Standing in the Atlanta Braves dugout on Friday afternoon, I asked Fredi Gonzalez to consider his 24-year-old shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, in terms of Ozzie Smith.
This is the comparison many people are reaching for at the moment, and it isn't a question of hyperbole. It's because we simply don't have anyone to compare Simmons to, at the level he is playing defense at shortstop, who's come after Smith.
But still: Simmons is 24. He's entering his second full season. And clearly, the comparison made Gonzalez uncomfortable at first.
"Well, let's wait on that one," Gonzalez said when the Wizard's name came up. "I mean, Ozzie played what, 18, 19, 20 years. And again, I don't like to compare Hall of Famer, 20-year careers to a kid who's played only two. There's still a lot of years, a lot of injuries you've got to get through."
Notice, however, that Gonzalez doesn't make a distinction between Simmons' defensive performance in 2013 and that of Smith. In a league where it takes years to develop a reputation to win a Gold Glove, Simmons took it home in his first full season. There's a clear consensus about Simmons and his defense, and it happened very quickly.
The reason becomes obvious when you watch him -- which is ludicrously fun -- as well as when you take a look at his defensive numbers. My favorite statistical illustration is using Fangraphs to create a list of defensive value created via ultimate zone rating, by all shortstops, since 2002. Simmons, on this list, ranks fourth. But look a little deeper: he's gotten to fourth in just 1934 innings. The three shortstops ahead of him, J.J. Hardy, Jimmy Rollins and Jack Wilson, got to their totals in 9629 innings, 15569 2/3 innings, and 9946 2/3 innings, respectively.
Put it this way: if Simmons merely equals his 2013 defensive prowess in 2014, he'll have accumulated more defensive value that Jimmy Rollins has in his entire career, and will have done so in roughly 20 percent of the innings. And this is not a knock on Rollins. It's representative of how Simmons is only comparable to himself in the recent era. His UZR/150 is 25.2. No one else, since 2012, is as high as 10.
So even Gonzalez, once he got past the discomfort of comparing Simmons to Smith, pointed out what's essentially settled: If he does nothing other than stay healthy, and doesn't improve a bit, he's a Hall of Famer.
"What did Andrelton hit last year, .260? [He finished at .248.] 16, 17 home runs, I don't even know how many RBIs, won the Gold Glove. If he does that for 10 or 12 years, I think that's a hell of a career. For me, he doesn't need to do any more than that... You brought up Ozzie Smith, and his offensive numbers weren't any good until his last six, seven years. And even then, he went into the Hall of Fame as a defensive player. Again, you take Simmons, what he did last year, and pile that up for 15 years? He's gonna be fine."
But naturally, it's easy to dream about exactly how much more Simmons can do, and wonder how he gets there. He just put up an 86 OPS+ at 23, which Smith didn't reach until he was 29. Reaching back into Smith's era for defensive stats makes me uneasy, given the leaps in technology to measure such things. But per Baseball-Reference's dWAR, Smith never managed to match Simmons' 5.4 wins last season. By Fangraphs' defensive ratings, Smith's 1989 is the only year he topped what Simmons did in 2013.
So if he's merely staying healthy and at his current level to be this generation's Ozzie Smith, just how great a player can he be if he figures out how to hit?
Even a league average offensive career would blow away the Wizard, and his career OPS+ of 87. So far in 2014, he's been better than that, with a 116 OPS+ entering Tuesday night's action. For handy reference, Derek Jeter's career OPS+ is 117. So yes, it's obscenely early -- but you try to come up with a comp for a guy who is Ozzie Smith on defense and Derek Jeter on offense.
That said, he's getting there a far different way than Jeter, though. His walk rate was low in 2013, but it's been positively microscopic in 2014, with two free passes, total, in his first 71 plate appearances. He's clearly looking to drive the ball, and last season, that paid off in a limited way, with a .396 slugging percentage. His slugging percentage this season, though, is .507. That'll play.
It isn't coming from any effort, from either Simmons or the coaching staff, to make him into a slugger.
