A SULTRY AUGUST night in Atlanta, top of the 14th inning in a game between the Braves and Nationals, runners at first and second, one out. At the plate Washington's Craig Stammen squares to bunt, and the second he pivots toward the pitch, Andrelton Simmons breaks from his position at shortstop to cover third base—the classic wheel-play defense on a sacrifice bunt attempt. Simmons is accelerating toward third when Stammen pulls back on his bunt, swings away and swats a slow chopper up the middle. Simmons's momentum is carrying him toward third, but he reverses course, scrambles toward the ball and, after eluding the base runner barging from second to third, gloves it at the edge of the dirt near second base. Now gliding toward the bag for the force-out, he rotates his torso so he's facing first base, positioning himself to do the utterly impossible: turn a double play. As the runner from first barrell-slides into second, Simmons taps the base with his right foot, leaps over the runner and, in midair, somehow slings the ball to first even as his weight is being pulled into rightfield. The throw is close to perfect, and Stammen is out at first by a half step. The Braves are out of the inning.
Another night. Another Andrelton Moment.
FORGET, FOR A MINUTE, Miguel Cabrera's quest for a second straight Triple Crown. Hold that thought on Chris Davis's pursuit of Roger Maris's American League record of 61 home runs. Clayton Kershaw's run at the most dominant season by a pitcher since Bob Gibson's in 1968? Save that for another day. For there is another ballplayer having a magical, historic season, a young shortstop from the Caribbean island of Cura√ßao who's straining to hit .250 yet is the most indispensable player on one of the best teams in baseball. Barely 24, he is already the top defensive shortstop in the game, and a sleeper candidate for National League MVP. (Yes, you can make that argument.) He has the arm of Cal Ripken Jr., the range of Ozzie Smith, the balletic footwork of Roger Federer. And he's the face of a new generation of shortstops who can take over games through run prevention rather than run production.
Simmons performs so many lunges, splits, contortions, reverse thrusts, backward skips and midair turns in the name of getting outs that Turner Field can feel like a venue for Cirque du Soleil. Anyone who has watched the Braves regularly since Simmons's arrival in the big leagues a year ago has experienced an Andrelton Moment. "Your mouth opens, you turn to the person next to you, shake your head and think to yourself, So it's humanly possible to do that?" explains Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, Simmons's double-play partner. "These moments, they happen almost every day."
"Do I see Ozzie in this kid?" asks Atlanta first base coach Terry Pendleton, invoking the no-surname-necessary Cardinals Hall of Famer who is still the paragon of shortstop excellence. "Yes, I do."
Simmons has yet to play a full major league season, but it's not just old-school baseball men who compare him with alltime greats. A recent column at the analytics-based site Fangraphs began with a lofty question: "Is Andrelton Simmons having the greatest defensive season ever?" It concluded, after enough math to support a graduate-school dissertation, that "there's a not-completely-stupid argument to be made that 2013 Andrelton Simmons is having the best defensive season ever."
FOR MUCH OF THE game's history the archetypal shortstop had a slight frame and limited pop at the plate: Pee Wee Reese, Luis Aparicio, Smith. The arrival in the early 1980s of Ripken—who at 6'4" was the tallest shortstop ever and was able to mash like a corner outfielder—broke the mold. Ripken paved the way for the slugging shortstops of the 1990s: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra. Then, in the 2000s, an athletic and offensively versatile group headed by Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki flourished.
Reyes, now with the Blue Jays, and Ramirez, with the Dodgers, are still among the bigger stars in the game, but they are entering their 30s. The Rockies' Tulowitzki, who turns 29 next month, is the game's best all-around shortstop, but he has struggled to stay healthy and has played 140 games just once since 2009. With those players nearing the backstretch of their careers, a crop of 25-and-under shortstops is poised to take over. The torchbearers are Simmons, who is a lock to win the first Gold Glove at the position by a Brave, and Jose Iglesias, 23, the Cuban fielding whiz who was traded from the Red Sox to the Tigers in July and draws comparisons with Omar Vizquel. The Rangers, the American League's winningest team over the last three seasons, have an embarrassment of riches at the position. Elvis Andrus, 25, whom Texas signed to an eight-year, $120 million extension in April, is a career .273 hitter with just five home runs since the beginning of the 2012 season, but he is among the best fielding shortstops in the AL. The Rangers also have Jurickson Profar, 20, who has spent more time at second base and in the outfield and has struggled at the plate as a rookie this season, but was rated as the top prospect in all of baseball when the year began.
