That Cobb County stadium money just keeps flowing. Thursday morning, the Atlanta Braves extended yet another one of their young core players, as electric shortstop Andrelton Simmons agreed to a seven-year, $58 million deal.
Simmons will earn a little over $8 million annually, a new record for a player that has between one and two years of MLB service time (Simmons played 49 games in 2012 before becoming the full-time starter in 2013). He hit just .248/.296/.396 in 157 games for Atlanta in his first season, but that is far from the point. Simmons was paid for his stupendous defense at shortstop, stellar enough to earn the Gold Glove award.
Beyond the hardware, Simmons’s defensive season was judged by metrics as one of the greatest ever. His 41 Defensive Runs Saved was a single-season record for the statistic, which dates back to 2003. According to FanGraphs, Simmons was worth 31.6 defensive runs above average (accounting for position as well), the fourth best total since tracking began in 2002 behind Manny Machado last season (33.6), Franklin Gutierrez in 2009 (33.4) and Adam Everett in 2006 (31.7).
Healthy skepticism should be applied to all these numbers, as the systems are still in relative infancy and data quality issues continue tend to wreak havoc with defensive metrics across the board. But that aside, these numbers largely confirm what eyes across baseball can see for themselves: Simmons has a glove like a vacuum and an arm like a cannon, and if he isn’t the best defensive player in baseball, he’s close.
But Simmons did not hit much last year (87 OPS+). Even if his defensive talent is worth the money, it typically hasn’t been recognized as such by either the free market or, more relevant to this specific contract, the arbitration system that decides salaries in a players’ fourth through sixth years of service time. Much like with the Braves’ recent extensions with Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel, there’s little question about the quality of the player. The questions are instead about the Braves’ evaluation of the markets around them.
There are reasonable concerns with Simmons as a hitter. He hasn’t shown much patience, and although he hit 17 home runs in 2013, he’s solely a power threat to left field, and Atlanta’s Turner Field is one of the worst parks for right-handed power hitters in the National League. His similar batters list per Baseball Reference isn’t particularly encouraging either — Shawon Dunston (career 89 OPS+), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (95), Rey Quinones (74), Eddie Miller (80) and Heinie Peitz (93) make up six of his top eight comparables at age 23.
The other two, however, are Barry Larkin and J.J. Hardy, a Hall of Famer and a multiple-time All-Star. This much is clear: Simmons has shown above-average power at the shortstop position despite his youth. His .149 isolated power (SLG – AVG) ranked sixth among shortstops and above the league average for all players. Unlike many power hitters, Simmons can combine his stroke with already elite contact skills — his 8.4 percent strikeout rate was the best among qualified shortstops and fourth among all players — meaning he should be showcasing it often instead of drawing air on strikeout after strikeout. And when the Braves move to Cobb County, there’s a chance he will no longer play half his games in a park that swallows balls hit to the left field power alley.
Simmons had just a .247 batting average on balls in play last season. He has a propensity for infield fly balls — the only batted ball type that is essentially an automatic out — but there is no reason to believe Simmons will continue to be among the league’s worst in the category going forward. And for that reason, projections almost universally see Simmons becoming a roughly MLB average hitter, which would be an achievement for a shortstop with his fielding chops. He needs to develop more of an ability to hit the ball to right field — he had just four extra-base hits to the opposite field, no home runs and a .177 average — but at only 23 years-old, this is a flaw with plenty of time to fix.
Projections systems at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus see Simmons becoming a roughly average hitter next season. If he does that and continues to rack up Gold Gloves, the projected price tags on his arbitration seasons (and beyond) would rocket well past those for the all-glove, no-bat defenders (like shortstop Brendan Ryan and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez) who have typically drawn smaller deals in arbitration than poor defenders with big-time traditional hitting stats.
But although Simmons bears resemblance to that player type now, his already solid power stroke and contact ability could be enough to help him develop into a quality hitter as well as an amazing defender. And if that happens, $59 million will be highway robbery for Atlanta over the next seven seasons.