So I'm messing around on the Baseball-Reference leaderboard page this morning and I come across their WAR leaders. There's plenty of expected, familiar names here such as Max Scherzer (7.1), Jose Altuve (7.1), Gio Gonzalez (6.5 having an underrated great year) and Giancarlo Stanton (6.4). Then, ranked fifth and tied with Joey Votto at 6.3 is...Andrelton Simmons. This is probably an even bigger surprise to casual fans who don't understand how WAR works, so let me explain.
As recently as the early 2000s baseball front offices thought defense didn't matter all that much. Even the smart ones (Billy Beane, Theo Epstein) subscribed to this theory when filling out their rosters. As it turns out there was such a market inefficiency when it came to on base percentage that there was still value to be had in high OBP, weak defensive players such as Jeremy Giambi and Scott Hatteberg. That, and also it was the tail end of the steroid era so defense wasn't as crucial.
Eventually we came to realize there was plenty of value to be had in elite defensive players. It's how the 2008 Rays got so good so quickly. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as a stat recognizes this. The thought goes that a hit saved on defense is just as valuable as a hit earned on offense. Additionally, certain positions are more valuable than others. For example an elite defensive shortstop or center fielder would be in much higher demand than a great defensive first baseman, who simply put cannot impact a game the way an "up the middle" defender can. I'll admit it's tough to envision to what extent a SS can really affect a game on defense, but I guess if you get enough chances and keep taking away potential hits then that shit adds up.
Alright that's enough of a history lesson. Back to Simmons. For years he has been a plus defensive shortstop with a below average bat. He's always been more valuable than a casual fan may realize since a casual fan likely doesn't grasp the value of good defense. But when I saw Baseball-Reference had him as the fifth most valuable player in MLB this year it still confused me. As it turns out the 27-year-old is having an above average year on offense too: 14 homers, 19 steals in 23 attempts, and a .340 OBP. Factor in the exceptional defense at arguably the most important position and it becomes easier to understand the value.
But does that make him the fifth most valuable player in baseball? According to Baseball-Reference, yes. Fangraphs doesn't have him quite as high. Simmons ranks 11th in WAR on their site, which is still somewhat ridiculous to wrap your head around. Regardless of what you think about Simmons, as a baseball fan it's important to understand the logic as to why these stats value him the way they do. No, he isn't a top 5 player in baseball in my books, but Simmons possesses game changing defense and in 2017 his bat has been one of the best of all shortstops. He deserves more recognition.