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Braves Extension Analysis: Andrelton Simmons

Andrelton Simmons has fewer than 200 major-league plate appearances. So why am I proposing that the Braves consider signing him to a long-term extension? It's simple: positional and defensive value.

Wow. Just... wow.
Wow. Just... wow.
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

This is the last in my series on possible extensions for the Braves' young core players. Here are the links to part one (on Martin Prado, alas), part two (Jason Heyward), part three (Freddie Freeman), part four (Kris Medlen), part five (Craig Kimbrel), and part six (Mike Minor). In the last post, by the way, just 45% of TC readers favored extending Minor at the cost I proposed ($17.5M over 5 years).

This post is premature, I'll admit. As impressive as Andrelton Simmons' debut season was, it was also very brief. In addition, we only have two seasons' worth of minor-league numbers (and only about a half-season in the high minors) with which to judge Simmons' capabilities.

Throw in the fact that Simmons was never a top-50 prospect and there just doesn't seem to be much reason to extend him now. The Braves will likely wait at least a year before trying to sign him long-term.

And yet... I can't help but think that, aside from Jason Heyward, Simmons is the Braves' most valuable long-term asset, and in terms of risk and reward, perhaps the best extension candidate. The suppositions behind this idea (I wouldn't quite dignify them as "reasons") are based on Simmons' ability to provide significant positional and defensive value. A quality defensive shortstop who can also hit a little is worth his weight in gold*, after all.

* Actually, that's an underestimate--Simmons' weight in gold is only worth around $4 million.

The extension that I will be proposing will buy out all 6 of Simmons' years of team control (2013-18), plus two team option years (2019 & 2020). I'll use the same three criteria from the previous posts to determine a fair value for the contract:

  • What is the player's present value?
  • What are the chances that he can maintain this value in the future?
  • How much did comparable players make in their extensions?

Let's start with the first question, which is actually the most difficult one to answer in this case:

What is Simmons' Present Value?

As alluded to above, we really don't have much to go on here, statistically speaking. A third of an MLB season doesn't tell us much of anything about a player's hitting ability (to say nothing of defensive numbers, which should just be ignored with that sample size).

Still, it's worth at least a cursory review of what Simmons has done so far:

182 3 .310 6.6% 11.5% .289 .335 .416 .324 102

Those rate stats are quite good by the standards of Simmons' position. MLB shortstops last year hit just .257 / .310 / .378, so a roughly league-average performance like that line above is impressive. The big question, of course, is whether Simmons can repeat (or improve upon) those numbers.

While Simmons wasn't in the minors for long, his statistics there are right in line with his MLB numbers. Of course, we should be conservative here, given the lack of evidence. Let's say that Simmons is just an average hitter for a shortstop; that'd be around a .300 wOBA (86 wRC+). Even that level of hitting still has a good deal of value, of course. Assuming average defense, that'd be worth around 2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in a full season.

Of course, few of you reading this would assume that Simmons' defense is average. Just about every scout who has watched Simmons play shortstop comes away raving at his defensive abilities. It's worth noting that my "eye test" fully agrees with these assessments. Many players with glowing defensive scouting reports turn out to be just average, or worse, when I actually get to see them play regularly. But Simmons has lived up to the hype.

I hesitate to even mention Simmons' defensive numbers. They are literally incredible. If taken at face value, his UZR from last season (+10) implies that he's the best shortstop in history--that's +32 runs in a full season. Even more ludicrous is his DRS rating (+19!), which, if true, would mean that he would save 60 runs per year. For perspective, Ozzie Smith's best 3-year total* is "only" +64 runs.

* Using Total Zone, since DRS and UZR don't go back that far.

Let's apply the first rule of defensive statistics: regress to the mean. Doing so (using 3 full seasons as the minimum standard) gives us a very rough estimate of +5 runs/year for Simmons' defensive value. Between my eyes and the scouting reports, I'd be willing to bet that his numbers end up being (much) better than that estimate, but given the sample size, any estimate at all is a stretch.

Adding +5 defense to our conservative estimate of Simmons' offensive contributions, we get a roughly +2.5-win player. That performance would be worth around $12 million per season on the open market.

In Simmons' case, however, I'm not sure present value means anything. After all, this extension will run for at least six seasons... which is far, far longer than Simmons has been in MLB (or pro baseball, for that matter). We'll probably get a better idea of his value by looking at what similar players have done in the past. On to the comparables!

What are the chances Simmons will maintain (or improve) his value?

Some of the same sample-size issues will inevitably plague any search for players comparable to Simmons. However, by making some broad (and non-controversial) assumptions, we can get a good list of players. Not as good as the lists I've come up with for some of the other players, perhaps, and not as good as a list that I might make a year from now... but good enough to learn something.

I searched for players who posted a roughly average OPS+ (between 90 and 110; Simmons was at 101 last year) and who had positive defensive value in their age-22 seasons (Simmons turned 23 last September). I also restricted the list to the defense-heavy up-the-middle positions (catcher, 2nd base, shortstop, and center field).

I found 20* players fitting those criteria since 1975, ranging from Barry Larkin to Ruben Mateo. The full list is here--while not as impressive as Jason Heyward's list, it's still a good group of comps.

* There were also three others who were too recent to include in the study: Starlin Castro, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Troy Tulowitzki. That's some pretty good company.

Here are the average totals that the 20 players complied in their age-22 seasons. I've added Simmons' numbers for comparison. The 3 right columns pro-rate the WAR and run totals to 600 PAs (roughly a season's worth), though I've left Simmons' pro-rated WAR and fielding runs cells blank because of the silliness of his 2012 DRS.

