The news broke late yesterday that Minnesota is adding a new starting shortstop, 31-year old free agent Andrelton Simmons, on a 1-year deal for a reported $10.5M.
Shortstop Andrelton Simmons and the Minnesota Twins are in agreement on a one-year, $10.5 million contract, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 27, 2021
There has been speculation all winter that Falvine was in the market for a middle infielder. With utility men Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza free agents, the Twins had a clear hole somewhere on the infield. Many of us speculated a good way to fill that would be signing one of the handful of very recognizable free agent shortstops (Marcus Semien, Simmons, Didi Gregorious, etc.) to take advantage of the opportunity to sign a very good player at a reasonable price from a crowded position in a buyer’s market. Such a move would also serve to push middle infield incumbents Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez down the defensive spectrum where their defensive skills are better matches for their positions.
After news broke yesterday afternoon that Marcus Semien was heading to Toronto on a one-year deal for $18M, the Twins (who were part of the bidding for Semien), quickly moved to secure the commitment of one of this winter’s top available free agents in Simmons (Fangraphs #14, MLBTR #17, Athletic #14).
Here are some quick takeaways and thoughts about what the Twins are getting in their new shortstop.
2021 will be Simmons’ tenth year in the big leagues. He debuted mid-season with Atlanta in 2012 and played three more full seasons there. During Spring Training before the 2014 season, Simmons signed a seven-year, $58M dollar extension with Atlanta that placed him under contract through the 2020 season. He was later traded to the Los Angeles Angels before 2016 for pitching prospects and has been the Angels stalwart at short for the past five seasons.
On the field, Simmons’ profile is a throwback to years gone by at the shortstop position. He is a lauded and supremely gifted defender, a solid baserunner, and a below average hitter. At the plate, Simmons deploys an aggressive approach oriented on making contact and putting the ball in play. Prior to a severe ankle injury suffered during the 2019 season, Simmons also was considered a very durable regular, averaging 146 games played per year from 2013-2018. The ankle injury has proven tough to shake the past two seasons, however, and Simmons entered free agency for the first time this winter as a likely candidate for a one-year, prove you’re healthy and help a contender type of contract. That made him an excellent fit for the value-minded Twins.
Through his 9-year career thus far, Simmons has delivered the third-most fWAR (25.2) among shortstops in the same timespan, trailing only Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts by slim margins. Simmons provided that value in a different way than his contemporaries, though. His 159.9 defensive runs saved are the most at the position by 64 runs (!) over the second place shortstop (Brandon Crawford) and have netted him four Gold Gloves.
At the plate, Simmons is a career .269 / .317 / .379 hitter, a line that places him about 10% below league average with the bat (90 wRC+). He has proven to be very difficult to strike out and carries a career strikeout rate of just 9%, a figure that routinely places him in the top 5% or better for making contact.
With respect and apologies to Ozzie Smith, it is quite credible and not an overstatement to argue that Simmons is the best defensive shortstop and one of the best overall defenders in baseball history. In addition, if fully healthy, he also likely remains one of the best defensive players in baseball right now, regardless of position. The Athletic’s Keith Law pointed this out in his free agent profile of Simmons:
By TotalZone, the historical defensive metric Baseball-Reference uses to cover players from before play-by-play data was available, he’s eighth all-time among shortstops, and everyone ahead of him has a playing time lead of at least four full seasons. He is the all-time leader in Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop by a hilarious margin, and is second in Ultimate Zone Rating by just 3 runs, a deficit he’ll eliminate in 2021.
While defense is one of the areas where we still have the most to unpack and learn about when it comes to measurement and advanced analytics, Simmons’ defensive prowess holds up as elite by all the present-day advanced metrics. The 159.9 defensive runs saved since 2012 are far and away the most by any non-catcher. By Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Simmons’ 113.1 is more than 30 ahead of the next closest player (Jason Heyward). By the newer, Statcast derived, Outs Above Average, Simmons ranked among the best defenders regardless of position 2017-2019, before dropping off in last year’s shortened season due to the nagging ankle injury.
