was nearly that high. In other words: Maybe these elite young shortstops just weren’t really elite*. But Simmons—well, if you want to argue he’s not, you’ll have the island to yourself.

When Tom Tango tried to pin down the aging curve for shortstops—he looked at players’ rates of converting groundballs induced by the same pitcher from one year to the next, so that the only variable changing was the defender’s age—he landed on a peak between ages 24 and 28. The Braves controlled Simmons through age 28 already, so they’re essentially betting that he’ll still be great at 29 and 30 (plus that he’ll stay good enough to justify relatively high salaries during his arbitration years). If Tango’s findings are right, then Simmons’ defense will still be elite at 28—and the drop after that will be relatively gentle.

And in that case, his floor is something like Adam Everett or Brendan Ryan. Everett never produced a True Average within 10 points of Simmons’ 2013 figure, and never produced a FRAA figure within 10 runs. So that’s the floor: Significant regression to both his defense and offense, but a basically unchanged skill set. From ages 26 to 30—the five years that the Braves will be paying Simmons for—Everett produced 2.1 WARP per 150 games.

Ryan, with one TAv and one FRAA comparable to Simmons’, produced 2.8 WARP per 150 games. If Simmons is healthy, then, the floor is an average-or-better ballplayer.

The ceiling
Oh, but what if he hits.

It’s fitting that the man who steals more base hits than anybody in baseball—than anybody in baseball history?—had more than his share stolen last year. Simmons’ glove-first/bat-questioned reputation held up in his first full season, but while the glove part was well earned, the bat half is no longer all that fair.

He had the sixth-best isolated power by a shortstop last year. Only three players in baseball last year—Nori Aoki, Marco Scutaro, Martin Prado—struck out less frequently. And if Simmons’ walk rate was in the bottom quarter of the league’s qualifiers, well, it wasn’t in the bottom fifth. Put this all together, ignore the defense he brings, and ordinarily you’d figure you had a pretty good hitter on your hands: More power, a better walk rate, and considerably fewer strikeouts than Manny Machado. More power, a better walk rate, and considerably fewer strikeouts than Jean Segura. More power, a slightly lower walk rate, and considerably fewer strikeouts than Eric Hosmer.

But Simmons’ BABIP was 75, 79 and 88 points lower than those guys. Assuming we trust the batted-ball classifications, and assuming Simmons is no less qualified to get a hit on a groundball or a line drive than an average hitter, he should have had 13 more hits on grounders and six more hits on line drives. (His fly-ball BABIP was consistent with league average.) If those 19 hits were all singles, his .248/.296/.396 line becomes .279/.325/.427. That takes him from Alexei Ramirez’s neighborhood to Alex Gordon’s. When he was hitting, he was hitting into a world populated exclusively by Andrelton Simmonses.

Hence PECOTA’s evolving relationship with Simmons. It’s the defense, but it’s not just the defense:

  • 2013: .236 projected TAv, 16 FRAA
  • 2014: .258 projected TAv, 22 FRAA

The cost
Seven years of Simmons, of course, comes at no small cost. This is the most a team has ever committed to a player between one and two years of service time, according to MLB Trade Rumors. And, according to that site’s arbitration projection model, slick-fielding middle infielders are the sort of player who get less than they should in arbitration—though Simmons’ home runs, hardware, and potential for contact-boosted batting averages will help. There’s a good case that the Braves get a discount here, but not the discount we’ve come to expect from these super-early pre-arb extensions.

But if these extensions are usually about giving the players a secure future while the club, with its more diverse portfolio, absorbs the risk, we might look at this one as flipping the arrangement. There aren’t really 30 qualified major-league shortstops in the world. As Nate Silver once wrote, “shortstop… is a position that is often home to the best player on the field, and is also often home to the worst one.” For Atlanta, for the next seven years, that will never be the case.

*Alternately, using Baseball-Reference to identify players who were +70 defenders cumulatively through age 25 turns up 17 players since 1950, plus Elvis Andrus and Troy Tulowitzki. None of the 17 produced below-average defense from 28 to 30, though five switched positions, presumably for non-arbitrary reasons. The other 12 were all plus defenders, though, and five were still impact defendersat least +30 from 28 to 30.

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Although I have huge respect for Tango and know how careful he is with his studies, the method you describe, I believe, is flawed - don't know if Tango corrected for it, but skimming the article I didn't find one. The longer an infielder plays behind a pitcher the better he's able to guess where a batter is going to hit a ball given a particular pitch.

All the serious studies I've seen give a range peak at more like 22 or 23.

Another terrific article, by the way. Thanks, Sam.
I'd think that effect would be pretty miniscule. the hitters change, and their approach changes...
Excellent article.
"Only two shortstops 23 or younger have ever topped Simmons’ isolated power last year"

This has to be a typo, right?
Cripes, yes. Sorting this out.
Thanks for the write-up, Sam.

Great move for the Braves. All these extensions are great. But where is the value? If they didn't extend Simmons, it seems like they would have paid $1M pre-arb over next two seasons and about $23M ($5M, $8M, $10M) in arbitration. That would mean they bought his first two years of free agency for $17M each, which isn't crazy to think that's about what he'd get for AAV as a free agent.

7/$58M is great value for Simmons, but is it really that much greater than if they had done nothing? If you're guaranteeing a player 7 years this early, we shouldn't be able to say "that's what the player would have been paid over those 7 years anyway". You should be getting better savings for the risk you are taking on.
It seems like most of the deals signed over the last few years assume continual rapid free agent salary increases. If the market's paying $10M+/WARP in 5 years, that $17M would seem like a huge bargain.

It's incredibly unlikely that that trend can keep going forever at this rate, but teams seem willing to bet that they won't be the ones left holding the bag when it stops.
Simmons likely would have qualified as a Super 2 after 2014 (but for the extension). I think that changes the math a little.
And while they may be slower in catching up, it does appear a more sabermetric analysis is being used in arb hearings. So I also wouldn't presume defense will continue to be as underpaid as it used to be. And if his bate develops at all (which I presume the Braves believe), then with 4 years of arb, it is quite likely that the Braves could have been looking at $30MM+ for 2015-2018.
At the risk of sounding like Hawk Harrelson, I think the risk that the Braves are taking is spending on the "devil they know, rather than the one they don't". They've spent enough time developing these guys to understand a lot of the potential risks (at least the ones they can control). Maybe with the current environment they worry about having to gut their farm system if they have to pursue replacements in the future. I also think they are thinking about remaining among the top teams, so that when the 2020 Media contract comes up, they are postioned to get a big number. Right or wrong, they have a strategy, and they're committed to it. I guess time will tell.
One way to look at it is that the Braves would have to pay at least what they are going to pay for Simmons if they had to go the free agent route. And there will never be another SS free agent with upside unless the CBA changes.

Since SS is so thin at the upper levels, free agents will be paid a premium and will always be on the decline.

Braves are paying for what they know they have, while hoping for some big upside.
By relatively low floor don't you mean high floor.