On Monday, after Robinson Chirinos singled toward the left-field corner and took a big turn around first base, and Cameron Maybin threw the ball to his cutoff man and Chirinos began to retreat to first base, and the baseball game began to retreat to around 75 sleepy seconds of nothing happening, Andrelton Simmons abruptly made a highlight:
That's the Los Angeles Angels' shortstop catching the cutoff throw barehanded. He wouldn't end up throwing the ball -- he spun and saw no play -- but, unlike almost every other cutoff/no-play event in baseball history, this one will be documented. This one was a highlight.
That's the 38th Andrelton Simmons defensive highlight MLB.com has posted this year, not counting routine double plays. Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and he might be the best in history. There's a way to express his genius in numbers -- at 156 defensive runs saved, Simmons is almost 100 runs better than the No. 2 shortstop since 2012 -- and I expect some writers will cite those numbers when casting their MVP ballots this fall.
But there's also a way to express his genius in time spent not working because you've fallen into an Andrelton Simmons Highlights rabbit hole. I bet you could watch all 38 of them right now and your boss wouldn't even notice. Why, I've even collected all the links and ranked each highlight for your convenience!
But if 38 is too many, let's just do five. Five acts of baseball that I believe Simmons, and only Simmons, is capable of.
Wait, don't leave! I consulted with a bunch of very nice people on these highlights, and I had a hard time convincing them how impressive this one was, but it fits into my overarching theory of Simmons: His signature skill is awareness. The best Simmons highlights all capture some part of that awareness: Awareness of his body, of the ball's physics, of the game's state, of the baserunner or of the unseen clock that will determine each play's outcome.
In this play, he makes a pretty good play ranging to his left, gets up quickly, but then takes an uncharacteristically long time before throwing an uncharacteristically soft throw to first. In a sense this is a "highlight" of Simmons erring (if not literally committing an error) by taking a long time and throwing inaccurately -- it's honestly a little frustrating. But it's also an example of Simmons knowing exactly, exactly how fast every part of that play was going to go, like one of those "if a train leaves Buffalo at 5:45 p.m., going 60 mph ..." algebra problems but with more complicated variables and with nobody feeding him the figures. He took control of the speed of that play, took the time he needed, made the throw he needed, and the margin he left himself with was so small that it literally couldn't be captured by the human eye; he required a slow-motion replay to overturn the umpire's call on the field and get him the out.
A fun game with Simmons highlights is to find the moment where it looks least like an out is possible. For this highlight, I think that moment is this one.
If Simmons were a superhero who was just landing at third base, it is easy to see this play being made. But since he's actually taking off away from third base, it's hard to imagine any next frames other than Simmons sailing off screen to the left as the runner dives in unimpeded.
A second fun game with Simmons highlights is to stand up and act out the situation he's in, and try to imagine your body doing what he does. When I act this out, my instinct is to catch the ball, try helplessly to reach back across the front of my body and apply a tag, miss the runner by about four feet as I tumble away, strain a muscle in my neck and go on the disabled list. What happens instead is that Simmons redirects all that energy into a kind of a lower-body spin. He starts to crank his right leg around, and he extends the left one all the way out so that when he lands on it he won't fall over that leg but stick into it like a bad pole vault. He plants into that left foot, carries the momentum of the right leg around, and drops a tag on Jean Segura's rump.
A third fun game with Simmons highlights is to find the frame that would look, out of context, the least like the way baseball is normally played. The rump tag is it:
This, of course, is more than a highlight about his range. It's really a highlight about a decision, a gamble, about a guy who treats defense as if it's the offense, and the game is measured in outs.
You've seen a ball hit roughly like this to roughly this location with a runner on second and two outs about a million times, and one of two things always happens: the ball gets through, the run scores, and the announcer talks about how important it is to at least knock the ball down so that the runner has to hold at third; or the fielder dives, knocks the ball down, the runner holds at third, and the announcer talks about how important it was to knock the ball down so that the runner had to hold at third. Simmons could have easily dived and knocked this ball down. He would have held the runner at third. He would have been praised.
Instead, he just goes for it. He knows to the inch what his range is, and he knows if he gets to it he's going to be in a position where he can spin and get an actual throw off in case the runner has rounded the bag. Which the runner has done. Because the runner looked at the play, played Fun Simmons Game No. 1, and knew there was no way Simmons was going to make this play:
For that matter, check out the third baseman on this play, who is eight feet away from the bag when Simmons turns to make his throw, which, by the way, was perfectly on target even though the third baseman was too surprised to be in position.
It's just a phenomenally aggressive play by Simmons. I tend to think of defense as if it's a fishing net, where the fielders are trying to catch as much stuff as they can and let as little get through as possible. Simmons is more like a spear gun, out there just hunting down outs and impaling their guts.
Also, check out that range!
His bare hand
Note the faint voice in the background, mid-play: "What a play."
For your average great defensive shortstop, you'd say something like "this really showcases everything that makes him great in the field" -- the quick jump on the ball, the smooth adjustment when the ball gets diverted by the mound, the barehanded pickup, the strong and accurate throw. But this play captures maybe a quarter of what makes Simmons great in the field. He is probably also the best jump-thrower in the game right now, probably better than any shortstop at going back on pop-ups, perhaps the quickest to get to his feet from a diving or sliding stop. This throw home on a relay was, at 95.4 mph, the third-hardest throw by a shortstop in the Statcast era. I think he might be as quick on tags as Javier Baez. He can outsmart umpires. He can throw from his butt. He's good.
If you do Fun Simmons Game No. 2 for this play, you'll notice that you try to throw the ball off your left foot, not your right. Try it. See? You reach down, you plant off your left foot, and you kind of throw from a leap across your body. Simmons doesn't do that. He uses that quick step off the left foot to balance and square his body, then drives hard off the right foot to get power on the throw. I think that's the difference between you and Simmons.
Glove flips are always good highlights -- using a glove for a throw is as cute as using a throwing hand as a glove -- but the key here is really the way he lands before the flip. From the moment he takes off in his dive for the ball, he's already thinking about how to position his body to get a throw off when he lands. To do that, and to do it in time for a double play, he needs to keep his body from doing what bodies always do on extension dives. He needs to keep his upper half off the ground.
One suspects it takes incredible strength to do that. I just did Fun Simmons Game No. 2 for that play, and even at the one-quarter speed required for me to mimic it at all, my arms and elbows crumpled into my torso, burying any chance of a glove flip. But there's a frame in that highlight clip, between 0:10 and 0:11, where you see Simmons' arms and wrists bear all the weight of his dive and lock up, brand new brakes on brand new tires stopping everything with a thick snarl. It's the difference between a strong, accurate flip and a desperation one, between the double play and a simple fielder's choice.
Here's an advanced defensive stat about Simmons: Since 2013, his first full season, he has the four best years by a shortstop, according to defensive runs saved. His lone season that isn't at the top of the leaderboard ranks 10th. If the stats are right, he's every bit as dominant with the glove as Clayton Kershaw is on the mound, and as Mike Trout is overall.
Most of the time, we need stats to reassure us that our eyes don't deceive us. With Simmons, it's flipped: The defensive stats are so sensational, so extreme, that we really shouldn't believe them. Until we watch, and the numbers make perfect sense.
Thanks to MLB Advanced Media for research assistance.