Before I launch into any sort of analysis of Andrelton Simmons as a hitter, let's get one thing out of the way. Any production that the Atlanta Braves get out of Simmons at the plate is a bonus. Simmons is baseball's premier defender, and provides unbelievable value with his glove manning baseball's most demanding defensive position.
With that being said, Simmons' 2014 season was a bit of a disappointment. In his debut 2012 season, Simmons surprised many by posting slightly above-average offensive numbers in a 49-game cameo. Despite winning a Carolina League batting title in 2011 and posting solid statistics as the plate at each of his minor league stops, the book on Simmons was that, despite his defensive mastery, his offensive game was going to be rough. So, it was a pleasant surprise to see Simmons bat .289/.335/.416, good for a 103 wRC+, despite a BABIP that didn't seem to be anomalously high. He drew a few walks, showed modest power, and hit for average. This was everything that could have been reasonably expected of Simmons as a hitter and more. It could be said, then, that this debut may have created unrealistic expectations of Andrelton's offensive game.
In 2013, Simmons played his first full season as a big leaguer. If I would've told you before the start of that season that Simmons would have an ISO of .149, hit 17 home runs, and actually reduce his strikeout rate from 11.5% to 8.4%, you might've placed a call to the BBWAA and told them to get their engravers ready to etch Simmons' name onto an MVP plaque.
Well, you would've been wrong. Despite these improvements, Simmons' overall offensive output went south in 2013. Don't get me wrong; he was still plenty valuable. He was worth 4.6 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, and his 91 wRC+, while below-average, was acceptable considering his defensive value. Simmons essentially walked at the same rate as he did the previous year, but his BABIP plummeted from .310 to .247, crippling his average and his ability to reach base. Andrelton pops the ball up frequently on the infield (17.8% in '13, 15.2% career), which is a hindrance to BABIP, and he also hit more fly balls than he did in the previous season in 2013, going from a 27.2% to a 39.1% rate. That'll also suppress BABIP, but this handy expected BABIP calculator suggests that, theoretically, his BABIP should've been .292. A 45-point deviation from what his actual average on balls in play is pretty staggering. xBABIP calculators aren't perfect, and there are some extenuating circumstances that push Simmons' BABIP to be lower than a calculation such as this would suggest (we'll come back to this later), but I think it's fair to say that he was a tad unlucky in that regard in 2013. He could've easily ended up equaling or besting his 2012 offensive output with a bit more luck on his side.
Again, taking all of that into consideration, I think it would've been reasonable to expect a similar offensive campaign for Simmons going into 2014, or perhaps even slight improvement. I don't think many people expected Simmons to duplicate his previous season's power output (this page shows how Andrelton was the beneficiary of some home run fortune, and you can also see how Simmons was below-average in terms of batted ball distance here), but expecting a better average and on-base numbers wouldn't have been at all far-fetched. The evidence suggested that he was in line to see improved batted-ball fortune, and he was also going to be a year older, and theoretically, making more adjustments and improvements at the plate.
Once again, however, you would've been wrong. Take a look at this ugliness, which gives you a sense of how Andrelton has changed as a hitter since his big league debut:
A trend like that certainly isn't what one would hope nor expect from a player going from his age 22 to 24 seasons. Simmons went from being an above-average hitter in his debut season to being the sixth-worst qualified hitter in baseball in 2014, going by wRC+. So, what's happened, and what should we expect from Andrelton at the dish going forward?
While Andrelton did see slight reductions in both his batting average (.248 to .244) and his OBP (.296 to .286) from 2013 to 2014, the integral reason for his poorer production at the plate was the drop-off in his power numbers. Let's look at another chart to see how and why this has happened. For the purposes of this exercise, we'll just look at 2013 and 2014:
|FB%||IFFB%||Average Fly Ball Distance||HR/FB%|
It's odd, isn't it? If you were to just look at the first three statistical measures presented above, it would make sense to expect Simmons' power numbers to stay fairly consistent. Although he hit fewer fly balls in 2014 than he did in 2013, he popped up fewer pitches on the infield, and his average fly ball was hit over 15 feet further in 2014 than it was in the previous season. Despite this, Andrelton's rate of home runs to fly balls dropped significantly, which led to him hitting only seven home runs in 2014, as compared to seventeen in 2013.
