Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons is equally adept at ranging to his left and right or charging ground balls on the run. He's like a fourth outfielder, with his ability to pursue pop flies and catch them without necessarily seeing them. He makes the Derek Jeter-patented pirouette play as well or better than the Captain ever did. And every throw he unleashes seems to arrive chest-high with Shawon Dunston-caliber authority.
In performing all of those wondrous feats, Simmons skews reality to the point where the people around him each day are forced to re-evaluate their definition of extraordinary or eye-catching or "special.''
Ask Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez or other Atlanta players about the latest addition to Simmons' forehead-slapping catalog, and chances are they have already discussed the play ad nauseam in the dugout, the clubhouse, on a charter flight or in a hotel lobby. Sometimes Simmons doesn't even have to record an out to make a lasting impression.
One such play occurred during the Braves' recent trip to Toronto. A Devon Travis ground ball skipped past Atlanta third baseman Chris Johnson and was bound for the left-field corner when Simmons, leaving a cloud of pebbles in his wake, burst into the picture and made a sliding stop on the Rogers Centre turf. He quickly sprang to his feet and threw to second base to turn a sure double into a single.
"You forget how tough those plays are,'' Gonzalez said. "Sometimes I forget to give him a high-five in the dugout, and I'll apologize. I'll ask him, 'Was that tough?' It's hard to know what's tough [for him] anymore.''
Gonzalez has a stock response when people ask him for the best play he's ever seen Simmons make. "The next one,'' he says, smiling. Some of Simmons' teammates, who aren't as well-versed in the drill, resort to inventing superlatives on the fly.
"He makes great plays that we basically ignore,'' Johnson said, "because we're so used to him making the 'Oh my god' play.''
In this, his fourth season in Atlanta, Simmons continues to redefine excellence when gauged by the eye test or any statistical measure available. He already leads the majors in defensive runs saved (plus-8), according to Baseball Info Solutions, and he helped convert an otherworldly 19 double plays in his first 22 opportunities this season. He is well on his way to another Web Gem-laden, 162-game monument to defensive excellence.
Simmons, 25, has reached the point where it's no longer sacrilegious to refer to him as a budding defensive Jedi Master in the Ozzie Smith or Omar Vizquel mold. The only question is whether Simmons can stay healthy and extend a relatively brief run of transcendent play into a 15-year legacy, while subtly making changes and improvements to take his game to greater heights.
In the visiting clubhouse in Philadelphia over the weekend, Simmons reflected on the reputation he has forged and the road he's traveling. It's less a matter of counting Gold Gloves (he already has two) than tending to his growth curve and building on his God-given abilities.
In the offseason, Simmons returns home to his native Curacao and spends time with his father, Elston, who hits him ground balls and pop flies and helps reinforce the work ethic that landed him a seven-year, $58 million contract extension in 2014. His dad was a steady voice and source of guidance back in the youth league days, when young Andrelton was learning to play ball with the likes of future big leaguers Kenley Jansen and Didi Gregorius.
Simmons studies video of himself and his shortstop contemporaries with a critical eye, constantly probing for subtle adjustments that might give him an additional edge. He played soccer and basketball as a youth, and he learned that footwork was paramount in each sport. If his feet can't put him in the proper position to field a ground ball, the softness of his hands or strength and accuracy of his throwing arm will be rendered irrelevant.
"I watch videos of myself or other people to see what was done and if it could have been done in a more effective way,'' Simmons said. "If a guy went to the hole and jumped, maybe he should have slid. I'll look at the options and try to figure out the best way to do it sometimes. I'll take a little bit from everybody.
"The thing I'm getting better at is reading hitters. Is a guy's tendency to go the other way, or does he like to 'turn and burn' a little more? Stuff like that helps with positioning. The videos are big. I'll go back and say, 'Why did this happen? My feet weren't set right,' or, 'I was too straight up here.' The video helps me get better.''
Simmons' flair for improvisation occasionally takes him to places that no one expects. In an August 2013 game in Washington, Nationals outfielder Scott Hairston hit a foul pop to the catcher with a runner on third base, and Atlanta trainer Jeff Porter took note that Simmons had sprinted in from his shortstop spot and was covering home plate. Gonzalez refused to believe that was the case until the video confirmed that Porter was correct, and Gonzalez had to pay off on their friendly wager with a bottle of wine.
It's only natural to draw parallels between Simmons covering home plate and Jeter inexplicably standing near home to execute that memorable flip toss to Jorge Posada to nail Jeremy Giambi in the 2001 American League Division Series. But Simmons also has a touch of Steve Nash and Pete Maravich in him.
"He's the best I've ever seen on cutoffs and relays,'' Gonzalez said. "Our infielders have learned that when he gets the ball, you better be paying attention. He'll spin and throw behind the runner at first base, and he's the best at throwing the ball to home plate. We call it 'court awareness,' and he has unbelievable court awareness. He knows where everybody is at every time.
"What makes this guy special is his nose for the ball. He's always looking to make a play. It's mind-boggling. He's a below-average runner and a bad baserunner. And he's a hacker at the plate. But when you put a glove on his hand, he's the best athlete on the field -- or the planet.''
Simmons nurtures his gift and cultivates it with the utmost respect. When asked to list his favorite shortstops, he places Vizquel and Jeter at the top of the list. Ozzie Smith was before his time, but Braves first-base coach Terry Pendleton -- who played with the Wizard in St. Louis for seven years -- passes along stories about the countless hours that Smith invested in making the spectacular seem routine.
By all accounts, Simmons is more than willing to do the necessary grunt work several hours before the first pitch. Johnson occasionally strays toward shortstop and stands behind his infield mate for a better view, and he sees Simmons diligently practicing the sleight of hand and other skills that look so effortless come game time.
Simmons and YouTube were made for each other. When baseball fans can click on a link and access a 30-second video of Atlanta's shortstop making a behind-the-back transfer to himself or find an eight-minute package of 2014 Simmons highlights, it's easy to get spoiled. But Simmons is intent on adhering to his own lofty standards, regardless of what fans or the media or even his fellow players say.
"We were sitting in the video room the other day and they were showing the best plays of the week, and some guy dove for a ball and made a play,'' Pendleton said. "And [Simmons] looks at me and says, 'What was so special about that?'
"That's his mentality. He works hard at it and he wants to be the best at it, but he doesn't want to be acknowledged for it. At the end of the year, when the awards come out? Yeah. But from his demeanor and his makeup, you can tell he doesn't want to talk about it. He'd rather go unnoticed.''
It's long past time for that. Every time Andrelton Simmons takes the field now, his reputation precedes him.