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Where should Andrelton Simmons land on the AL MVP ballot?

It has always been difficult to rank players who accrue so much value from defense.

Andrelton Simmons finished a 2017 season that was remarkably similar to his career-best 2013 season. He hit .278/.331/.421, with a 103 wRC+ that is the best in his career. That combined with his historically good defense made him a 7.1 bWAR player, which is basically equal to his 7.0 bWAR season in 2013.

Simmons was arguably better in 2017 than he was in 2013. His .323 wOBA is 20 points better than it was in 2013. A hitter boosting his wOBA by 20 points will add one win to his WAR total. Had Simmons hit for a .323 wOBA in 2013, he would have been worth 8.0 WAR instead of 7.0 WAR.

So why was Andrelton not worth that in 2017? The difference in defensive numbers is why. Remember that ~10 runs is equal to one win, and that Baseball Reference uses DRS in its WAR calculation. Andrelton had a 41 DRS in 2013 and a 32 DRS in 2017. So let’s do some light math: Add 1 WAR to his his 2013 WAR total to account for the extra 20 points in wOBA, then subtract the nine fewer defensive runs he had, and you get his 2017 7.1 WAR. His WAR values from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus are more than one run apart, but they are within the error of the metric.

But were Andrelton’s 2013 and 2017 seasons equal?

We are all aware of the problems with the advanced defensive metrics. They are inherently noisy data, and they are heavily reliant on opportunity and luck. As a result, you need at least three seasons of data to draw any conclusions on a fielder’s true talent. Even then the numbers are intended to give you more of a qualitative idea of how good a fielder is. In other words, if a fielder averages 5 DRS over a three year period, it would be more accurate to say that he is above-average or plus than to say he is a true-talent 5 DRS fielder.

The fact of the matter is that single season defensive metrics suffer from small sample sizes, but we can’t just ignore the players’ defensive contributions. If you just want to look at a player’s oWAR and make a subjective assessment on his defense, that’s fair, but there should still be something available that includes the defense.

Let’s take a look at how Andrelton ranks among position players in the AL by each version of WAR. Remember that FanGraphs uses UZR, and BP uses FRAA.

Andrelton’s WAR

WAR AL Rank
WAR AL Rank
Baseball Reference 7.1 3rd
FanGraphs 4.9 8th
Baseball Prospectus 4.9 10th

For whatever reason, UZR and FRAA do not rate shortstop defense as highly as DRS can. Maybe there is a good reason for that, or maybe it is nothing, but that is what history has shown so far.

Voters have appeared to be unsure about what to do with players who put up huge defensive numbers. Andrelton had 41 DRS in 2013, ranked fifth by bWAR, yet placed only 14th on the MVP ballot. Carlos Gómez led the NL in bWAR that year thanks to his 38 DRS, but he placed ninth on the ballot. That same year, Manny Machado had a smaller disparity between his WAR and MVP rankings. He had a 38 DRS, ranked seventh by bWAR, and landed ninth on the ballot.

The biggest disparity was in 2015, when Kevin Kiermaier achieved the all-time record in defensive runs saved with 42 (keep in mind that DRS only goes back to 2003). His 7.3 bWAR ranked third in the AL, but he placed only 17th on the ballot. I remember having no idea what to do with him when I was filling out my fake ballot. I posited that one could make an argument for putting him anywhere from the top five to leaving him off the 10-man ballot entirely. Ultimately, I threw my hands up and ranked him seventh.

Last season, Mookie Betts had a 32 DRS, and his WAR and MVP rankings were actually equal, but that does not compare well to the examples above. The players mentioned above were no better than league average at the plate, while Mookie had a 137 wRC+ in 2016.

Other than Betts, what the above examples have in common is that their superb defensive seasons were outliers. None of them came close to duplicating them until Simmons had his 32 DRS this year. That is probably why it affected the MVP voting. It never felt “real.”

Of course, the MVP award is not the WAR award. Let me repeat that: the MVP award is not the WAR award. But if we use it as a guide, you could make an argument for putting Andrelton in the top five or leaving him off altogether, and that is before we even begin to consider pitchers.

Here’s the thing with Simmons: we know that his 32 DRS is not an outlier. Here are his career DRS numbers.

Rhodium Glove

Innings DRS
Innings DRS
2012 426.0 19
2013 1352.1 41
2014 1277.0 28
2015 1279.1 25
2016 1045.0 18
2017 1369.2 32

That averages out to 27 DRS per season, which is ridiculous. This includes his 2012 debut season where he got 19 DRS in only 49 games played. That is even more ridiculous.

Forget about the numbers for a moment. Scouting fielders is really hard, but Andrelton’s talent is so obvious that anybody can see his historically good talent. Any avid baseball fan with a familiarity of the 20-80 scouting scale could easily hang 80 grades on his range and arm.

All of this is to say that dismissing Andrelton’s huge defensive numbers this year is a difficult argument to make. We have over five seasons of data and of watching him to tell us that his 32 DRS is “real,” or at least very close to it.

You could make a strong argument that Andrelton belongs in the top-five on the ballot. At the very least, he should be somewhere on the 10-man ballot because this is not some outlier that makes little sense, it matches who we know him to be defensively. This isn’t to say we should be overly concerned where a down-ballot player ranks on an MVP ballot, but it will be an interesting test case to see how the voters are evaluating defense.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.