Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the shortstop factories of the Braves and Rangers.
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Throughout this series, we've chronicled almost every team's Moneyball. Some are more profitable than others, but each comes with an implicit caveat: fine print that reads "subject to change." The Pirates will be outbid on the Korea market in the future if their current investments work out, just as surely as the Diamondbacks will lose priority in the indie leagues if their signings produce another David Peralta or two, and so on. Strategies begin as a hypothesis, grow into a trade secret, then—if they succeed for a while—eventually become common knowledge. The hunt for a new edge, a new secret, is the lone constant for front offices.
Or so you'd think. But sometimes a team's track record dates back so far, with no clear explanation as to why, that you wonder if all the prophesying is legitimate or phooey. Such is the case with the Braves and shortstops.
Though the Braves are known for their work with pitchers, they've spent the last two decades as a top producer of shortstops. The trend started in November 1996, when the Braves signed Rafael Furcal out of the Dominican Republic. Of the 14 opening days since Furcal's April 2000 big-league debut, the Braves have started a homegrown shortstop on 10 occasions: Furcal five times, Yunel Escobar three times, and Andrelton Simmons twice. Together, those three have appeared in three all-star games, won two Gold Gloves and a Rookie of the Year award, and received down-ballot consideration for four MVP awards. If that's not enough quality shortstops for one organization over a two-decade span, consider the Braves also traded Elvis Andrus during that period, and have two promising prospects on the way, in Jose Peraza (now a second baseman in deference to Simmons) and Ozhaino Albies.
How then have the Braves, a team without top draft picks or financial resources, become synonymous with developing quality shortstops? Everyone has a theory.
"They seem to put their money into tools and prioritize defense," a high-ranking official with a National League team told Prospectus in winter 2013. "It seems as if they always have done it that way, even dating back to their teams in the 1990s and 2000s, with the likes of Rafael Belliard, Jeff Blauser, and Rafael Furcal."
"Jason Parks is fond of saying that Latin America is where you find superstars, and except for maybe someone like Edward Salcedo, it seems that the organization has always targeted up-the-middle talent with the requisite defensive chops to stick," said Ethan Purser, then a member of Prospectus' prospect team. "Take someone like Elmer Reyes, who was signed out of Nicaragua in '09: he's not a top-shelf talent by any stretch of the imagination, but he can pick it at shortstop and earned a spot on the 40-man this offseason because of it."
The magic of Andrelton Simmons
The National League exec talks the finer points of the position, as it relates to the Braves.
On the most important shortstop quality: "I think instincts are a big thing. Compare the two shortstops the Braves had in spring training a couple of years ago in Simmons and Tyler Pastornicky. Pastornicky is a really good athlete who is a faster runner and stronger than Simmons, and entering that camp had always been a better hitter at a higher level than Simmons. Pastornicky didn't have easy actions at shortstop—not in the way Simmons did, I guess nobody really does on that level—and he sometimes got caught in between on whether he should backhand balls in the hole or work around them. Simmons just has a feel for it. Maybe the best way to explain it is that Simmons has terrific hands and feet, which makes sense since he played a lot of soccer as a youth, and when you saw him next to Pastornicky the difference was apparent."
On what the average fan might miss that makes Andrelton Simmons special: "The instincts and reads he gets off the bat. Scouts talk about a great first step—he has a great five first steps. He isn't fast, but he's quick and precise. He makes the impossible play, and when he doesn't he gets mad at himself. He expects to make the impossible play. It's also little things like backing up the pitcher when the catcher throws back in the ninth inning of a one-run game. There are so many little things he does that really speak to his baseball IQ and, more than anything, instincts."
"I think a big part of it is really just focusing on the defense over offense and in a big way," said Mark L. Smith, formerly an intern with Prospectus and the Braves. "Edgar Renteria is really the only bat-first SS that couldn't play defense all that well that the Braves have had recently. Jose Peraza is a prospect who looks the part as well—huge defensive potential with limited offensive potential. He's fast as shit and has a strong arm. And the Braves work them pretty hard in the minors when it comes to defense. They put in the time on the field, and they might be more emphatic when it comes to shortstops."
There you have it. The Braves succeed where others fail because they prioritize tools and athleticism, scout Latin America, prefer defense to offense, and ensure those players receive adequate repetitions to stick at the positions. Sounds good . . . except for the nagging feeling that almost every team approaches shortstops the same way. Surely those reasons aren't why the Braves have had more homegrown shortstops start on the past two opening days than the Rays have had in their existence, right? Or why the Braves have lapped the Cardinals—widely considered the best at player development—when it comes to fostering players at one of the top positions, right?
There has to be an x-factor that separates the Braves from the pack, be it their developmental staff or training regiment, the players they picked, or our willingness to forget and forgive the flops. Heck, what about luck, or some combination thereof? That's the rub, not just with the Braves, but with the entire series: we don't know. We might think we do, based on results and trends and the narratives formed therefrom, but we don't know. The possibility for an attribution error runs so high that we have to constantly ask ourselves that question from earlier: Is this legitimate, or is this phooey?
Who can be sure when it comes to the Braves and their shortstop dominance. And perhaps that's the key to Atlanta's success—not just keeping their secrets away from common knowledge, but causing everyone to wonder whether there's a secret in the first place.