With highlight reels that stretch on for days, Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward have established themselves as baseball's best defenders.
On Thursday at Citi Field, a day after he made the defensive play of the year — a Cirque du Soleil maneuver that not only made you question the laws of physics but also happened to save the Braves’ win over the Mets — Andrelton Simmons sat at his locker and thought about where the play ranks on the ever-expanding list of crazy, spectacular, insane Andrelton Moments. The shortstop shrugged. "Yeah, I’ve made some pretty good plays over the years," he said. Top-five? Simmons wasn’t ready to commit to that. "I don’t know," he said. "In the big leagues, I would say, it’s probably, definitely, in the top-10. Top-five? I'd have to think about that. Top-10, definitely."
In the eighth inning of the Braves-Mets game on Wednesday, with two outs and the tying run at third, Simmons threw Travis d’Arnaud out at first base deep in the hole in a play that ... well, if you didn’t see it, you should see it for yourself:
"You make that play in the first inning or second inning, where there’s not really that much pressure, it’s an incredible play," Braves second baseman Tommy La Stella said. "Given the situation and the circumstances, it is even more incredible. When the ball's hit, you think, if there's one guy that can make this play, it's him, and once he got a glove on it, I knew he had a shot. Because it’s Andrelton."
"One minute you think you’ve seen the best," said Braves starter Alex Wood, "and then the next he does something that completely tops that. I don’t know if it's the best play he’s ever made, but there’s no doubt it's a play only he can make."
There are many reasons why the Braves, 1 1/2 games behind the Giants for the second wild card, are in the thick of the playoff race: Justin Upton has played like an MVP candidate over the last month, the bullpen has been very good, Julio Teheran is pitching like an ace, Mike Minor has rediscovered his command on the mound. But the Andrelton Moment in New York was a reminder that Simmons' defense is still a huge part of Atlanta’s success. Add the excellent season Jason Heyward is having in rightfield, and the Braves, a mediocre defensive team otherwise, have two of the best defensive players in the game.
"As a pitcher, you’re spoiled," Wood said. "It’s no doubt a big part of our success. You have the best rightfielder in baseball and the best shortstop on baseball on the same team. You don’t change what you do as a pitcher, necessarily, but when the ball is hit to that area, you know there's a good chance that a play's going to be made, and that’s an amazing feeling to have. And you definitely don’t shy away from contact with those guys behind you."
Added Wood, "Those guys are amazing. If you rank guys all the positions in the field. I would have to think that both of them are in the top three."
Wood is right, according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved — not a perfect metric, especially with a small sample size, but a good guide nonetheless. Through Thursday's games, here were the top five players in the metric:
So yes, according to these numbers, the Braves have two of the top three defensive players in all of baseball. Last year, Simmons had one of the greatest defensive seasons in baseball history, with 41 runs saved (tied for the highest single-season total in the 12 years that Baseball Info Solutions has been keeping track of the stat). Heyward is on his way to this year’s DRS title. He is hitting just .269/.350/.391 with 11 home runs this season, but because of his spectacular defense, Heyward ranks 10th among all players in Wins Above Replacement (4.9). He may not be as flashy as Mike Trout in the outfield, but the Braves' 25-year-old rightfielder, in his fifth season, is establishing himself as the game’s premier defensive outfielder.
"For someone his size, to have that kind of control over his body, it’s just so impressive," Wood said on Thursday in New York. "With Jason, it’s the instincts. I haven’t met that many people who have as good of baseball instincts as he does — the only guy I’ve seen who has those instincts is Juan Lagares. You can tell by their jumps just how good their instincts are. They talk in football about how guys are faster on the field than their 40 times, it’s the same thing with Jason and Andrelton. You may not see the speed out there, but the instincts are just ridiculous."
As for Simmons, his numbers may not be as eye-popping as they were in 2013, but he’s still been the best defensive shortstop in the game. "I can’t compare this year to last year, but I feel like I’m having a pretty decent year," Simmons said when asked how he evaluates his defense season to season. "I feel like with whatever numbers, there's definitely a little luck involved. I just try to catch the ball, convert hits into outs. Some years, you get those in-between balls where you get more and more chances to take away a hit. Sometimes, it’s just out of your reach. Sometimes, you just make get routine balls and don’t make highlights. Sometimes, you're just not positioned in the right spot."
Added Simmons, "One thing I know for sure is that I’m definitely smarter out there. After a few years in the league, you definitely learn, you pick up stuff, you pick up trends — how they hit, how your pitchers work and hit their spots — when they throw a changeup, for example, they definitely pull it. Small stuff like that. So I feel like I'm a better player with the experience."
Simmons is still making the spectacular plays on the field, and he’s still one of the most exciting players in the game. Ask five Braves players for Simmons' best play from this year, and you'll get five different answers. "The play last night was amazing," Wood said, of his play against the Mets, "but he made a play last month, on a hit-and-run against Miami, that in my mind was just as good. He was going to cover the bag, and there's a bullet up the middle and he lays out, and he's backwards and then he dives back to the bag. The crazy thing is, if you watch it, if he doesn't fumble it. I bet he turns it into a double play."
"The thing to watch with Andrelton is his arm," Wood said. "Routine plays, he doesn’t have to show it off, he just makes a good throw. My favorite are balls in the gap, guy on first, you go into a play where both the middle infielders go out to left-center and right-center, and he's the second infielder, the one closest to the plate, and usually he ends up getting the throw from about 20 feet beyond the cut of the infield grass, and that's when he shows it off. And then you're like, 'Wow.' These guys, every day they're making a lot of plays that are not routine look routine. They make hard plays look easy. And then, once in a while, they make the unthinkable possible."
Atlanta is one of the teams to watch down the stretch: They’re in the wild-card race, they have an unheralded rotation peaking at just the right time, they have a sleeper MVP candidate in Upton. But the biggest reason to tune into the Braves is still this: You don’t want to miss the next Andrelton Moment.