|Chris Blessing – Follow on Twitter|
The many trades of John Coppolella’s still brief tenure with the Braves run the gamut between the amazing to the surprising to the occasional “don’t remind me.” And then, there is the Sean Newcomb/Andrelton Simmons trade. Sure, there were two other players in that deal – Chris Ellis and Erick Aybar – but this deal was effectively one top pitching prospect for one extra-elite glove with plenty of offensive issues.
It was a controversial deal from the beginning. Simmons had signed a seven-year extension in February of 2014, was just 26 at the time of the trade, and had already won two Gold Gloves while posting unreal defensive metrics that introduced Braves fans to the ideas of DRS and UZR/150. Despite his struggles at the plate, Simmons had posted 11.7 fWAR from his call-up in 2012 to the end of 2015. Players like that just don’t fall from the sky.
Neither do pitchers with Newcomb’s combination of youth, projectability, and stuff. Newcomb had just jumped from low-A ball to Double-A in 2015 while recording 168 strikeouts and allowing just five homeruns. It was his first full season after being selected with the 15th overall pick of the 2014 draft. But he had his concerns, too. He walked 76 batters that year in 136 innings – far too high of a total if he was to live up to his frontline potential in the majors.
When the deal was announced, you either thought “loved Simba’s glove, but he wasn’t going to hit anyway” or you went the “Newcomb’s never going to throw strikes” route. Other than the deal we don’t talk about anymore, no other Coppolella trade had so much contention attached to it. The Braves dealt a fan favorite in a year full of trading away fan favorites and all they received was a lefty with great stuff, but mega trouble in finding the strike zone. Oh, and Ellis and Aybar, but that latter name makes this deal look worse for most people – even those that like it.
For my part, I was one of the rare indifferent people to this trade who agreed with both sides to an extent. I understood the process, understood why the deal made sense and understood that Newcomb’s potential was incredibly high. I also understood that Newcomb’s issues and Simmons’ defense made the deal not so slam dunk and Simmons had shown in the minors the ability to hit much better than he had in the majors. I liked the deal, but I also didn’t like the deal all that much. I remember writing for About.com at the time that regardless of how I may fall on the trade for the Braves, I didn’t understand at all why the Angels pulled the trigger. If any team in baseball needed to develop some young and talented arms, it was the Angels. They had cashed in their last blue-chip trade minor league asset at the time for a shortstop who couldn’t hit.
Yeah, I know. About that…
Simmons predictably didn’t hit in an injury-riddled 2016 campaign. Well, he hit .281, which was his best batting average since his rookie call-up season, but he paired that with a .302 wOBA and a 91 wRC+. Better than his last two seasons with the Braves, but hardly something you were going to miss – especially with Dansby Swanson arriving in the majors last August. For his part, Newcomb lowered his walk rate slightly – and saw a slight downturn in his K% – but took a big step forward with his mechanics in the second half of 2016. He was on the rise, Simmons was stagnating, and Swanson was a budding superstar.
How things have changed. Newcomb is still on the rise – or at least a few of his metrics are. Both his strikeout and walk rates approached his 2015 levels. Simmons is also on the rise. And Swanson…
With Simmons posting the eighth-best fWAR in the game and third-best wOBA among shortstops, it’s easy to look back at the trade and throw tomatoes. Watching Newcomb walk seven Dodgers Thursday night might also make someone throw assorted produce. And Swanson…
Moving on (again).
You might ask if Simmons is playing over his head? I’d like to tell you that he is, but instead, he has finally improved at the plate. Simmons was the King of Bad Contact with the Braves. Despite a big swing, Simmons didn’t strike out much. Twice, he finished the season with less than 9% of his plate appearances ending in a strikeout. The problem with so much contact is it increases the frequency that you make bad contact. This season, overall he’s made less contact, but the quality of the contact is better. His hard-hit rate has improved from 23%, which is where the rate stagnated over the last two seasons, to a career-high 31.2%. The wOBA on hard-hit balls this season is .695. Making better contact is more beneficial for the player than making more contact.
He’s also pulling the ball more frequently than he did the last three years and that particular nugget is more in line with his 2013 numbers. If you recall, he blasted 17 of his 31 homers that he hit for the Braves in just that season. The wOBA on pulled balls is .412 this season, easily the most impressive of the three zones one can hit the ball.
Simmons is doing the things that many of us felt he needed to do with the Braves, but was either not capable of doing or not being instructed to do. Whatever the case, Simmons, at 27 years-old, finally has a bat to at least compliment his glove, which remains elite.
Newcomb’s not half-bad, by the way. Yes, the control has wavered – and worsened a bit since getting to the majors – but as Stephen Tolbert pointed out a few weeks ago, the weapons are there. Newcomb has the pitches. Right now, he needs to locate them better. He’s living in the zone 5% lower than the average pitcher despite average to slightly-above-average rates in first-pitch strikes and swinging strikes. Despite getting ahead, he’s not finishing off enough batters. A lot of his problems have been self-made. He puts runners on, nibbles, and then hangs a curveball and it gets hit to the moon. After seven home runs surrendered the last 197.2 innings in the minors, he’s given up six in just 52.2 innings.
But don’t be discouraged. Pitchers with otherworldly stuff and talent often need time to learn to pitch with it. Clayton Kershaw walked 11% and 13% of batters over his first two years in the league. Not that Newcomb’s destined to be Kershaw, but that might add a little context to the argument.
To be honest, I think most people want to just be right. As Simmons struggled through another substandard year with the bat while Newcomb got hot down the stretch, no one was trying to make a suggestion that the trade went awry. Fans of the deal said “look, I told you! And now we got Dansbae!” Now, Simmons is surging and Newcomb looks like a rookie pitcher. Critics can go back in their facebook or twitter timelines and point out how they called it. They just knew Simmons would start to hit and Newcomb wouldn’t throw strikes.
It also is worth mentioning that this deal doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It was part of an organizational philosophy to rebuild through pitching. That required grabbing every high-end pitching talent they could. This deal wasn’t one move, but one of many. Some of those talents have already washed out like Matt Wisler (now a reliever) and Manny Banuelos. Others like Mike Foltynewicz and Newcomb are in the major league starting rotation. Still others like Touki Toussaint, Luiz Gohara, and Ricardo Sanchez are on their way.
In closing, I would say this deal worked out for both teams and it worked out for both players. The Angels got an elite player to compliment Mike Trout and play phenomenal defense behind their aging staff. The Braves got a high-end pitching prospect who, less than two years later, is already in the majors and striking out 23% of opposing hitters. Simmons got a chance to work with Dave Hansen and Paul Sorrento – and learn from Albert Pujols – on how to hit major league pitching. That’s something he may have not gained in Atlanta. And Newcomb has the chance to work with the Braves’ impressive cadre of pitching coaches and instructors.
Sometimes, the deal benefits everyone. In my opinion, this is one of those times.