Shortstops such as Simmons, Iglesias and Andrus are nudging the position back toward its defensive roots: Each can take over a game with his glove alone, a skill that has assumed greater importance as scoring has declined. (The major league average of 4.2 runs per game this season is the lowest since 1991.) The Braves' lineup is stocked with quality hitters such as Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, but it's Simmons who is the team's most valuable player as measured by Wins Above Replacement. With 21 games to play, Simmons was batting only .253 and had an OPS (.691) below league average, but according to the website Baseball Reference he had a WAR of 6.1, nearly two wins better than the next-closest Brave (Freeman, at 4.2). The coaches in Atlanta, which led the NL East by 13 games, agree. They call Simmons the Reason—because, says Pendleton, "He's the reason why we are where we are."
The Tigers see similar ability in Iglesias, whom they grabbed in the most underrated move made before the July 31 trade deadline. With starting shortstop Jhonny Peralta likely to be suspended in the Biogenesis PED scandal, general manager Dave Dombrowski struck a three-team deal with Boston and the White Sox to land Iglesias. (Peralta received a 50-game ban on Aug. 5.) Dombrowski had coveted Iglesias since his defection from Cuba in 2009. "We really liked his makeup, we really liked his defensive abilities, the only question we had about him was how much he was going to hit," says the G.M., who was outbid when Iglesias signed with Boston for a $6 million bonus and a four-year, $8.3 million contract. One scout who'd seen Iglesias with the Red Sox told Dombrowski that there were only two shortstops he'd ever seen who were better with the glove: Smith and Vizquel.
The Red Sox, who received righthander Jake Peavy in the deal, were willing to part with Iglesias because they had 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings. Bogaerts, who made his big league debut on Aug. 20, is no Iglesias, but he is above average defensively, and some scouts call him a more explosive version of Hanley Ramirez at the plate. As the trade was being completed, Boston G.M. Ben Cherington said to Dombrowski over the phone, "You've seen a lot of shortstops over the years. But [Iglesias] makes plays you've never seen before."
Dombrowski was sitting in the stands at U.S. Cellular Field last month when Iglesias made perhaps the most spectacular defensive play of the season, even more so than the aforementioned Simmons gem. White Sox catcher Josh Phegley hit a broken-bat chopper up the middle that sneaked past Detroit starter Doug Fister. Iglesias charged forward and to his left, shifted right, barehanded the grounder as he fell to the grass and, while nearly horizontal in the air, sidearmed the throw to first in time to get Phegley. The play encapsulated what makes Iglesias the AL's answer to Simmons: his quickness, his reflexes (he reached back to his right to grab the deflected ball) and his arm. After the game Tigers rightfielder Torii Hunter called it the best play he'd ever seen in person.
The Tigers are growing accustomed to such acrobatics: After Iglesias turned an improbable double play at Fenway Park last week, Cabrera stood on the top step of the visitors' dugout and thanked the Boston fans behind him for the trade that delivered the shortstop to Detroit. Teammates call Iglesias Candelita, or Little Fire, and he fits with the Tigers like the last piece of a puzzle. "He brings a different energy, a young guy with a hop in his step," says Dombrowski. "With our pitching staff, in close games he can make a difference for us from a defensive perspective, because he'll make plays Jhonny didn't make."
Both Simmons and Iglesias are regulars on the nightly highlight reels. But they rate highly in advanced defensive metrics because they also make the routine plays more often than other players. That more than makes up for weakness at the plate. Iglesias is batting .296 this season, but in the minors he was a .257 hitter in over 1,200 plate appearances, and this year's outburst is probably an aberration (not to mention an unexpected bonus). "With these guys, it is a question of how much you hit—in today's game, you can't hit .180," says Dombrowski. "But there are also a few guys who are so exceptional with the glove they make up for it."
THERE'S AN OLD Ozzie Smith story that Terry Pendleton likes to tell. It was early in the 1984 season. Pendleton was a rookie third baseman for the Cardinals, while Smith, then 29, was on his way to becoming one of the most popular and famous shortstops ever to play the game. During one game there was a lazy pop-up to third. Pendleton made the catch with his right arm at his side, a routine play to everyone in the ballpark—except Smith. "The ball's barely in my glove," recalls Pendleton, "and Ozzie starts screaming, 'I don't know who you think you are, I don't know where you came from, but around here we get underneath the ball, we catch it with two hands!' All I wanted to do was get off the field."
