"I'm not a big guy."
Shae Simmons is on the mark with that. At 5'8, Toronto's Marcus Stroman is the only player shorter than the 5'9 Simmons to have thrown a pitch this season. And yet, as many Mariners fans saw for the first time yesterday, MLB hitters have plenty to fear from the compact reliever. Two strikeouts and a lone single allowed in a scoreless ninth inning of a blowout win are nice, but Simmons has more to give to the team. Nearly every pitch from the sinkerballer was at the top of the zone, where his repertoire is weakest. Shae is back at last, and can hopefully find his form soon, because whether he knows it or not, he has a mission of vital importance: halting the fly ball revolution.
When we met in Tacoma as he rehabbed the forearm injury that has sidelined him for most of 2017, Simmons was amiable in discussing his frustrations. He said he's physically healthy. His velocity readings seem to back that up, but after months away from a mound and spending most of the last couple seasons rehabbing his arm, Simmons is still recalibrating.
Smaller pitchers have long been eschewed for concerns about durability and effectiveness. While recent studies have shown many pitchers of smaller stature are being overlooked and undervalued, Simmons has unfortunately struggled to stay on the field. After being dealt from the Braves as part of the flurry of deals to acquire Drew Smyly, Simmons missed most of April-July with forearm discomfort. Upon returning, he struggled with control in Tacoma, walking as many hitters as he struck out, but the velocity was there, as was the movement. When asked whether he felt fully comfortable yet back in August, Simmons flashed a frustrated grin:
"No. No, I like where I'm at, but there's room for improvement. [Specifically] my pitch command, even throwing my splitter again. Working both sides of the plate, in and out, up and down. That's where I want to be."
Yesterday Simmons threw 19 pitches. Just three of them were below the belt, and only one of those was in the strike zone.
On both his strikeouts, Simmons' frustration was visible, even as the results were positive.
Simmons has the repertoire to get away with imperfection, and the 2017 Athletics are as imperfect as opponents come. That's what makes Simmons so unlike so many of the pitchers Seattle has been forced to turn to this year, though. His potential isn't mere survival, it is dominance.
96, 97, 98, all with sinking action, backed up by a knuckle curve and a slider that miss bats with ease and a split-change that shaves 10 mph off his heater. Simmons is a big moment pitcher packed into a wrestler's frame:
"I don't have much behind the ball so I try to create it through mechanics."
His explosive mechanics buoyed the 22nd-round pick from Southeast Missouri State into conversations as the heir to Craig Kimbrel in Atlanta. They're what reminded me of Carson Smith, and all the good and bad that entails. They're the source of Simmons' preternatural ability to keep the ball on the ground, in a way few pitchers in the league, much less the Mariners, are capable. His 55.4% career groundball rate in the Majors is higher than any pitcher on the Mariners save for lefty-specialist Marc Rzepczynski.
Seattle has yielded just 40.9% grounders, second-fewest in MLB, while allowing the second-most home runs. Conversely, Simmons has given up two home runs in 170.2 innings of professional baseball. Two, and they were to Jimmy Rollins and Christian Villanueva, so it's possible as long as Shae isn't used against hitters with double-L's in their last name he's immune to dingers.
Whether Shae is subject to a weird version of the twist from Head of State or not, the Mariners need the edge Simmons offers. At his worst, Simmons is wild, and has to rely on strikeouts to avoid danger as he did yesterday. With his size and velocity, he may draw comparisons to Dan Altavilla, who has flashed both brilliance and inconsistency. Altavilla has been less injury-prone, but when both are healthy, Simmons’ groundball focused repertoire gives him an edge.
When he is locked in, Simmons can be one of the best relievers on the team, and his unique skill-set allows him to be as valuable of a late inning substitute as a base-stealing savant. Simmons is a double play in a can, a crucial groundout behind a pane of glass to break in case of emergency. It's a lot to ask for a guy still trying to find his mechanics, but it's the type of fortune the Mariners will need to have a chance to extend this season past October 1st.
Keep firing, Shae.