The Los Angeles Angels are somehow playoff contenders. If you’ve watched from afar, you might wonder how that’s possible. The best player in baseball, outfielder Mike Trout, missed 39 games. The team still remained in the race thanks to an unlikely source.
In Trout’s absence, another player on the Angels has stepped up and inserted himself in the American League MVP conversation. His candidacy for the award may force many to completely reconsider how they evaluate players.
It’s Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who according to Wins Above Replacement has been one of the best players in baseball this season. Players like Simmons rarely get considered for the MVP.
Over at FanGraphs, Simmons’ 4.8 fWAR ranks him as the fifth best player in the AL this season. Over at Baseball-Reference, that figure is even more surprising. In their version of WAR (bWAR), Simmons’ 6.4 bWAR ties him with Joey Votto as the third best player in all of baseball.
While some fans might be hesitant to fully embrace WAR, it does matter. Remember when Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young in 2010 despite a 13-12 record? That moment signaled advanced stats are becoming a bigger part of the game.
It’s Simmons’ bat becoming competent that puts him in this conversation. After stalling out at the plate for a few years, the 28-year-old has finally rediscovered his power stroke. Simmons is hitting .284/.334/.438, with 14 home runs, over 569 plate appearances.
By wRC+, an advanced stat that measures offensive performance, 2017 has been Simmons’ best year at the plate. When compared to other players, though, that’s not as impressive. Simmons’ 107 wRC+ puts him on par with Kansas City Royals outfielder Melky Cabrera. And no one is talking about Cabrera as an MVP candidate.
The majority of Simmons’ value lies in his defense. Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have Simmons as far and away the best defensive player in baseball this season. While defense is considering in MVP voting, you don’t typically see the best defensive players rank highly unless they are carried by their bat. That’s where Simmons’ candidacy for AL MVP starts to become a problem.
Defensive metrics are a controversial topic.
“I meet some of these defensive things with an awful lot of skepticism,” says Bill Ripken of MLB Network.
This is a common refrain among former players, and you might be inclined to immediately assume Ripken is just another ex-player who will criticize new stats because he’s an old-school guy, but that’s not the case.
Ripken has done segments at the network called “Bill’s Blackboard,” where he looks at some advanced numbers and provides his takes — both positive and negative — on specific stats. One of his earliest segments dealt with defensive runs saved (DRS). It’s a good example of Ripken explaining the concept, and also offering up valid criticisms of the metric. As Ripken points out, he’s not the only one who has questions about the validity of defensive metrics.
“Even the people who buy into the advanced systems debate which number is actually right amongst themselves,” he says.
He’s right. There are some cases where the metrics vary drastically from year to year. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCuthen, for example, posted a -13.5 fielding score in 2010 according to FanGraphs. The following year, he was up to 3.4.
That year-to-year variability makes it difficult to find a player’s true talent level on defense.
“I think that the framework is solid,” says Eno Sarris of FanGraphs. “I think that defense is important to winning games. But I think that variability in year-to-year defense and in measuring defense, makes it tough.”
Because of that, many analysts say you need multiple years of the metrics before you can make a determination about a player. Five seasons worth of data may produce wildly different results, but if the combined total of those seasons is positive, that player is probably a decent defender.
Simmons passes the test there. His defensive metrics have always been tremendous. This isn’t a one-year aberration. Both scouts and stats seem to agree that Simmons is consistently one of the league’s best defensive players.
That’s the aspect of Simmons’ MVP case that’s going to have many questioning how they value players.
“We all value offense more than defense, for reasons good and bad,” Sarris says.
Look at the race for National League MVP, where everyone is impressed by Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s crazy home run total. It’s much easier to look at a player’s offensive contributions and get a strong handle on how they performed. We all know a .300/.400/.500 slash line with 30 home runs is excellent. We can know that without ever seeing a single plate appearance from that player.
That’s not the case with defense. As Ripken explains, he wouldn’t feel comfortable accurately assessing a player’s defense unless he was able to watch him every night for at least three months.
“That’s what I think you need to do in order to really hunker down on somebody’s performance,” he says. “I can’t watch some of the highlights and some of the games intermittently and then sign off. Well, the UZR rating has him this high. The defensive runs save category has him this high and he’s so heads and shoulders above everybody else. I just cannot make that determination from where I sit.”
No one person has the resources to properly evaluate every player’s defense under those conditions. It’s just not possible.
That adds to the difficulty surrounding Simmons’ MVP case. While both Sarris and Ripken tout Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve as the top choice for the award, they both agree Simmons’ performance cannot be ignored.
“No one is doubting the year Andrelton Simmons has put together,” Ripken says. “He’s having a great year. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And he’s one of the reasons why the Angels are in the situation that they’re in.”
But where does that put in the MVP voting? While Simmons ranks fifth in the AL by FanGraphs’ metrics, Sarris isn’t sure he would put him that high.
“I think he’s probably one of the top-10 players in the AL this year, maybe not fifth best, but top-10,” he says.
After Altuve, Aaron Judge, Jose Ramirez and Trout, Sarris said he might consider Chris Sale and Corey Kluber before turning to Simmons.
On top of those players, both Sarris and Ripken brought up Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus as an interesting comparison. Andrus’ .304/.345/.494 slash line, with 20 home runs, gives him the offensive edge. And while the defensive metrics don’t rank him as highly as Simmons, Andrus has always been regarded as a strong defensive player. “Great” defense vs. “elite” defense is how Sarris describes it. That’s a big enough difference for the metrics, as Andrus isn’t getting any love for MVP.
In the end, it’s not just about whether you trust the defensive metrics, but also about how much you think defense is worth overall. Should the metrics be tweaked because Simmons looks out of place among the likes of Judge, Votto and Paul Goldschmidt? And how do we do that properly when our inclination is to value offense over defense?
Simmons’ candidacy may force us to face those issues, but there’s no way to answer those questions without introducing a certain level of subjectivity. The process may improve, but we’ll still be left with the same problems. With defense, that might be the best we can do.
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