Pendleton, who went on to a 15-year All-Star career and was the 1991 NL MVP with the Braves, told that story in the dugout at Turner Field one August afternoon. He was gazing out at the sun-baked infield, watching Simmons take batting practice. "Ozzie expected the best out of everyone, just like he expected the best out of himself," says Pendleton. "Even with his stature, if he felt there was something he needed to get better at, he'd be out there early. I see that with Andrelton. This kid works his butt off."
In fewer than 200 career games, Simmons has already amassed a career's worth of highlight plays. Last month against the Cardinals he sprinted toward the wall behind third base, taking an astonishing 19 steps before sliding to his knees, with his back to the infield, to catch a foul pop. "He made a play in Philadelphia where the ball takes a vicious topspin hop and he just goes down and picks it as if it's nothing," says Pendleton. When the hitter, Phillies first baseman Kevin Frandsen, walked onto the field after the inning, he barked to Pendleton, "You tell that kid that is not that easy."
It looks as if Simmons was born to play shortstop in the big leagues, but in fact it's almost a fluke that he does. Four years ago he was virtually unknown to most major league teams. Kurt Russell, the head coach at Western Oklahoma State, a junior college, was wrapping up a recruiting trip in Cura√ßao when he asked if there was anyone else he should see. "There's this kid, pretty good shortstop, named Andrelton," the coaches told him.
Simmons was 19 at the time, finished with high school and working as a file clerk. He was skinny and frail but had a natural feel with the glove. Russell brought him to Altus, Okla., bulked him up by 25 pounds, and suddenly Simmons was regularly clocking 95 to 98 mph as a pitcher. He was also making amazing plays at short. "I never even wanted to tell people the stories, because they were never going to believe them," says Russell. There was the time Simmons was slipping on a wet field and had to throw a ball to first base between his legs. And there was the time the leftfielder lost a high fly ball in the lights and Simmons ran to the outfield and made a catch while sliding into the warning track.
How did Simmons slip through the cracks? Before the 2010 season he fractured a bone in his foot and missed much of Western Oklahoma State's schedule. By the end of the year only four big league scouting directors had seen him play, and even they weren't sure what to make of him: He threw that mid-90s fastball from the mound but always told teams he was a shortstop.
"I hear about his natural athleticism all the time," says Russell, "but if you watched him, he really never seemed to be an unbelievable athlete. Jumping over hurdles, doing plyos, it was never, Damn, that guy's got spring. But get him on the field, and he can turn his body and do things because his core strength is unbelievable. When he dives, when he hops up to his feet, he's not using his hands to get up. That's not athleticism; that's core strength."
Simmons says his seemingly mystical ability to retrieve every ball off every bad hop comes from the thousands of hours he put in taking ground balls on the pebble-strewn dirt fields in Cura√ßao. His knees are covered with scars from all the dives and tumbles he took growing up. "There was never such a thing as a good bounce," he says. "You had to react to bad bounces constantly—it was good to learn how to use one hand."
To generate power Simmons throws overhand, which is unusual for a shortstop. ("It's the way I imagine Broadway Joe [Namath] threw it—to the ear, and then boom, it's gone," says Uggla.) He began long-tossing as a teenager in Cura√ßao; at 14 he was throwing balls as far as 300 feet. He still long-tosses about once a week, sometimes from foul pole to foul pole. Simmons's arm strength allows him to play deeper at short and get longer looks at balls; often when the Braves play the infield in, they let Simmons play at his regular depth. "The most impressive thing is when he's deep in the hole," says Uggla. "You see the guys start coasting into first, and then you see the state of panic when they see the bazooka, because there's no way the ball should be coming back to first that hard. Guys are learning. When you hit a ball to Andrelton, you better be busting your ass to first."
