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Simmons can really pick it

Simmons can really pick it

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Braves Twins Spring Baseball

Minnesota Twins shortstop Andrelton Simmons (9) reacts to seeing the ball during a spring training game in Fort Myers, Fla.

FORT MYERS, FLA. – If social media and text messaging hadn't already revived the ubiquity of the exclamation point, the Twins' new shortstop might have done so on his own. So frequently does the infielder provoke whoops and chortles from broadcasters, fans and teammates, he might as well add an unconventional accent mark to his own name:

Andrelton! Simmons!!

"Sometimes I'd turn around and the guys in the dugout would be dancing and laughing, cheering" at another abracadabra moment by the Platinum Glove shortstop, said Hensley Meulens, who managed the Netherlands teams that Simmons, a native of the Dutch island state of Curacao, played for in the 2013 and 2017 World Baseball Classics. "We'd look at each other and say, 'Did I just see that?' "

What were they seeing? Well, Meulens said, he would swear he once watched Simmons fly.

In a 2013 round-robin game in Tokyo, a fly ball was hit to center field with a runner on third base. Jurickson Profar, himself a credible big-league shortstop, caught the ball and hurried a throw toward the plate, but it sailed a little high, over the cutoff man's head.

"Andrelton noted the angle of the throw and the arc of it, and ran to the spot, jumped and caught the ball four or five feet in the air. He caught the ball facing center field, turned 180 [degrees] in the air, and threw a strike to the catcher before coming down," Meulens said incredulously, as if recalling an encounter with Bigfoot. "I mean, who does that? I've never seen that in my life. The ball was hit deep enough that we didn't really have a play, and the guy was safe. But if we had recorded an out on that, it would be on TV all the time, as one of the greatest plays anyone's ever seen. I've never seen that before or since. He was flying. You'd think he can fly."

You'd think he could remember it, too, but Simmons' catalog is too thick with dazzling for the merely spectacular to stick that long. Besides, Simmons describes himself as a connoisseur of the subtle.

"I don't remember that one. I've made a lot of plays," the four-time Gold Glove infielder said. "There are some plays that I look back at and think, 'Oh, that was pretty good,' but people don't notice. People who really pay attention to detail can see it — oh, that was impressive."

The time he instinctively barehanded a relay from the outfield to trim a critical couple hundredths of a second off a play, for instance. Or the time he ran to cover third on a bunt play, screeched to a stop and raced the other direction when the batter chopped a ground ball instead, and turned it into a double play. Or the time his scoop-and-transfer on the run was so sleight-of-hand, he threw out speedy slap hitter Nori Aoki from behind the third baseman. By five feet!

"In the middle of a game, especially when I have a glove on and I'm chasing a ball, sometimes cool things happen," Simmons said. "I can't describe it. I just try my best. I'm not the fastest, I'm not the tallest, but I try to make plays happen."

Saving runs

In his nine seasons in the big leagues, four with the Braves and five with the Angels, Simmons has made those moments happen more than any shortstop in the game, and it's not close. Since the measurement of DRS, or defensive runs saved, was developed in 2002, Simmons has saved 191 runs. Second-place Adam Everett, who spent a season in the Metrodome as his career wound down in 2008, racked up 119; only two other shortstops in those two decades have even reached 100.

The only defender at any position with a higher score, in fact, is retired third baseman Adrian Beltre, who reached 200 runs exactly while playing 2 ½ times more career innings. Yet somehow Simmons has never been chosen to an All-Star team.

Still, the comparison most baseball historians make is to Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, widely considered the greatest fielder in baseball history.

"When he's fully healthy, playing at his best, he's one of the best shortstops ever to play the game," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations who lured the free agent to Minnesota in January. "More than anyone in the game, his defense has been absolutely game-changing, and we believe he still has that ability."

That it's a matter of faith and not evidence can be attributed to Simmons' age, 31, and to back-to-back seasons disrupted by severe ankle injuries — suffered, ironically, while lunging to beat out infield hits, not throwing his body around to snare a wayward baseball. The injuries cost him more than a month of playing time in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and siphoned off some of his astonishing range.

"When I get engaged, I want to make every play. And you sometimes make effort you shouldn't," Simmons said. "The last [time], we were down one or two runs late in the game, and I just pushed it. Looking back, I would have made it lunging or not. I'm trying to be more mindful of that."

Making room

Falvey was willing to reorganize his infield and move the most recent American League All-Star starting shortstop, Jorge Polanco, to second base in order to facilitate a newcomer. Just like the previous year's decision to sign Josh Donaldson and move Miguel Sano to a new position, Falvey's calculation is that one of the best ways to improve his team's pitching staff is to put a better defense behind it.

"There aren't a lot of defenders about whom the average fan can pick up with the naked eye — 'Oh, he's special. He's different.' This guy, you can see it," Falvey said. "The other day, he was taking ground balls, and there was a line drive where he knocked it down with his glove and grabbed it out of the air. That's not normal. Most guys can't do that."

It's not the first time Simmons has commandeered the position from other talented shortstops. That Dutch WBC team included Profar, Didi Gregorius and two-time All-Star Xander Bogaerts, established shortstops from around the majors, along with second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Simmons, though, played shortstop in all but two games, and even batted leadoff.

How did Meulens determine that Simmons would keep the position, while Profar moved to the outfield, Gregorius to first base and Bogaerts to third?

"I didn't. I said, 'You guys are all great shortstops. I want you guys to tell me who's going to play where,' " said Meulens, the first Curacaon to play in the major leagues. "Right away, they all started pointing at Simmons, because he's the best. They made that choice."

He quickly became a leader during the monthlong classic, a quiet, sensitive teammate who speaks English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento, his native tongue. While some teams had a reputation for enjoying the nightlife during the tournament, "our coach, Andruw Jones, would come in every night and say, 'They're all in Andrelton's room, playing dominoes,' " Meulens said.

A definite contribution

That leadership isn't only clear when the ball is in play, either. Simmons has a take-charge presence on the diamond, teammates say, that is calming, reassuring.

"He's definitely in charge of the infield. Sometimes I think he's in charge of the outfield, too, he goes out there so often," Meulens said. "He's fearless, and he communicates with other guys on the field. He knows what he's supposed to do, and what you are, too."

As an example, Meulens said, during an exhibition game at Tokyo Dome, outfielder Roger Bernadina lost a fly ball in the light canvas roof. "Andrelton ran out to center field and made a basket catch while sliding on his knees, back to the play," Meulens said. "Then he pops up, throws a strike to first base. Double play. Incredible."

"I see the game very well. I like to take charge, to just handle it myself," said Simmons, adding that he's being careful "not to step on anyone's toes" while learning his new team. "When there's a pop-up that's in between me and the second baseman, I prefer to take it. If there's a play where I have to be the cutoff, I want the responsibility."

He's a good contact hitter who rarely strikes out but shows only occasional power. He's hit as many as 17 homers — but knows his glove prevents more runs than his bat provides.

"It's fun playing defense. It's fun to help the team win that way," Simmons said. "I enjoy making plays that get us out of an inning. Pitchers appreciate it. I know coaches do. All my teammates do. There are a lot of ways to contribute to a win, and this is mine."

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