BOCA RATON, Fla. -- When the Rawlings Gold Glove Awards are announced Tuesday night, Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons has every reason to expect good news. He's pocketed the past two National League awards and built a reputation as the gold standard at the position.
But the gap between Simmons and his NL shortstop peers has closed. And sure hands notwithstanding, Simmons' grip on the award might have to be downgraded from "sure thing" to "tenuous."
Amid a focus on advanced defensive metrics and a shift away from the "eye test," the Gold Gloves have lost some luster in recent years. MLB coaches and managers, who vote for the awards, have shown a nettlesome inclination to factor offense into the equation. Critics also have difficulty getting past the 1999 voting fiasco, when Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers captured the AL award at first base despite starting only 28 games at first and 128 games at designated hitter.
Still, the awards have retained their cachet among players, who value the recognition and cherish the hardware.
Simmons is competing with San Francisco's Brandon Crawford and Miami's Adeiny Hechavarria as one of three NL shortstop finalists in the Gold Glove balloting, which will be revealed on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
Throw Arizona's Nick Ahmed, Cincinnati's Zack Cozart and Addison Russell of the Chicago Cubs into the equation, and the level of defensive play at shortstop in the NL is extremely high right now. Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, a two-time Gold Glove winner known for his devotion to fundamentals, raves about the current crop's athleticism and attention to detail.
"I like to watch shortstops pregame when we go out on the road," Bowa said. "All these guys have great work ethics. They take a lot of pride in their ground balls, and they respect every ground ball. I use that word a lot. I've seen guys who treat a two-hopper as something routine, and then -- clank. But these guys are always ready for a bad hop or a bad throw.
"They never drop their heads when they're going out as cutoff men. They're always one step ahead and thinking ahead: 'Who's running? What's the score? Is this a double-play ball?' These guys never make mental mistakes, like throwing to the wrong base or trying to turn a double play when they shouldn't and throwing the ball six rows into the stands. They're well grounded, and they're on top of their games."
Marlins infield instructor Perry Hill, regarded as one of the best in the game at his craft, is similarly high on the new wave.
"Remember when [Derek] Jeter, A-Rod and [Nomar] Garciaparra were all together about 15 years ago?" Hill said. "It's kind of like that now on the flip side -- on the defensive side."
Some advanced defensive metrics help bring context to where the NL's elite shortstops stand in the game's pecking order:
• Crawford ranked first among MLB shortstops in Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) list this season with a plus-22. Simmons (plus-20), Ahmed (plus-19), Hechavarria (plus-14) and Cleveland's Francisco Lindor (plus-13) rounded out the top five.
• Baseball Info Solutions also monitors two categories that it designates as "Good Fielding Plays" and "Defensive Misplays and Errors." Simmons led the shortstop pack this season with 52 Good Fielding Plays, compared to 23 Misplays and Errors, for a ratio of 2.3 good plays per misplay.
Hechavarria, in comparison, was at 45 and 27 -- for a ratio of 1.7 good players per misplay. Crawford came in at 47 and 39 -- for a ratio of 1.2.
• Finally, there's Ultimate Zone Rating, a stat devised by Mitchel Lichtman that measures how fielders compare to league average in terms of run prevention. Simmons (17.3), Hechavarria (15.8) and Crawford (10.9) ranked 1-2-3 in this category among MLB shortstops.
Simmons' preeminence as both a steel trap and a showman are well established. He routinely frustrates opponents and elicits awe among his Atlanta coaches and teammates for his ability to turn the spectacular into the commonplace. As former Braves infielder Chris Johnson observed back in April, "He makes great plays that we basically ignore because we're so used to him making the 'Oh my god' play."
But is Simmons that much better than his Gold Glove counterparts? Hechavarria, who was 23 years old when he broke into the majors with Toronto out of his native Cuba in 2012, has developed into an All-Star-caliber performer in a publicity vacuum in Miami. He's creative enough to warm up by throwing a softball (Hechavarria claims it makes a baseball seem easily controllable in comparison), and he's an absolute wiz at the old Omar Vizquel specialty of going back on pop flies.
"However you want to list the best shortstops -- top five, top three or whatever -- he's on that list," Hill said. "Every year he's gotten better at something. His double-play feeds. His backhand, his footwork. His ceiling is so high. We haven't seen anything close to what this guy is going to be."
Crawford began crafting his narrative back in college at UCLA, where he loved defense so much that Bruins coach John Savage had to drag him off the field and into the batting cage to work on his hitting.
"It doesn't matter if a ball is in the hole, up the middle or a slow roller," Giants bench coach Ron Wotus said in June. "There's no play he can't make."
With the passage of time, baseball is making a greater effort to marry the new numbers with its established defensive awards. In a bow to modern statistical analysis, Rawlings incorporated a 25 percent sabermetric component into the Gold Glove voting in 2013. Defenders around baseball now also compete for the Fielding Bible Awards, which are given out each November by Baseball Info Solutions owner John Dewan and a panel of experts.
Will the Gold Glove electorate kick off awards season by sticking with the script or mixing in a surprise at the marquee position of shortstop? Simmons is at the top of the heap, but Crawford and Hechavarria have ensured that it's no longer a one-man conversation.
"No disrespect to Simmons," Bowa said. "I'm just giving these other guys their accolades. You could put anyone up there and I wouldn't argue with you. I think they're all that good."