It is very possible that Andrelton Simmons will be closer in value to Bryce Harper than you would have thought this season, when all is said and done. Essentially these players are mirror images of each other, one excelling at defense and hanging in there offensively while the other providing plenty of value on offense but costing his team on defense. Looking at projections that account for everything that matters and thinking it through, it’s not as shocking as it seems.
The ZiPS projection system (from Baseball Think Factory and Dan Szymborski; projections found at Fangraphs.com) has Simmons at 1.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season. This takes in to account what he’s done so far; takes into account other factors about Simmons, his minor league performance and the performance of similar players throughout the history of the game; and projects for the rest of this season. As you can imagine, his projected value is solid mostly because of stellar defense.
A WAR of 1.2 isn’t outstanding but it’s very acceptable, especially for a young player that did not come to the majors until two months in to the season. Remember WAR is a counting stat, not a rate stat. So a player will accumulate more value, i.e., more WAR, the more he plays.
The ZiPS projections have Harper as a 1.7 WAR player this season. He’s the opposite of Simmons: Low defensive value but plenty of offense. Harper is expected to be a rather poor defensive player for the rest of the season, costing his team plenty of runs, which is not all that shocking. Harper was a catcher and thirdbaseman through a lot of his amateur career. Basically he’s learning the outfield as a professional. He has the tools to become a solid if not above-average defensive player, and even an adequate centerfielder right now, but he doesn’t seem to be a good defensive player at this point.
While Harper is likely to get better both offensively and defensively, it’s hard to imagine Simmons getting drastically better (or worse) than he is right now defensively. So much of defense is about pure athleticism, which Simmons possesses and which peaks in a player’s early 20’s. Pure athleticism is unlike overall baseball ability, which is influenced by both athleticism and experience, and peaks in a player’s late 20’s. Simmons has plenty of arm strength, quickness and coordination. In fact, he’s so good in these areas that, even when he starts to lose something in those areas, he’ll still be great. Plus, as he matures, he’s likely to fill in any defensive decline in those other areas with the knowledge that comes with experience.
Defense is not all athleticism, however. Experience matters some, too. Which brings us to Harper’s defense. Since he hasn’t really been an outfielder that long, he makes some mistakes on reading the ball off the bat and things of that sort. His athleticism allows him to make up for those shortcomings to some degree. He’s an outstanding athlete, one of the most toolsy players in recent memory. This athleticism makes it possible for him to play an adequate outfield, even centerfield. But his athleticism only goes so far. He just hasn’t had enough experience reading balls off the bat from the outfield, etc. So it’s easy to understand why Harper might cost the Nationals a few runs on defense.
However, a) I’m not so sure Harper will be quite as bad defensively as ZiPS projects and b) he could see plenty of time in centerfield which would increase his value due to positional scarcity.
It’s possible that Harper exceeds expectations and projections on defense. Should we put anything past Bryce Harper? Probably not. And, again, like Simmons, he has more than enough athleticism to be a solid defensive player, he just lacks the repetitions. Another month or two’s worth of experience in the majors may allow him to exceed those defensive projections.
If Harper is able to play centerfield regularly, that would also increase his value with the bat. Positional scarcity matters and is a factor. A centerfielder who hits like Harper is projected to hit (.334 on-base and a .443 slugging, according to ZiPS) is more valuable than a corner-outfielder who hits like that. A centerfielder who hits makes things easier for his team.
We can think of value as how easy a player makes it for his team to win games. Brian McCann makes it easier for the Braves to win by hitting very well and being able to catch. If McCann were a firstbaseman, his bat would play just fine there but he would have less value to the Braves offensively, even if he could field the position adequately. It would make it a little harder for the Braves to win games because their firstbaseman wouldn’t be quite as good as their opponents’ firstbasemen. However, at catcher the Braves are always going to have a better hitter than their opponents at that position. Even if McCann’s offense and defense doesn’t change, his position and what position he plays affects the Braves’ chances.
With concern to positional scarcity, Simmons doesn’t have to hit like Harper to be reasonably close in offensive value. Few major league shortstops hit well, compared to other major leaguers at other positions. So if a team has a great defensive shortstop who can merely hang in there with the bat, that shortstop has plenty of value to his team. Plenty of major league outfielders hit well by major league standards. So we can imagine a scenario in which Harper isn’t anything special with the bat and is downright not good with the glove.
Harper could jump way ahead of Simmons in value by improving his defensive and improving it enough to make him a more-than-adequate centerfielder. Everyone expects Harper is going to hit and is going to out-hit Simmons. But let’s not get too crazy about Harper’s offense just yet. Harper is still only 19, which is probably why ZiPS doesn’t think he can keep up his current .359 OBP/.500 SLG pace. ZiPS projects him to be a .334 OBP/.443 SLG hitter at season’s end, while it projects Simmons at a .318 OBP/.362 SLG. That’s a big difference but probably not quite as big as it seems on the surface. Remember position matters and Simmons will be playing short, where the threshold for providing offensive value is much lower than it is for outfielders.
There clearly is a difference in the two players offensively and Harper has the edge offensively, even taking into account positional scarcity. Frankly Simmons just isn’t expected to provide very much on offense. And, much like his defensive projections, I wouldn’t put it past Harper to blow past those offensive projections. But it would still be a mild surprise for Harper to greatly out-pace the .334 OBP, .443 SLG and .336 Weighted On-base Percentage (wOBA) that ZiPS projects for him. Only four 19-year-olds in baseball history have put up better than a .333 wOBA, with minimum of 400 plate appearances.
It’s just as likely that Simmons will outperform his defensive projections to enough of a degree to offset Harper outperforming his offensive projections. It may even be more likely, considering Simmons has elite defensive tools and is the older player with experience playing shortstop at the professional level.
So the 1.7 projected WAR for Harper and the 1.2 projected WAR for Simmons seem more or less reasonable. Harper isn’t likely, at 19, to be the hitter he will become at and near his peak. Simmons is much more likely to provide closer to his peak defensive value this season because the nature of playing defense and the skills it requires, the skills he possesses and his age and experience. Harper is farther away from his peak than Simmons, and Simmons’s strengths are in the skills and tools that tend to show up at an earlier age.
There’s no doubt that Harper is the better player. No one would take Simmons over Harper, not this season and certainly not in subsequent seasons. Value is different from ability and skills, and Harper is one of the most able and skilled players ever. He’s one of the only players I can remember who would surprise if he does not become a Hall of Famer, assuming no major injury or off-field breakdown of some sort. I suppose there is a chance Simmons becomes Ozzie Smith but he’s not like Harper. I’m not arguing that Simmons and Harper are equally skilled or that it’s even close. I’m not even asserting that I would take Simmons over Harper this season. However, based on a number of considerations, it’s very likely their values will be reasonably close by the end of this season.