2/13/2013 5:13 P.M. ET
Simmons relishes challenge of batting leadoff
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Andrelton Simmons likes the fact there are those who are doubting his ability to handle the leadoff role for the Braves this season. The talented young shortstop views this as nothing more than his latest opportunity to prove somebody wrong.
Unsigned as an undersized International prospect, Simmons left his native Curacao to play collegiately in the United States. His short stay with Western Oklahoma State Junior College proved to be impressive enough for the Braves to select him in the second round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft as a pitcher.
Determined to begin his professional career as a shortstop, Simmons accepted yet another challenge to prove himself. His attempt proved impressive enough that he found himself as Atlanta's starting shortstop two years after being drafted.
"I always feel like I'm the guy people doubt," Simmons said after arriving for Spring Training on Wednesday. "So it's a good feeling to stand out, do what people don't expect. It's satisfying for myself. I always challenge myself to jump out of nowhere."
When Simmons arrived for his first Major League Spring Training around this time last year, he was regarded as a top prospect who was arguably the best defensive shortstop at the Minor League level. Despite the fact that he had won the Carolina League batting title the previous summer, there were some concerns about his ability to handle big league pitching.
But somewhere in the process of hitting .289 with a .335 on-base percentage in the 192 plate appearances he totaled for Atlanta last year, Simmons gave the Braves enough reason to believe he could handle batting first in a power-filled lineup that will include six players who have hit at least 20 home runs in a big league season.
"I like looking at the negatives a little bit," Simmons said. "I like hearing the criticism a little bit. It drives me. So I'm going to show people I can lead off. I'm going to show people I can hit there."
Without the presence of a logical candidate, the Braves have essentially given Simmons the leadoff role by default. Having not had a season in which he drew walks in more than 9.9 percent of his plate appearances during his short professional career, Simmons has not necessarily shown he is a patient hitter.
This is backed up by the fact that Simmons swung at 30.2 percent of the first pitches he saw at the big league level last year. He took 52.1 percent of the pitches he saw. The only Braves' position player to be less patient was Freddie Freeman, who did not swing at just 49 percent of the pitches he saw.
But Simmons believes some of these numbers might have been influenced by the fact that he often hit eighth and encountered some two-out, run-producing situations where he did not want to allow the opposing pitcher to face the Braves' pitcher.
"I don't have to be more aggressive now," Simmons said. "I think that is going to be better for me. In that eighth hole, you don't want the pitcher having to hit with two outs with a runner on second. I think it's going to be better. We have a lot of guys who can really hit behind me. So I think it will be good."
Simmons believes he could also benefit from the chance to bat leadoff for The Netherlands in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. He is scheduled to leave Braves camp in late February to begin preparing for his team's first round pool play in Taiwan.
"It's a good opportunity to have that kind of competition," Simmons said. "It's not going to hurt."
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez certainly does not expect Simmons to suddenly change his approach in the leadoff role. When speaking to The Netherlands' manager last week, Gonzalez said, "He's only going to see two pitches, and he's going to hit one for a double. Don't go out there thinking he's going to take a six-pitch at-bat and then walk."
While it will be interesting to see how Simmons handles the leadoff role, the Braves certainly are not concerned about his glove. Athletic with a rocket arm, the young infielder has led some talent evaluators to believe he is already the game's top defensive shortstop.
"I truly believe he would have been named Rookie of the Year if he did not get hurt last year," Braves president John Schuerholz said.
Simmons' memorable rookie season was marred when he broke the fifth metacarpal in his right hand while sliding head first into second base in Philadelphia on July 8. The injury sidelined him for two months and caused him to go through the final weeks of the season with some lingering soreness.
While Simmons certainly does not want to experience another lengthy stint on the disabled list, the aggressive shortstop said he has no plans to end his instinctual habit of sliding head first into bases.
"It's sad that it went that way," Simmons said. "But it's just the way I play. I'm not going to change it."
The same will likely apply to his offensive approach as he transitions to the leadoff role.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.