I’m old enough to remember Ozzie Smith when he broke in with the Padres. I was a teen-ager and would often see highlights of Ozzie’s defensive gems on This Week in Baseball, and then on ESPN after it launched. Ozzie would move on to St. Louis, where he won the last 12 of his 13 Gold Gloves and cemented his status as one of the two greatest defensive shortstops of at least the second half of the 20th century.
The other was Omar Vizquel, with apologies to Luis Aparicio, whom I’ve only seen on video. Based on what I’ve seen and conversations with others, I’d probably rate him just behind Oz and Vizquel.
Anyway, during my couple of decades as an MLB beat writer, I got to see Vizquel play while he was still near the top of his game. And I saw some other, very good defensively shortstops, including Cal Ripken Jr., a young Alex Gonzalez with the Marlins, a young Edgar Renteria with the Marlins, Jack Wilson, a healthy Rafael Furcal, plus Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins and strong-armed Shawon Dunston.
Which brings us to Andrelton Simmons.
I’ve never seen any shortstop as good defensively as Andrelton Simmons, and I can say that with absolute certainty. The only position player I’ve seen comparable to Simmons defensively was peak-era Andruw Jones in center. That’s it.
But it’s one thing for a longtime beat writer to say it, and quite another for former players to say it. And, so, I went to a couple of former players last week, a couple who’ve seen Simmons play as much as just about anyone has, to ask them about Simmons. Nevermind the fact that Simmons is on pace for his best offensive season, batting a respectable .264 with 15 extra-base hits (three homers), 16 RBIs and a .744 OPS in 37 games. This was strictly a defensive discussion.
It was prompted by the series at Washington just over a week ago, when Simmons made two plays that demonstrated an acute awareness of everything moving on the baseball field, and the speed of said movement. One of the plays also displayed a throwing arm that astounds anyone seeing it at maximum effect for the first time.
“He has things you can’t teach,” said Don Sutton, a Hall of Famer pitcher who played 23 seasons, pitched in four World Series, has been a broadcaster for a quarter of a century, and says he never saw a player more intuitive than Simmons.
“He has things you’re born with,” said Sutton, who watches Simmons nightly as a Braves radio broadcaster. “I think you can only refine those things. To me, his approach to playing shortstop — I used to marvel at Greg Maddux, and then go talk to him and Maddux would say, ‘Well, I just saw it coming.’ And I think the same thing is true with Andrelton Simmons. He has a sense that’s more astounding than a sixth sense, in that he does things that you just can’t anticipate.
“It’s an amazing gift. It’s a remarkable gift. I hope he knows how great it is, and I think he appreciates it.”
I asked Sutton about the best shortstops he played with.
“Robin Yount,” he began. (Bill) Russell was good, but I think he was good – he knew how to play within the framework of his ability. He wasn’t Andrelton Simmons, but he made all the plays he was supposed to make, so he was a good teammate, good to play with, and unselfish.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to see what Dickie Thon could have become. But Robin Yount was the best I ever played with.”
Has he played with or seen players more intuitive or more instinctive than Simmons? No, Sutton said.
“When you put it all together, you look at him and he’s not the fastest guy around,” Sutton said. “But that first step, and that little man inside his head saying ‘lean to the left, lean to the right.’ It’s an amazing combination. I can’t wait to watch the rest of it.”
• The first play at Washington: Fourth inning Friday, Braves led 2-1. Harper singled to center field, ran hard to first and did what most aggressive players do, rounding the base and going 10-15 feet toward second, in case the ball was bobbled or an outfielder was slow getting it in or anything else that might allow the runner to take an extra base.
Only this time, Harper underestimated the guy waiting to take the throw from the outfield. Simmons’ body language didn’t suggest an urgency or intention of doing anything out of the ordinary as he waited. Which was part of the genius of the play. Knowing Harper’s aggressiveness, Simmons intended to try an unusual pickoff.
