At some point between Spring Training and Summer Camp in 2020, the baseball field at Dominion Christian northwest of Atlanta transformed from a high school diamond into a professional sandlot. Some of the area’s best talent gathered to stay sharp while the sport charted a course for playing through a pandemic. Former top Nationals prospect Carter Kieboom attended. So did White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease and soon-to-be American League Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, among others.
For Kendall Simmons, it wasn't just a chance to remain active, but also to observe players further along in their development. What the No. 26 Phillies prospect gleaned from it -- and a summer spent at home -- might have made his age-20 season more productive than a year competing for reps in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues. He had time to emphasize technical details without games every day. His mind matured even if there were no stats to show for it. It worked out.
“Of course I want to play,” Simmons said. “Of course I would rather have a season. But I think 2020 was the best time of my life. I'll never get that opportunity again -- hopefully -- to work on little pieces like that.”
That work continues with the Adelaide Giants in the Australian Baseball League, where the infielder is testing out what he picked up during those early-summer training sessions with local big leaguers. The more the native of Macon, Georgia, watched them, the more it became obvious that his swing didn’t look like theirs. Even when hitting flips or off a tee, everyone else seemed to be hacking straight down. So during one of those sandlot scrimmages, Simmons asked Lewis what he thinks about at the plate.
“Swing down and push away,” the Mariners outfielder told Simmons.
What? The concept didn’t make sense to Simmons. He tried it anyway during his next at-bat.
“I felt like I was chopping wood,” the 2018 sixth-rounder said. “So I banged it.”
Maybe, Simmons convinced himself, he’s just different. Maybe what works for most other players isn’t for him. Maybe -- but probably not. Because when the Major League season finally began, what Simmons saw his friends do in the cages was the same thing he saw in every game on TV. He wondered why his swing couldn’t look the same.
Simmons brought the idea to his hitting coach, Jay Hood, who explained the concept in terms Simmons could understand. The inefficiencies in his swing became clear. It was long. He would lose his barrel behind him, and that led to strikeouts. By following Lewis’ advice and repping the new approach with Hood, Simmons figured it out.
The breakthrough came during an otherwise forgettable batting practice session. Sure, Simmons had put plenty of balls over the fence in batting practice; he possesses 55-grade power. But his BP homers didn’t soar like his peers’ until he started to swing like they did.
“When you take BP with the big league guys, their line drives go over, right?” Simmons said. “Mine, I hit it over because I'm strong. They hit it over because they hit it correctly. For me, I hit that one ball and it was similar to theirs. And at that point, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that's it.’ Because it was a routine line drive out to center that kept going and going with true backspin, no tail, no hook, and it was low. … That was the difference.”
Simmons applies the same hard truth to his only full Minor League season. He had some positives playing for Class A Short Season Williamsport in 2019, like a New York-Penn League-best .520 slugging percentage and a 9.8 percent walk rate. But he had some negatives too -- a .234 batting average and 26.3 percent strikeout rate. The hope is that the advancements he made in 2020 can clean up his weaknesses.
“I feel like I had a good year because I'm so athletic and I got away with it,” Simmons said. “You know? I knew I needed more actual baseball skill with the swing. I feel like I would've had less strikeouts. I feel like I would've had more singles. I would've slumped for a short period of time. Instead of three weeks, it would be a week-and-a-half. That's on the mental side too.”
Of course, it’s not the first time Simmons has picked up a valuable lesson. He entered his high school senior season at Tattnall Square Academy (GA) aiming to be selected in the first 10 picks of the 2018 Draft. He had a chance. All he needed to do was have a decent season. Easy, Simmons thought. He flopped and fell to the Phillies at the 167th pick.
What went wrong that year? Simmons set his sights too high and pressed when he knew the top 10 was slipping away. Lesson learned.
“I wouldn't replace it for anything,” he said. “I'd have that year 100 times in a row. It taught me who I am. It taught what I needed to do and to understand failure.”
Simmons’ takeaway from his Draft freefall has shaped his current mind-set. To him, navigating Minor League Baseball is all about “the chase.” The Majors are the goal, but it’s about the journey, not the destination. Be where your feet are. Rome wasn’t built in a day -- whichever cliché applies, Simmons has tried to be cognizant of the fact it will take time to get where he eventually wants to be.
“I understand everything is a process,” he said. “I understand that I'm 20 years old, that just because I had a good 2020, just because I made good adjustments, doesn't mean I'm going to go out and hit .300. I understand that your chances are slim. I understand at the end of the day that doesn't replace age and maturity.”
Five infielders rank ahead of Simmons on the Phillies’ Top 30 prospect list -- second-ranked Bryson Stott, No. 6 Luis Garcia, No. 8 Casey Martin, No. 13 Nick Maton and newly acquired C.J. Chatham (No. 23). As young as Simmons is, he’s a few months older than Garcia and played with Stott at Williamsport in 2019. Martin was a 2020 draftee. How the Phillies piece together their affiliate infields in 2021 could say a lot about each player's progress in 2020.
All signs, though, point to Philadelphia liking where Simmons is at for now. His new swing impressed at the team’s fall instructional camp in Florida before a right hamstring injury put him on the shelf. And he continues to move around the infield; Simmons played mostly shortstop in high school, third base in travel ball and has been learning second in the pros.
“Kendall is one of the most energetic, passionate, competitive people I’ve ever been around,” Phillies director of player development Josh Bonifay said. “He is wound tight, and, boy, does he hit the ball extremely hard. His body produces a lot of force, and he's still doing extremely well. His exit velo continues to go up, and he's refining his swing continuously. It's someone to be very excited about. His ability to play multiple positions is going to continue to give him opportunities to play as he moves up the ladder.”
Starting 2021 in the ABL is more about just playing games than working on any one skill in particular. Simmons has gone 5-for-34 (.147) with one home run, one walk and 15 strikeouts through Monday. The new year isn’t a month old, and everything 2020 bred for Simmons -- a refined swing and another year of wisdom -- has already been put to the test.
Joe Bloss is a contributor for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.