In 2012, the Braves played 3 players whose primary position was shortstop: Tyler Pastornicky, Andrelton Simmons, and Paul Janish. Each was quite a different player. Let’s look at their seasons more closely.
The first guy to start the year at short was Tyler Pastornicky, who edged out Andrelton Simmons in the pre-season competition. Simmons needed a little more time to develop, and Pastornicky showed a little more polish at the plate. As everyone knows, however, the arrangement with Pastornicky starting at short didn’t last long. Pastornicky started 40 games until he was sent down at the very end of May.
The reasons for this were simple. Firstly, his bat was worse than the Braves expected it to be. By the end of May, he finished with a slashline of .248/.281/.324, which was very similar to his line for the whole year. One of his major problems was that he struggled to get the ball out of the infield. His slugging percentage and ISO were a measly .325 and .83, respectively. And with his batted ball profile, no wonder that was the case. His GB% was a 64.5%, which is far above league average. His LD% (18.1%) and FB% (17.4%), meanwhile, were below league average. His other major problem was drawing walks. He had a paltry 5.3 BB%. He didn’t strike out too much (17%), nor did he have terrible plate discipline. He was better than average at laying off pitches out of the zone. The issue was that pitchers challenged him in the zone a ton, knowing that he wasn’t going to do much damage.
Secondly, coming out of Spring Training, no one expected Pastornicky’s defense to be stellar. But he was way worse than the Braves could handle. His range was limited, he took bad routes to the ball, made bad flips and throws. Now granted, it’s quite small sample size for defensive metrics, but each are in agreement with each other and in agreement with the eyesight test. His UZR was -12.2. DRS was -16, and his Total Zone was -11. By the end of the season, Pastornicky turned out to be the least valuable Braves, posting a -1.5 WAR , according to Baseball Reference. Thankfully, at the end of May, the Braves finally decided that his production wasn’t going to cut it, and sent him down.
Two extra months in the minors for Simmons seemed to be the perfect amount of time. He came up and immediately made a big splash
on both sides of the ball. He was supposed to be decent for a shortstop offensively, and the golden boy defensively. And he met his exceptional expectations on defense, while surpassing his offensive expectations by a wide margin. From his first game on June 2nd till July 8th, he sported a great slashline of .296/.336/.452. Unfortunately, it was the game on July 8th, when he broke his pinky on a slide into 2nd base. The injury sidelined him for about 2 months, and consequently he only played in 49 games in the big leagues this year. He came back to finish the year with a .289/.335/.416 line. His average took a slight dip, his OBP stayed about the same, and his SLG took a severe dip.
It’s hard to read how much of that was simply because he was cold coming off an injury and how much was a return to his true talent level. Nevertheless, it seems as though his 2012 numbers match his career minor league numbers and are probably around (maybe a bit higher) what we should expect going forward. A career .299 hitter in the minors, he has shown the ability to make consistent contact and put the ball in play. His contact% on swings in the majors this year was 87.5%, compared to league avg 79.6%. Much of that discrepancy is due to his ability to put the bat on pitches out of the zone. His contact percentage on those was 72.4%, compared to 66.8% league avg. He hardly ever whiffed (5.9% compared to avg 9.1%), leading to a well-below average K rate. Combined with his slightly above average walk rate and his ability to lay off, his plate discipline led to a pretty decent OBP. He also demonstrated ability to hit lefties. As you would expect with a right-handed batter his splits favored facing lefties, against whom he had a .341 wOBA, compared to his .315 against righties.
His batted ball profile leaves something to be desired, however. With a 17% LD rate, 55.8%GB rate, and with more than 17% of his fly balls staying in the infield, I was sort of puzzled as to how he maintained his relatively high batting average. He had a .310 BABIP, so not very much is due to randomness. Looking into it further, it again seems to be a quality of contact issue. Simmons hit .268 on groundballs in play, about 40 points better than the league. And when he hit a line-drive, it basically always fell for a hit. His avg on line drives was .826. I doubt he will maintain that degree of success – it will likely regress a bit.
Within the first month after Simmons was called up, he had already belted 3 homeruns. Since then, however, his SLG% was on a steady decline. And that decline was to be expected. Simmons was never supposed to be a power guy. While Simmons power numbers did increase each year in the minors, his career minor league SLG was still .397.
That being said, the Braves aren’t really looking for power from their SS and 8th hitter – a solid batting average and OBP with a low K rate and ability to hit lefties will suffice, especially when his defense is extraordinary. Simmons was the exact opposite of what Pastornicky was. His range was excellent, his glove was sure, and his arm was a cannon. He immediately launched himself into the conversation about best defensive shortstops in the league. And the numbers (again, with a very small sample size) corroborate this argument. With about a 3rd of the playing time that his competitors had, his UZR was 4th in the majors at 10.4, he led the NL in Total Zone at 16, and was second in the majors in DRS with 19 runs saved. It was unfortunate that he missed so much time this year – he was an incredibly exciting defensive player and I can’t wait to watch him next year.
Jack Wilson went down with an injury at very nearly the same time that Simmons did. Wren quickly traded minor league pitcher Todd Redmond to the Reds for Janish. The expectations were that Janish would be cheap, a great stop-gap defensive player and an offensive liability. He played basically exactly to expectation. In 55 games with the Braves, he hit .186/.269/.234. Despite his terrible offensive numbers, Janish had a below average K rate and an above average BB rate. He limited his GB% to 38.1% and hit line drives about a quarter of the time. Nevertheless, the quality of his balls in play was poor. His average on line drives was a .606 and on grounders was .137, which were over a hundred points below the league. The killer was his .080 avg on fly balls, of which 22% were in field pop outs, suggesting that his contact was quite poor.
Nevertheless, his defensive prowess more than made up for his lack of offense. He minimized the defensive dropoff from Simmons being out. His range may not have been as good, but he was as sure-gloved as they come. He made almost no mistakes. Moreover, the Braves didn’t have to start Pastornicky at shortstop again after that. The numbers don’t quite bare this one out (DRS = 4,UZR = 2.3, TZ = 11) but anyone who saw him play consistently will tell you the same thing: he was very good.
What lies ahead?
The future at SS looks bright. Simmons will clearly be the starting shortstop for the forseeable future. He’s 23, making the minimum and not even eligible for arbitration for a few years. He will provide solid O and stellar D for years to come. Janish had shoulder surgery on his non-throwing arm this offseason , but is expected to be fully ready to go next April. He is in his second arbitration season, and should still be quite cheap for the Braves. He would make a solid defensive back-up for the Braves should Simmons miss any time from injury or need a day off. Pastornicky looks like he should still be in the minors for the time being. He was recently released from the Dominican Winter Baseball league with a .280 OBP. He clearly needs more work before being called up again. Should he put it together, he could perhaps come up as a bench player, serving as backup at SS and 2B and hitting in a pinch. That will remain to be seen. In the meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the development of Andrelton Simmons as the Braves starting shortstop.