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Andrelton Simmons, baseball IQ, and the Hall of Fame

As advanced statistics and sabermetrics reach a wider audience with each passing season, facets of the game that are harder to quantify may lose their significance.

Cleveland Indians v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

There are two plays that stand out in my mind that Andrelton Simmons made this season that did not make it into MLB Network’s Top 100 Plays. Both of these plays were ludicrous and should easily have been in the top 20 at the very least (because I am an unabashed homer), but did not so much as receive an Honorable Mention. While being incredibly different, they do share a common factor that I think is very important and possibly lends to a bigger issue. Let’s review the two plays.

These sensational displays book-ended a fantastic season that saw even the biggest Simmons holdouts admit to buying one of his jerseys. Still, neither of these plays were considered “good enough” to make the Top 100. So what is it that sets them back?

Most notable is the fact that the plays are spectacular not for his show of range or arm strength or the ball finding the glove by the grace of God. They were spectacular instead for what people like to call “Baseball IQ.” The constant awareness that Simmons has of his surroundings and his knowledge of what a runner will do or where he will be given a certain situation creates scenarios where Simmons can add another clip to his highlight reel.

The first video doesn’t really need any analysis. His incredibly quick hands and thinking allowed him to make a play on that. A vast majority of other fielders, even great ones, would probably only think of saving the ball from going into the stands. Yet he was thinking “Double play” the whole time, despite the runner being speedster Jean Segura.

The second video, on the other hand, gets better and more complex with every rewatch. After Calhoun fielded the ball and was set up to throw to third, Simmons positioned himself accordingly to cut off a throw if necessary. He then blatantly leaned back to deke Carlos Correa into moving toward second. After quickly snatching it out of the air, he threw to Cron. Knowing that Altuve was going to break for home to score, he held up his glove to tell Cron to throw to him instead of Brandon Phillips. He then immediately spun and threw to Maldonado without looking, only a little bit high. And while it may not matter, he also sprinted to third base from second base after that to back up the throw. He produced that entire play. Because Calhoun’s throw was not in time to nab Altuve at third, there was quite literally no other way that entire scenario could have transpired that would produce an out without allowing a run.

About a week after the tag at 3rd, this showed up on a Fangraphs Chat:

Ryan: Does Andrelton Simmons get any credit in his defensive metrics for that great tag play the other night, or is that simply ignored?

Jeff Sullivan: That’s a good question. I don’t know enough. I’d guess he goes without credit. Don’t know how a metric would possibly know what to do with a play like that

On both of those plays, Simmons received an assist in the box score. That’s it. I highly doubt that either of those plays, both of which were rather important in the context of the actual game (in both, a runner in scoring position was instead the third out of the inning), so much as grazed any of the components of UZR or DRS, the two most popular metrics used in measuring defense. How can you quantify dekes (I mean, you technically can, but you know what I’m saying), awareness, and direction?

Well, the simple answer is, “You can’t.” No matter how far along statistics come, they can never address all of the areas of defense. It is impossible to compare or measure how a part of the defense manipulates the other parts of the team to create a living, breathing organism of run prevention. That kind of talent isn’t derived from numbers. Andrelton Simmons has an amazing arm and an incredibly impressive range and those somewhat show up in sabermetrics, but it’s his intelligence that makes him an all-time great defender.

And this could be a problem.

As the decade has worn on, sabermetrics have gone from obscurity to the mainstream. It was just 5 years ago, when I first began college, that people were debating whether Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera was better. Now all across the Internet, baseball fans are now talking about WAR, wRC+, and OPS+, among other advanced statistics. With numbers now nearing a peak, there are people who quickly dismiss anything that doesn’t have solid numbers on either Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference to back it up. It’s understandable, obviously, to want evidence when evaluating players, and a nice number like the ones DEF and dWAR provide sure are tempting to use as the definitive answers for value, especially when comparing players across different decades or eras.

This is the crux of the issue regarding the Hall of Fame debate, which features a previously-idolized Omar Vizquel being identified now as an undeserving candidate, based on the fact that he only accrued 42.6 fWAR and 45.3 bWAR, mostly on the back of a stellar defense. That his offense was never anything truly special except for that one year is pretty easy to justify. Suddenly though, the defense is no longer worthy of the Hall.

Vizquel’s reputation precedes him for me, however, as I never really watched him play. When I was a child, I didn’t follow teams other than the Angels. Especially not glove-first guys. I wanted to see Glaus and Anderson and Guerrero. I would keep an eye on Sosa and Bonds and McGwire. And now, similarly, writers (some of which haven’t even covered baseball in years) are expected to look at the cusp names from teams that they didn’t even follow or know anything about and factor in their defense using two or three websites’ worth of data and what they barely remember from nostalgia and the eye test.

This would seem to foreshadow a future debate about our all-time great defensive wizard, who may or may not prove to be better offensively than Vizquel.

Let’s fast forward 15 years, to when Simmons is in his 40’s and is beginning to be discussed as a potential future Hall of Famer. These are still preliminary talks as he only just retired, but we’re still going to discuss the near-career Angel and the ballot he will soon be on. His fWAR comes out to 51 and his bWAR, 67.5 (as DRS has always liked him more than UZR). He is a true cusp player. JAWS now has an Artificial Intelligence component because I imagine it as a metallic shark and gives out a press release, saying this about Simmons:

“Meh...I could go either way.”

There will very clearly be more video and media coverage than there used to be and more defensive highlight videos, but will the voters consider how he affects the defense when he isn’t touching the ball? When he maneuvers and when he dekes and when he doesn’t make a mistake? Andrelton Simmons is a true Captain, more so than any player I’ve ever seen. The entire mentality of the Angels’ defense was “Get the ball to Simmons so he can make a play that you would never conceive in a trillion years” this past season.

And Vizquel? As I said, I never watched the player. I didn’t have the privilege of seeing if he affected every single play the way Simmons does. Were there intangibles with him or Ozzie Smith or other all time great defensive infielders that we just don’t take into account?

I fear that as sabermetrics become more popular, analysts and fans might entirely forget the areas of the game that statistical websites have absolutely no way of accounting for. Andrelton Simmons has shown through his baseball IQ and not just through his numbers that he could be the greatest shortstop (defensively) of all time. Despite this, roughly 85% of the media is almost entirely unaware. Add in the fact that he isn’t on the east coast and doesn’t blow anyone away with the bat and you have a recipe for disaster later on when looking for induction. I mean, the poor guy didn’t even get nominated as a Final Vote Candidate for the All-Star Game despite being better than literally every other AL candidate.

This doesn’t in any way mean that we shouldn’t consider the numbers, and I’m not necessarily saying that Omar Vizquel belongs in the Hall of Fame. This is just a reminder of what Simmons shows us almost every day; the box score isn’t always indicative of what actually happens on the field.