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Andrelton Simmons’ offensive adjustment

In the middle of last season Andrelton Simmons made some adjustments to his approach at the plate. Now he’s become more than just an all-world defender.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Andrelton Simmons has been the best defensive player in baseball for the past five years. Sure, others like Kevin Kiermaier and Francisco Lindor have entered that discussion — and with sweeping proclamations of who’s ‘the best’ at something there’s plenty of subjectivity — but the point is that Simmons is an elite defensive stalwart. It’s not hyperbole to say he’s one of the great defensive shortstops of all time.

His glove is so exceptional at the most important defensive position on the diamond that the Braves and now Angels have been more than willing to bear with his subpar bat. Obviously they’d prefer more offensive production, but his defense more than makes up for lost value at the dish. In his first five seasons in the major leagues Simmons posted wRC+ marks of 103, 91, 71, 81, and 91; with that 103 coming in his abbreviated rookie campaign.

After joining the Angels in 2016 it looked like more of the same for Simmons in his first two months, jaw-dropping defense with hard to watch offense. It’s safe to assume that coaches had tried to make him a better hitter during his time in Atlanta, but there had been few demonstrable improvements. He was now in Anaheim, and around the end of June, Angels GM Billy Eppler decided to try his hand at tweaking Simmons’ offense. As reported by Mike DiGiovanna of the LA Times last September:

...the Angels shortstop received a surprise text message from General Manager Billy Eppler, who sent a batch of statistics showing the type and location of pitches Simmons drives with authority and the ones he struggles to square up.

...What did he have to lose? He absorbed the material from Eppler and, with input from hitting coaches Dave Hansen and Paul Sorrento, incorporated it into his approach over the next few months.

That seems simple enough. Stop swinging at the pitches that you have trouble making quality contact with. Although it’s almost certainly much more difficult to actually implement, the concept itself is straightforward. From that same piece from Mike DiGiovanna, here’s Simmons in his own words:

“Instead of just swinging at strikes, I’m looking for a particular pitch and waiting for that pitch,” Simmons said. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ve been doing a better job in the second half. I’m swinging at better pitches.

“I’m not missing my pitches. I’m not fouling off pitches I should hit. I’ve been squaring up pitches I can hit, and it’s showing. I’m trying to shrink [the zone] of what I’m looking for, and it’s helping.”

Check out his swing percentage heatmaps from 2016; the first is from April through June, the other from July to the end of the season.

Heatmaps via FanGraphs

He swung less overall, and clearly worked to eliminate swings on the inner-third of the plate. There’s a definite shrinking of the zone at work; from consistently offering at anything up and in, to focusing instead on swinging when the ball is up but closer to the middle-third vertically.

The changes have continued into this season as Simmons has begun to cut down on his swings at pitches above the zone while maintaining his aversion to the pitches on the inner-third that he once couldn’t resist.

Heatmap via FanGraphs

By narrowing his focus to such a specific area, it stands to reason that Simmons is also being more selective with regard to pitch type. Not a lot of pitchers throw their offspeed and breaking stuff at the top of the zone, voluntarily at least. Part of his change of approach has seen Simmons hunt fastballs above all else.

Chart via Brooks Baseball

Simmons used to swing at offspeed pitches more than any other type, but no longer. The above chart helps illustrate the drastic shift in overall approach that started in mid-2016 and has carried over into this season.

Here’s a table of his plate discipline numbers from the three periods in question with the Angels — 2016 before and after adjustments, and 2017. The changes visible in the heatmaps are evident in the numbers.

Andrelton Simmons Plate Discipline Splits

Date O-Swing % Z-Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % Contact %
Date O-Swing % Z-Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % Contact %
2016 thru June 31.2 % 68.2 % 50.5 % 85.7 % 93.0 % 90.8 %
2016 from July on 24.6 % 67.5 % 45.9 % 72.2 % 92.7 % 87.2 %
2017 (thru 5/5) 24.7 % 63.6 % 43.4 % 67.9 % 94.0 % 86.2 %
Data via FanGraphs

There’s a large decline in swing percentage — especially on pitches out of the zone — and because Simmons has shrunk the area of the strike zone he’s willing to offer at, he’s seen a massive decline in contact outside of the zone. He’s still making contact at the same rate with pitches in the zone, but now a lot of the weak contact that is generated from hitting pitches outside the zone has been eliminated.

A difference that huge has to have paid dividends in his overall offensive numbers, right? Absolutely.

Those are three small samples to be sure, but to measure in-season changes we’re always going to be dealing with smaller samples than would be ideal.

By chasing fewer pitches outside, Simmons is walking more and hitting the ball harder than ever. His new, judicious approach to the strike zone goes hand in hand with his focus on hitting fastballs above all else. Combined with some subtle tweaks to his swing — as detailed by Rahul Setty at Halos Heaven — Simmons is finally starting to add value with more than just his glove.

While Simmons’ wRC+ sits at the league average of 100 right now, his xwOBA indicates that based on his 2017 batted balls, the numbers can potentially improve a little bit more. Even if it stays at that wRC+ of 100 though, that’s a win for the Angels. A league average bat out of the finest defensive shortstop in all the land? Billy Eppler would have to be thrilled with that outcome. Good thing he sent that text message.

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Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.