If you want to think about something even weirder, here are some players whose fly balls traveled a shorter distance on average than Simmons' last season: Brandon Moss, Brian McCann, Hanley Ramirez, Evan Longoria, Buster Posey, Robinson Cano. If you don't believe me, look here. Simmons' average fly ball distance was 120th out of 298 qualified hitters in 2014, which is certainly not what I expected to find when I set out to write this article. This isn't to say that Andrelton Simmons is a slugger or a player who should be expected to consistently hit 15-20 home runs annually, but I think it's accurate to suggest that he was a bit unlucky in terms of his power production in 2014 after he was the beneficiary of some good fortune in the same department in 2013.
Now, let's circle back to the BABIP issue. In 2014, once again, Andrelton's BABIP (.263) was significantly lower than his expected BABIP (.308). His real BABIP and his xBABIP were higher this season than last year due to his lower rate of infield fly balls and his higher ratio of ground balls to fly balls. Ground balls produce a higher BABIP than fly balls do, and the significant reduction in pop-ups, which are essentially guaranteed outs, also caused his average on balls in play to inch up.
The discrepancies between Simmons' xBABIP and his actual BABIP figures in the past two seasons are interesting cases to consider. Expected BABIP calculators don't account for the "quality" of contact in that they only discern whether a batted ball was a line drive, a fly ball, or a ground ball. If you watched Simmons hit in 2014, you probably wouldn't describe the quality of much of the contact that he made to be good. He was often off-balance at the plate, and he made weak contact with lots of balls outside of the strike zone. Andrelton has shown himself to be a bit of a hacker at the plate, and making contact with pitches outside of the strike zone is largely an unproductive venture. To wit, take a look at where Simmons placed on the line drive percentage leaderboards in 2014. If things for Simmons remain constant in terms of his discernment at the plate, it's safe to expect him to put up lower BABIPs than one would expect, considering his batted ball profile.
Projecting what Andrelton Simmons will do at the plate in 2014 is a difficult venture, in my opinion. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projects Simmons to slash .258/.302/.370, good for an 84 OPS+. Steamer is a bit more bullish, forecasting a .257/.304/.377 line with a 90 wRC+. Both projection systems believe that Simmons' power numbers will see a slight rise in 2015, and I would expect this to occur as well given the evidence that I've lain out. Both projection systems forecast a BABIP right around .270, which seems reasonable.
It's fair to say that Simmons was unlucky at the plate in 2014, but the fact of the matter is that a dramatic rise in production isn't a realistic expectation. I'm interested to see what new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer will do with him. Evidence exists that Seitzer is a very good hitting coach, and his overall offensive philosophy that emphasizes contact could benefit Simmons, given his skill set. Personally, I think that improving his pitch selection (specifically, swinging at more strikes) and improving his balance at the plate could lead to even more improvement than simple regression after a 2014 season that saw Simmons on the rough end of some bad fortune.
Andrelton Simmons isn't a player who should be expected to be much of a contributor with the bat. I'm not sure that he'll be much better than a little worse than average to average, even in his best seasons, but considering his ridiculously valuable glove, that's okay. His terrible offensive numbers greatly stunted his overall value in 2014, but his defensive prowess still propped him up, making him the 12th-most valuable shortstop in baseball out of 22 qualifiers despite ghastly offensive production. It'd be easy to live with Andrelton Simmons as a player who consistently is in the 85-95 wRC+ range most seasons, and I think that's a reasonable expectation going forward.
Only time will tell, but I think a slight bounce-back at the plate is in the cards for Simba in 2015. It's a lot easier to live with a player who's only 10-15% worse than league average at the plate than one who's nearly 30% worse than league average, as Simmons was in 2014, and this is what I expect to happen. It's not exactly replacing Andres Thomas with Babe Ruth, but any offensive improvement will be a welcome sight for the Braves after a completely anemic 2014.