This morning, friend of the site Ian Morris of Talking Chop posted a look at Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons’s production at the plate going forward. It’s a very good read and I highly suggest you go give it a read before we get started here. I’ll wait.
Alright, now that we’ve got a base to work off of, let’s go.
When Ian mentioned last night on Twitter he was working on the piece, we briefly discussed the angle he was taking and I voiced my ever-pessimistic opinion on the matter. There were a lot of points we both agreed with on each end of the spectrum. We also had a few points of contention, and there is a lot of data available that we can dig into a little deeper to see just where some of the discrepancies lie.
Let’s state the obvious first: any offense above the league average provided by the 2013 Platinum Glove winner is an added bonus. I don’t think anyone can or would disagree with that assessment. In his two and a half seasons in the Majors, Simmons has proved to be one of the best young defensive players of all-time. Shortstop has historically been one of the positions least dependent on offense due to its importance on the defensive spectrum. The game has been riddled with players who could survive on their work in the field alone, while being the equivalent of a second pitcher at the plate. Now, Andrelton will never be that bad at the plate, so we need not worry about that extreme. But if Simmons continues to regress like he did from 2013 to 2014, there is some cause for concern.
One thing Ian touched on was Andrelton’s peripherals over the past two season. The biggest complaint amongst the community this season was the amount of weak contact Simmons made, and the rise in swing % and contact % on pitches outside of the zone points to that. A drop in linedrive percentage speaks to that, as well. Another huge difference between 2013 and 2014 was the fact Simmons was able to curtail the insanely high number of infield flyballs he hit in 2013. While the IFFB’s dropped considerably, the increased number of groundballs he hit negated the potential gains with a .060 drop in ISO. That leads us to my main point of contention in Ian’s article: was Simmons unlucky at the plate in 2014, or just bad?
The crux of Ian’s argument is the difference in flyball distance Simmons had over the past two seasons, pointing towards a larger distance in 2014 despite his IFFB % dropping and his HR/FB% nearly being cut in half. He was hitting the ball further, but was that really a reflection of anything at all? Well, maybe. Maybe not. The numbers provided were a combination of homers and flyballs–linedrives weren’t included. What does Andrelton’s linedrive distance show us? Based on the raw data from Baseball Heatmaps, there was an eight feet drop in distance (from 237 feet in 2013 to 229 feet in 2014) along with a decrease in the number of linedrives from 120 to 95.
One of the most concerning batted ball stats for Simmons was his distance on all balls put into play. While he managed to put fifty less balls into play in 2014, the overall distance essentially stayed the same. The problem with this is the 169 feet was 294th amongst the 300 players listed on Baseball Heat Maps leaderboard. His name doesn’t even show up in the data for 2013. So, not only does Simmons seem to have a history of weak contact in his short career, but that could continue to get worse if his plate discipline continues to deteriorate.
For the next section I’m gonna call on some graphical help to demonstrate how the flyball data could be very misleading.
We’ll start with a look at the flyballs – both infield and outfield – in 2013 and 2014 side-by-side:
The striking difference right away is the location from one year to the next. While fewer were in the infield, Simmons also pulled far fewer fly balls to left field. Not only that, but there’s a dearth of balls driven to the deep parts of the field from the left field line around to straightaway center. How could that have effected his power numbers?
Oh. His homers in 2013 were exclusively from the LF line to the left-center gap, while five of seven in 2014 were to straight away left. If Simmons isn’t turning on the ball that could prove to be even more concerning than anything we’ve talked about thus far.
What about the quality of the balls he was hitting further?
Well, based on hangtime data from Fangraphs, we still see a lot of the same lazy flyballs to the right side of the field in the previous graphic. Deep flyballs aren’t going to get you very far if you can’t turn on them and get some actual carry.
Ok, well, homers are a concern but plenty of players can live between the gaps and get an ISO boost by living off doubles and triples, so how about Simmons spray data there?
Not much difference. It’s really looking more and more like all that extra distance on flyballs is coming from lazy flyballs that were never true threats. A lot of Simmons XBH in 2013 were hit to the warning track, with a few scattered down the lines or finding the gap. But in 2014 he drove a similar number of balls into the gap but the warning track power became almost non-existent.
Thankfully in this wonderful era we can go even deeper down the rabbit hole. Thanks to a wonderful tool created by Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman we can look at a cross-section of batted balls and pitch location. First, let’s look at the pitch location of the flyballs Simmons hit in 2013:
The average location tells us pretty much what the zone shows: average horizontal location is right down the middle and average vertical location exists just above the center of the zone. That cluster right over the middle of the plate represents perfectly the pitches Simmons was driving in 2013. And while it’s not by a huge margin, the average angle does show a very slight advantage towards pulling the ball.
Now, let’s take it to 2014:
Looking at the strikezone again, we see a slight difference in both average horizontal and average vertical locations – about a 2.5 inch shift towards the upper-inner half to be specific. Conventional knowledge tells us that should lead to more pitches put into play to the left to center zones, but looking at the average angle of the resulting contact points towards the ball having a propensity to go to the right side. Interesting considering the almost complete lack of balls on the outer half of the play Simmons put into the air on the outside half of the plate.
Without going back and pulling video of the actual swings, this points us towards Simmons being very off-balance at the plate and almost completely lacking the ability to square the ball up and drive it the way he did in 2013.
New Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer is a huge supporter of contact. And based off the data supplied in the Baseball Prospectus article Ian linked on the matter, seems to have a great ability to get the most out of his hitters when it comes to putting the ball in play and maximizing contact. On a team that greatly struggled the past two seasons to make even the slightest bit of contact, that could be a huge step in the right direction. The problem Seitzer will face with Simmons is going to essentially be the opposite, he’s going to have to learn to be much more patient, keep his swing balanced, and drive the ball like he showed in 2013.
Whether Simmons is able to make those adjustments is going to be a huge reflection of the value he is going to have going forward in the long contract the Braves signed him to prior to last season. With an above average bat, he’s the dark horse MVP candidate we saw in 2013. If he can’t make those adjustments, however, his value takes a significant hit as he’s another dark hole in an already anemic Braves lineup.