In 2008 the analyst Tom Tango presented a study on aging curves in which he found that shortstops tend to peak defensively between 22 and 24 and no later than 28. (Hitters are believed to peak in their late 20s.) Simmons laughs at the notion that he won't be significantly improved as a player, even on defense, years from now. "I've got a lot to learn," he says. "Positioning, figuring out hitters' tendencies—these are all things I can improve on." He is so obsessed with working on his craft that during spring training the Braves had to "shut him down," says Pendleton. "We don't have him come out anymore for extra work, because he wears himself out. I tell him all the time, 'Dude, we need you fresh. It's a long season.' "
The Braves and the Tigers enter the season's final three weeks with comfortable leads in their divisions—but ending the year with anything other than a championship parade would be a disappointment for either team. Their young shortstops will be front and center in the postseason, when the games are low-scoring and the margins razor-thin. One or two defensive plays can swing a game in October, something the Braves know all too well: In last year's NL wild-card game, their loss to the Cardinals was due partly to throwing errors by Uggla, Chipper Jones—and Simmons, who was playing in his first postseason after making his major league debut in June and playing just 49 regular-season games.
This October offers a chance at redemption for both the Braves and Simmons. It could also bring about a reunion of sorts for the shortstop and some of his old friends from Cura√ßao. Didi Gregorius, the 23-year-old rookie shortstop for the Diamondbacks, who entered September on the fringes of the NL wild-card race, was Simmons's double-play partner on Marchena Hardware, a youth team in Cura√ßao, for 10 years. And as kids Simmons and Profar played soccer against each other—"I always beat him," professes Simmons—and pitched to each other on scrub fields with balls made of socks wrapped in tape. Simmons and Bogaerts, who's from the neighboring island of Aruba and has been playing both short and third for the AL East--leading Red Sox, are also friends. "Somehow, through all the years, we all pushed each other," says Simmons. "We're all still pushing each other. We all think we're the best—we all want to be the best."
Right now there's no doubt about who's the best. It is the shortstop who has provided more moments than any other player this summer, the one who is taking grounders on this hot afternoon at Turner Field, diving, tumbling, bare-handing balls and slinging them from all angles. It is several hours before the first pitch, and Simmons is barking, "One more! One more!" to the coach who's been hitting to him for 15 minutes. Pendleton grabs his fungo bat and walks away, pretending not to hear. And with that the young shortstop jogs off the field with a dirtied uniform, content with the promise of another night, and everything beyond.
"IS ANDRELTON SIMMONS HAVING THE GREATEST DEFENSIVE SEASON EVER?" ASKS ONE ANALYTICAL WEBSITE. THE CONCLUSION: THERE'S A SOLID CASE THAT HE IS.
"IN TODAY'S GAME YOU CAN'T HIT .180," SAYS DOMBROWSKI. "BUT THERE ARE ALSO A FEW GUYS WHO ARE SO EXCEPTIONAL WITH THE GLOVE THEY MAKE UP FOR IT."
Your eyes tell you Andrelton Simmons is having a spectacular season in the field—and advanced metrics back you up. Take defensive runs saved, a stat that measures how many more plays a defender makes than the average player at his position. Simmons isn't simply the year's best shortstop. He's having the best defensive season since 2003, the first year with data available.
Who's the ideal shortstop: a glove man or a big hitter? It depends on the era. The position prototype has swung back and forth between offense and defense.
1900 to 1950
Some of the top offensive players of the early 20th century are shortstops: Luke Appling, Arky Vaughan and one of the best at any position, Honus Wagner.
1950 TO 1985
The golden age of good-field-no-hit: The position is dominated by light-hitting defensive wizards. Think Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger and the most wizardlike of all—Ozzie Smith.
1985 TO 2010
SLUGGING IT OUT
Cal Ripken Jr. ushers in the age of the shortstop masher: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra, Barry Larkin.
2010 TO ??
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In an era of decreased scoring, Andrelton Simmons, Jose Iglesias, Elvis Andrus and Didi Gregorius make the game safe for glove-first shortstops.
Illustration by STEPHEN SKALOCKY
MARC SEROTA/GETTY IMAGES; DANIEL SHIREY/USA TODAY SPORTS; MIKE STOBE/GETTY IMAGES; POUYA DIANAT/ATLANTA BRAVES/GETTY IMAGES
ERIK S. LESSER/EPA/LANDOV
Jose Igelsias Tigers
NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (WAGNER)
MANNY MILLAN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SMITH)
JOHN IACONO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RIPKEN)
Illustration by STEPHEN SKALOCKY
PAT SULLIVAN/AP (ANDRUS)
Elvis Andrus Rangers
Illustration by STEPHEN SKALOCKY
MARK J. TERRILL/AP (PROFAR)
Jurickson Profar Rangers