He caught the throw from center fielder Cameron Maybin in a routine manner. Then, in one fluid motion, Simmons turned and threw toward first base. Again, there was nothing frenzied in the shortstop’s movement, just smoothness all the way through his release of the ball. But then, one of those Simmons actions that seems to defy physics: the ball came out of his hand as if from a rifle. Harper saw him and high-tailed it back, but it was too late. The ball, whistling on a straight line, caught up with and passed Harper quickly, smacking into the webbing of first baseman Freddie Freeman’s glove.
A single had become an out in a blur.
“The first time I saw that done was ’06 or ’07, somewhere in there,” said Terry Pendleton, Braves first-base coach and former third baseman and National League MVP. “And Yunel Escobar was the first one I saw do it from shortstop. He got the kid in Miami, the left-handed hitting first baseman (Mike Jacobs). Most guys usually pay attention after they round first, but you’ll catch them every now and then like (Escobar) did.”
The difference this time?
“Harper was paying attention and he still got him,” Pendleton said. “It’s special. You’ve got to have a special arm to do that. In fact I heard him when he came in, he said, ‘That’s probably the hardest ball I’ve ever thrown. And I can believe that, from what I saw.’”
And he didn’t even wind up to throw it.
“Sometimes when you’re the most relaxed is when you get the best results,” Pendleton said. “Especially out here.”
Second play in Washington: Sore tied in the fifth inning Sunday, two on with two out. Dan Uggla, the former Braves second baseman, has a good lead off second base. He’ll be ready to score on a hit just about anywhere. What he wasn’t ready for was Simmons sneaking in from behind the base to take a pickoff throw from Alex Wood and tag out Uggla as he frantically retreated.
Uggla had seen Simmons do this plenty of times, yet he still got caught by it, so slickly and quickly had Simmons snuck over.
“It’s fun to watch him, and it’s also fun to think – God bless him with good health, please,” Sutton said. “Because it’s fun to think down the road where he will be. If he stays healthy — I mean, I’ll find a spot for his plaque (in the National Baseball Hall of Fame). I’ll stick around to watch that. I may be 108, but that’s alright. I’ll stick around just to watch that. He is a remarkably instinctive athlete.”
Simmons, 25, who has won Gold Gloves each of the past two seasons and figures to win them for, oh, at least another decade. He also won a Platinum Glove award as the best defender in the NL regardless of position, and most in the industry believe he’ll win a lot more of those, too.
He’s just that talented. And driven. He makes all the routine plays, yet Simmons also makes more sensational plays on a regular basis than anyone at his position in the past half-century, with the possible exception of Smith – whom Pendleton played alongside for years in St. Louis – and Omar Vizquel.
And Simmons, who was drafted as a pitcher with a 98-mph fastball, has a far stronger arm than either Smith or Vizquel.
“How can I put it?” Pendleton said. “There’s another level to his arm. I would compare it to watching Deion Sanders play football. You know when everybody else is running down the field and they’re in slow motion and he’s in fast forward when they show him run. That’s what it looks like at times (with Simmons). So yeah, he’s got another level to that throwing arm of his.”
Pendleton was asked if he’s ever thought what it would’ve been like to have an arm like Simmons.
“I would have had a great time playing — I’d have been playing back on the grass,” the former third baseman said. “I’d have made a heck of a lot more plays, believe me I would have. That’s a major difference when you’ve got that kind of arm. Major difference. I always wonder if Ozzie Smith had that kind of arm, what would he do. Because Ozzie played from ’85 on with a torn rotator cuff. He was probably the most accurate I’ve ever seen thrown a baseball. But he didn’t have the cannon.
“This kid’s arm is special. There’s no doubt about that. It’s special.”
“Oh, my gosh, yeah,” Sutton said. “He’s got a closer’s arm and he’s got an All-Star center fielder’s range.”
Again, Hall of Famer Maddux was the guy that Sutton kept coming back to as a comparison. Which said plenty, considering Maddux’s reputation as one of the most cerebral athletes of his time, as well as one of the most instinctive.
