The Angels have been a mediocre-to-bad team during each of the first six full seasons of Mike Trout’s career. He has been the sole star, apart from the corpse of Albert Pujols, on a team that has struggled to find success. This year, however, the Angels have found another star player in Andrelton Simmons.
Simmons has always been renowned for his strong glove at shortstop. Elite defense at a premier position can often make up for failures on the offensive side of the ball. Examples of such players exist at catcher, shortstop, and center field. Teams are willing to forfeit offensive value in exchange for strong defense at a key position. Simmons fell perfectly into that bucket for the first five seasons of his major league career.
Defensive stats are far from perfect, but I think a good approach is to reference all of them in hopes of finding some sort of consensus. There is such a consensus on Simmons, who has averaged 26.2 DRS, 16.8 UZR, and 12.1 FRAA over his first five seasons. This year he has collected 20 DRS, 10.3 UZR, and 15.1 FRAA. The metrics back him up, and the eye test and reputation are both there as well. He’s really good at a really important position.
His ability to be really good at that position has made his career 91 wRC+ a lot more tolerable. This season, however, he’s producing offensively. His slash line is by far his best at .304/.357/.461 with 12 home runs. This is probably a great place to add context to his 2017 power.
More home runs are being hit this year than ever before, which is likely due to some sort of change in the ball.* Alan Nathan, a former physics professor at the University of Illinois, concluded that well-hit balls are traveling five feet further now than before the 2015 All-Star break. The average home run distance from 2010 to 2015 was 400 feet exactly. The average home run distance this season in 401. It shouldn’t be surprising that this average has stayed the same. More home runs are being hit in general, but dingers are also being hit further. The average balances out to something consistent with the past. Simmons’ career average home run distance is 397 feet; he’s not the kind of guy who has been blasting tons of deep home runs in the past. Therefore, it’s probably not unfair to assume that the different ball has greatly helped him send a few more balls over the fence.
So the ball is probably helping Simmons out, but it’s helping everyone out. It’s unfair to dock him for being aided by a ball that may or may not change again during any point in the future. He’s gotten a lot better offensively on his own merits, too. His strikeout rate has increased from an extremely low 7.9 percent to a still very reasonable 10.3 percent this season, but his walk rate has also risen, from 5.8 percent to 7.5 percent. His approach at the plate has certainly changed, which was touched on earlier this season by Chris Anders. That approach has helped him see better results.
Some players are simply so good at making any contact — Simmons is 8th in baseball with his 88.2 contact rate — that they rarely make good contact. Perhaps at some point in his career Simmons was told that he was fast enough to produce as long as he put the ball in play. Now, it appears he’s shying away from that approach, swinging less at pitches in the zone. Rather than make contact on every pitch he can get his bat on, Simmons is making better contact on the pitches he wants to hit.
It’s odd to say that a player just decided to only hit the pitches he wants to hit because it seems like such an obvious approach, but that has happened for Simmons. He’s lowered his swing rate in the zone from 70.2 percent to 65.9 percent. His other plate discipline numbers are all relatively the same. He’s simply waiting for the pitch he wants to hit, even if that means occasionally letting a strike pass him by, and it has paid dividends for the 27-year-old shortstop. So far he has put up his career best wRC+ (124), his first above-average value in that measure of offensive ability since 2012 (101).
The offensive adjustments certainly look real. The defense remains incredible at a valuable position up the middle. He shouldn’t be given more MVP consideration than his teammate Trout or Aaron Judge or even Chris Sale, but he has established himself as a star player.
If he can remain about 25 percent above average on offense while flashing his elite defense, the Angels have found another star on a roster that desperately needs something to pair with Trout. And maybe, just maybe, Simmons’ 2017 is the little push the Angels needed to reach a Wild Card position. They currently sit in a playoff position, but they’re just half a game up over the competition and things are bound to change in the next month. If the Angels are able to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014, Simmons will have been a huge reason why they’re there.