PA WAR Rbat Rfld BA OBP SLG WAR/600 Rbat/600 Rfld/600
Comps 428 2.3 +1 +5 .281 .341 .406 3.3 +2 +7
Simmons 182 2.8* -1 +19 .289 .335 .416 ??? -3 ???

* This is the B-Ref WAR; Simmons clocked in at 2.2 WAR in FanGraphs' version.

Overall, the comp group was very similar to Simmons in terms of hitting performance. In terms of fielding, of course, it's harder to tell... But we did estimate Simmons' regressed defensive value at around +5 runs above, and the comp group averaged +5, so I'll say it's close enough.

So how did the comparison group fare in their age-23 through age-28 seasons? Here are the same stats for those six-year periods:

PA WAR Rbat Rfld BA OBP SLG WAR/600 Rbat/600 Rfld/600
Comps 2968 15.1 +23 +10 .272 .339 .415 2.8 +3 +2

Overall, the group maintained roughly the same level of performance. They hit a bit better (despite a drop in batting average) but fielded a bit worse. Both of those results make sense given what we know about typical aging patterns.

In the six years, the players averaged about 2.5 WAR per season, or slightly better than an average regular player. Five of the twenty players played at an All-Star level throughout (totaling at least 24 WAR, or 4 per season). Another eight players were above-average regulars (between 12 & 24 WAR, or 2-4 per season). Five players were between 7 and 10 WAR, which is about equivalent to a solid role player.

Only two players were failures: Rocco Baldelli* (4 WAR), who was derailed by injury and illness; and Mateo, the former top-10 prospect who flamed out immediately after his decent age-22 year. That's just a 10% failure rate, which is about as good as it gets. Compare that to the implied success rate of around 65% (13/20 above-average players). You can see the full results here.

* Baldelli was also one of the only 2 failures on Heyward's comparables list... The poor guy is now the all-purpose "not everything works out" example for young, promising players.

Based on this evidence, it's fair to say that Simmons is an excellent bet to be a valuable player going forward. His best comp may be another Braves shortstop: Rafael Furcal. I'd say Simmons has better defensive range, but Furcal is faster. Other than that, they have similar skillsets: cannon arms, gap power, just-OK walk rates, etc. Furcal has a career wRC+ of exactly 100, which is more or less what I expect from Simmons.

Furcal, for the record, was worth 21 WAR in his age 23-28 seasons, or about 3.5 WAR per season. If I had to guess, that'd be my median projection for Simmons, too. I believe that his defense is good enough to give him a leg up on most of his comparables.

However, let's stick with the more conservative (and more defensible) projection that Simmons will be a 2.5 WAR/year going forward. In that case, he'd be worth around $12M per season in free agency. Applying that to our proposed extension, using the 40/60/80 arbitration rule and assigning token pre-arbitration raises, we get a total guaranteed contract value of around $26M.

Next up, let's see how reasonable that amount is compared to recent extensions.

How much did players like Simmons get for their extensions?

I searched for players who received an extension at similar points in their careers. The most similar deals are probably those given to Starlin Castro, Carlos Santana, Salvador Perez, Jose Tabata, Denard Span, and Chris Young. The table below shows how these players had performed before the extension as well as the stats on the contracts themselves (TOs = team option years):

Stats at time of extension Extension Details
Player Age^ Tot. WAR WAR/600 Yrs til FA Yrs/TOs Tot. $ Avg. Post-FA $
S. Castro 22 7.9 2.5 4 7 / 1 $60M $10M
C. Santana 25 5.2 3.7 5 5 / 1 $21M $12M (TO)
S. Perez 21 1.4 5.3 6 5 / 3 $7M $5.5M (TOs)
Tabata 22 0.9 0.7 5 6 / 3 $15M $4.5M
Span 25 7.9 4.4 5 5 / 1 $16.5M $9M (TO)
C. Young 23 0.7 0.6 5 5 / 1 $28M $11M (TO)
Average 23 4.0 2.9 5 5.5 / 2 $24.6M $8.7M
Simmons 22 2.8 ---- 6 ?? ?? ??

^ This is the player's age during the last season before the deal. Castro and Tabata signed late in the season, so I treated them as if they had signed just after the season.

The average of these deals gets us right in the ballpark of the $26M I estimated in the previous section.

The Perez contract is the most interesting for our purposes, since it was signed at a similar point in the player's career. That deal looks like a gigantic bargain. Even guaranteeing the 6th year so that the structure lines up with our proposed Simmons extension, we're only looking at about $11M guaranteed*. If the Braves can sign Simmons for anything close to that, they should do it yesterday.

* The same team is paying Jeff Francoeur $7.5M this season. Dayton Moore is weird.

Realistically, though, I think it'll take something closer to the average value to sign Simmons. He could easily ask for even more than that. I'd project something like this as a deal that both sides might be happy with:

  • $1M each in 2013-15
  • $4M in 2016
  • $6M in 2017
  • $8M in 2018
  • $12M team options for 2019 & 2020 ($1M buyout each)

That works out to a total of $22M guaranteed over 6 years, with a chance for the contract to be worth as much as $43M over 8 years. Simmons gets security for life; the Braves lock in a core player for many years to come. It's a win-win.

As I said at the top, it's probably a year too early for serious extension talks. Very few players get extended with less than a year's MLB experience. Assuming Simmons has a solid year in 2013, though, I'd guess that he and the team will work something out next offseason.

Judging from the research in this post, Braves fans should be quite pleased if that happens.

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