"No, I don't see myself as a power hitter," Simmons said in front of his locker Friday afternoon. "I feel like I should be able to hit balls hard, and hit mistakes. I feel like I'm getting stronger every day. I mean, I should be able to hit a couple home runs, hit the ball in the gap a lot. But I just try to be a line drive guy, to square it up, and hit it hard."
If he's selling out for power -- and let's be clear, a free-swinger last year is offering at 48.6 percent of pitches this year, up from 2013's 46.2 percent -- he's not doing so nearly so often on pitches out of the strike zone. Last year, he hacked at 29.1 percent of pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone. This year, it's 24.5 percent. And he's making up for it by swinging at more pitches in the strike zone. Last year, that number was 63.3 percent. In 2014? 69.8 percent.
"I'm learning," Simmons said of the change. "I'm learning how I used to get outs, pitches that got me in trouble. I know what pitches I can do damage with. And I'm trying to be more selective up there, and trying to swing at my pitches, and not the pitches that get me out."
Again, it's early, but the numbers suggest that's exactly what he's doing. And interestingly, Simmons is a student of video, not just at the plate, but in the field as well. He credits that, along with a full-tilt workout taking ground balls to simulate game speed, with keeping him sharp defensively.
This past offseason, back home in Curacao, the focus was on getting better as a hitter.
"I looked up my videos from the past year, especially the second half when I felt really good," Simmons said. His OPS jumped from .630 last year in the first half to .789 in the second. "I tried to see what I was doing, and keep that in my swing. It took me a little bit in spring training, feeling it on and off, but I'm feeling it again right now. I know what I want to do at the plate, how I should stand, how relaxed I should be. I mean, that's the thing I worked on this offseason."
Simmons made sure he did most of his hitting this winter on a field, rather than in a cage, because he "likes to see how the ball travels." That gave him a place to take his ground balls as well.
He kept in mind something another Brave who began his career at shortstop, Chipper Jones, told him about "landing soft" with his front foot. But he's an amalgamation of approaches, rather than patterning himself after a particular hitter.
"I try to look at a lot of guys," Simmons said. "Whenever we're in the cage, I try to look at all the guys on the team, try to see what they do good and what I can add from their swing or their approach. When I see a similar swing, I try to think about what I can get from that."
This catch-all approach has the full support of his manager, who doesn't think boxing Simmons in will serve him well right now.
"I don't know what he can be," Gonzalez said. "I'm still not sure. He's still a young hitter that's learning as he goes, really, because he really hasn't had much experience hitting. And so for me, I'm wide open. Last year, he hit 17 home runs. So I don't know what he's capable of doing. He puts the ball in play. And sometimes, when you put the ball in play, that ball finds a hole. I couldn't even imagine giving you a power number, a home run number, or a batting average number. He's still a young player."
So what does Simmons himself aim to be?
"To be honest, I just want to make every play on defense, obviously," Simmons said. "I want to feel like I cover all the balls possible." This would sound ludicrous out of the mouth of virtually anybody else, but is a pretty good verbal representation of Simmons defensively at the moment. "And I mean, for me, just getting those big hits and being productive at the plate, no matter where they put me, if it's in the eight-hole, one, five or six, wherever they put me, it's fine.
"I don't have a specific goal. Yeah, if pitchers make mistakes, I feel like I should be able to hit a couple home runs a year. But it's not like 15, or 20, 25, or five. It's just going up there and hitting the ball hard."
It'll be up to the rest of us, then, to chart his progress, and see just how much better Simmons can get. Gonzalez warned against this kind of thinking, however.
"As human beings, we always have a tendency to want more," Gonzalez said. "I mean, last year, Justin Upton hit 27 home runs, drove in almost 80, and hit .270-something. That's a pretty good year. But you talk to some people, and they say he could hit 40, he could hit .320, drive in 120.
"So we always want more. Well, I'm not that type of person. I'm the other way around. Whatever he can give us. Because there's gonna be a point where -- that's all he's got ... There's not a perfect player out there. We all want perfect players. We all want that. And there's not a perfect player. You take what they give you."