“I think Greg Maddux was the smartest pitcher I ever saw,” Sutton said. “His ability to see things that the rest of us couldn’t even think of was amazing. And I think if you took Greg Maddux’s inner attributes and put them at shortstop, you’d have Andrelton Simmons.”
Except one thing: Mad Dog never threw as hard as Simmons.
• Braves home for six: After a rough few weeks in April, the Braves are 8-7 in May with a .272 batting average, 3.79 ERA, 65 runs and nine homers. Their three-game sweep of the Marlins that ended Sunday gave the Braves their first winning streak of more than two games since their 5-0 start.
In between those two streaks they went 10-19 with a .252 BA, 4.89 ERA and 117 runs.
Atlanta’s patchwork bullpen still has the fourth-highest ERA (4.60) in the National League, but the starters have whittled their ERA quite a bit to 3.86, fifth-best in the NL, thanks in large part to Shelby Miller’s majors-leading 1.33 ERA. Alex Wood is next at 3.83.
After a day off at home Monday, the Braves start a six-game homestand against Tampa Bay and Milwaukee tonight with the first of a two-game set against the surprising Rays, who are 21-18 and only a game behind the AL East-leading Yankees.
The Rays are 15-10 with a stingy 2.96 ERA in their past 25 games, which has offset their modest offense during that stretch including nine games with two or fewer runs scored.
They are 4-4 with a 3.60 ERA in their past eight games and are coming off a weekend series loss at Minnesota, where they dropped two out of three.
Tampa Bay has the second-lowest ERA (3.45) in the American League behind Kansas City (3.38), and the Rays lead in starters ERA (3.53). After tonight’s matchup against Erasmo Ramirez, whose 6.57 ERA is the second-highest among eight pitchers who’ve started for Tampa Bay this season, the Braves on Wednesday will face Jake Odorizzi (3-3, 2.36), whose ERA is the sixth-best among AL starters.
Odorizzi has a .214 opponents’ average with 44 strikeout and only eight walks in 53 1/3 innings, and he’ll face Braves rookie Williams Perez, who’ll make his first major league start.
• Tonight’s matchup: Braves rookie Mike Foltynewicz (2-0, 4.24 ERA) makes his third major league start and faces Rays right-hander Erasmo Ramirez (1-1, 6.66), who’s making his fourth start of the season after limiting the Yankees to one hit in five scoreless innings Thursday to get a win.
Ramirez is 8-13 with a 4.83 ERA in 38 career starts, including 1-1 with a 6.57 ERA in three starts this season. (He has a 6.75 ERA in seven relief appearances this season.) Jacoby Ellsbury’s leadoff single was the lone hit against him in that game.
Ramirez has faced the Braves just once, in a start last June when a mostly different lineup knocked him around for eight hits and five runs in three innings and the Rays still won (he got no decision).
Active Braves who have more than three official at-bats against him: Alberto Callpaso (2-for-6), A.J. Pierzysnki (1-for-7) and Eric Young Jr. (0-for-4).
No current Tampa Bay hitter has faced Foltynewicz.
• Let’s close with this one from Holly Williams off her great album “The Highway” from two years ago. If you didn’t know, she happens to be the granddaughter of country-music immortal Hank Williams.
“DRINKIN’” by Holly Williams
Why are you drinkin’ like the night is young
The kids are in the bed and the day is long done
So why are you drinkin’ like the night is youngWhy are you screamin’ like I don’t have ears
Yeah why are you screamin’ like I don’t have ears
Baby I can hear you loud and clear
So why are you screamin’ like I don’t have earsWhy are you cheatin’ on a woman like this
Hey why are you cheatin’ on a woman like this
I raise your babies and I kiss your lips
So why are you cheatin’ on a woman like this
Why are you leavin’ like we don’t exist
Yeah why are you leavin’ like we don’t exist
You’re packing your bags and I clench my fist
So why are you leavin’ like we don’t exist
Now I’m here drinkin’ like the night is young
Hey I’m here drinkin’ like the night is young
Mama took the kids and the money’s all gone
And I’m here drinkin’ like the night is young
Hope we don’t die drinkin’ like the night is young