Andrelton Simmons' value to the Atlanta Braves was evident before the 2014 season began. Based on sterling defensive ability and the hope of offensive upside in the 24-year-old, the team awarded its shortstop a seven-year, $58 million contract extension.
Less than a month into the pact, Simmons' bat has emerged. After Monday evening's 4-2 victory over the Miami Marlins, Simmons owns a .299/.310/.507 slash line. Coupled with a .209 ISO (isolated slugging percentage) and minuscule 2.8 percent strikeout rate, baseball's best defender has added an offensive element to his all-around game.
The early-season outburst has been impressive but shouldn't be entirely surprising for those who paid attention to Simmons' development last season.
One of those keenly interested in the type of hitter Simmons can become: Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. After a home run against the Philadelphia Phillies last week, Simmons' manager had this to say about his shortstop, per Michael Radano of MLB.com: "He's stronger than he looks. I look at what he can do and who knew? He's got a ton of room to grow."
After posting a replacement-level OPS (.630) in the first half of 2013, Simmons' bat emerged down the stretch for Atlanta. From the moment the Braves arrived back after the All-Star break, Simmons posted an OPS of .789, helping the team run away with the NL East.
That OPS is now sitting at .817, making the Braves infielder a rare commodity. The combination of defensive excellence and above-average offense could soon vault Simmons into the early NL MVP conversation. Before scoffing at the notion, consider this: Despite owning an adjusted OPS 14 percent below league average, Simmons was worth 6.9 WAR last season.
With game-changing defense as the foundation for value with this young Braves star, an offensive leap could lead to an 8.0-plus WAR season. The last three NL MVP winners—Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey and Ryan Braun—owned WAR marks of 7.9, 7.3 and 7.8, respectively. Based on how award voters have filled out recent ballots, it won't take much added offense to put Simmons in the conversation.
Of course, small-sample-size results shouldn't be taken out of context. Despite a solid start at the plate, Simmons hasn't suddenly morphed into an offensive force like the Colorado Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki or Los Angeles Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez.
Yet, two aspects of Simmons' offensive game might be sustainable: power and plate coverage.
Let's start with power. On Monday, Simmons launched his third home run of April. Coupled with a 17-homer season in 2013, it's not hard to imagine a 25-plus home run performance this summer. While that may not seem like major offense, only 14 hitters in all of baseball reached the 30-homer plateau last season. In the landscape of today's game, 25-homer power is very, very valuable.
As noted earlier, Simmons owns a .209 ISO on the young season. FanGraphs' library defines isolated slugging percentage as a measure of raw power. Basically, Simmons isn't racking up a special slugging percentage due to an abnormally high batting average. Instead, extra-base power is the driving force.
While the long ball excites casual fans, the ability to simply make contact has become a rare skill in the currant climate of major league baseball. Last season, the average shortstop struck out 110 times, per ESPN. In 157 games, Simmons went down on strikes only 55 times.
Over the first month of the 2014 season, that figure is profiling as nothing more than a warm-up act for the Braves contact machine. Simmons' 2.8 percent strikeout rate puts him on pace to strike out only 17 times for the entire season, per ESPN.
Even if that type of contact rate is difficult to sustain over a six-month season, Simmons is well on his way to lowering his total strikeout number to less than 40 for the season. Since 1984, there have been six individual seasons in which a player has suited up for 135 games, posted an ISO over .200 and struck out no more than 40 times.
Take a look at where the following players finished in their respective MVP races. Outside of Sean Casey's 2004 season, every hitter with that type of power and contact combination finished in the top seven of the MVP vote.
|Rare Commodities: Raw Power, Plate Coverage (1984-2013)|
Outside of Mattingly's excellent defensive work at first base, none possessed game-changing defensive skills like Simmons. Plus, to be fair, Mattingly's excellence at first base for the New York Yankees—while valuable—can't be compared to what Simmons does at a demanding up-the-middle position in Atlanta today.
Despite less than 225 games of major league service time, Simmons has been worth $35.3 million to the Braves, per FanGraphs' value calculations.
For the majority of that small sample, offense has simply been a goal for Atlanta's shortstop. With that much value coming from sterling defense, sustaining MVP-caliber offense is enough to make a $58 million investment look like a steal for the Braves.