Ironically, he was playing against the Twins in May 2019 when Simmons suffered a grade three sprain of his left ankle trying to beat out a ground ball:
That injury led to an injured list stint of more than a month. While Simmons returned and mostly looked like himself in the field, his (already limited) power at the plate was sapped and he hit just .233/.297/.319 after the injury.
He has struggled with re-aggravations of the injury since, going back on the IL for it again that August, and then rolling it again early in the 2020 season. Last year, the injury might have began to show impact on Simmons defensive super powers. While its difficult to know how much signal to take from the weird 2020 season, Simmons posted a negative defensive runs saved mark for the first time in his career, and rated in just the 20th percentile in outs above average.
Below Average Bat
Before the ankle injury in 2019, Simmons had reached new offensive heights in 2017 and 2018. Driven by new found power, Simmons posted .323 and .326 wOBA in 2017 and 2018, punched a combined 25 home runs, slugged over .400 in each year, and maintained his minuscule strike out rate. Aside from the 49 game sample from his 2012 debut season, those two years represent Simmons’ only above average offensive campaigns, 102 and 106 wRC+, respectively.
In the shortened 2020, Simmons was again close to league-average offensively (98 wRC+), however the underlying peripheral numbers don’t paint a rosy picture. In 127 plate appearances, he hit no home runs and 7 doubles. As a result, his isolated power (ISO) was just .059, a career-worst, and he carried a .343 BABIP that was easily the highest of his career on the way to a likely fluky .297 batting average.
Not unlike the man Simmons is bumping off the shortstop position (Polanco), the widely-held belief is the ankle is also behind Simmons’ power loss and that a return to health and strength will be a boon to his production at the plate. When he’s right, Simmons is a ground ball (53.7% career) and line drive hitter (22.5%) who has learned how to pull the ball with greater authority as he has aged. His power spikes in 2017 and 2018 coincided with consecutive, significant increases in his pull-rate (up to 45%) that he largely maintained in 2019 and 2020.
The advanced projection systems at Fangraphs expect Simmons to return to his well established career norms in 2021. ZiPS, Steamer, and Depth Charts all project Simmons to be about a 3-WAR player in 2021, with well above average defensive marks, and somewhat below average offense. It’s reasonable to expect him to hit a mostly empty .270-.280 with an on base percentage around .310 to .330.
While he’s not likely to wow any of us with the bat often, he’ll put the ball in play at an elite rate, and largely be serviceable as a bottom of the lineup hitter. It will be a minor note in the overall story of Simmons’ addition, but the Twins lineup is sorely in need of more hitters who make lots of contact and Simmons will help to add some balance to the “all or nothing” tendencies of some other parts of the lineup.
A significant upgrade
Whether Simmons is fully recovered and able to stay healthy and on the field at full strength is one of the most obvious question marks in his outlook. It’s also likely a big driver in him even being available to the Twins this winter. Had he entered free agency fully healthy after the 2018 season, he’d likely have commanded a much larger, multi-year deal that would have priced him out of the Twins’ budget and timeline. Instead, he presented the kind of arbitrage opportunity that this Minnesota front office seems to like to gamble on.
When you combine the addition of Simmons, the price at which he was signed, and the resulting moves of Polanco and Arraez to roles that might be more befitting their abilities, this is pretty clearly a significant upgrade for the 2021 Twins. If Simmons truly is healthy and can return to something approaching league average offense with his normal well above average defense, this might be a 3 to 5 win improvement for the club, all things considered.
Even if Simmons isn’t quite the player he once was or he has trouble staying healthy, this deal has a good chance of paying off, because of the resulting flexibility it still allows. You can credibly argue that this signing improves shortstop, second base, the pitching staff, and the utility player spots, while also enabling the kind of positional flexibility that the Twins covet and need as insurance against inevitable injuries.
Moreover, at $10.5-million on a one-year deal, the price shouldn’t preclude Falvine from continuing to add to the roster for 2021. There should still remain budget space available to seriously try to retain designated hitter Nelson Cruz and further bolster the pitching staff. The one-year contract for Simmons also appears to fit well with the timeline of top prospect Royce Lewis.
If those reasons alone aren’t enough for you to get excited about this signing, I invite you to spend a few minutes with this:
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.