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OC Register: Andrelton Simmons’ unique approach to the Angels’ cleanup spot comes to fruition

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ANAHEIM — Jhoulys Chacin found the one sure way to make Andrelton Simmons look like a slugger on Monday: he threw Simmons a pitch almost four feet off the ground.

Simmons connected with Chacin’s hanging slider for his first home run of the season in the fourth inning of Monday night’s game between the Angels and Brewers. In the moment, it was huge. The Angels took a 3-2 lead and never trailed again en route to their fourth straight win.

The homer begged a bigger question: Why is Simmons batting cleanup in the first place?

Simmons is the rare number-4 hitter who is not expected to hit home runs. He’s hit 60 in a career that began in 2012. Mike Scioscia preferred batting Simmons higher or lower in the order; the Angels’ former manager batted Simmons fourth only 16 times in 426 starts. Brad Ausmus has already batted Simmons cleanup in eight of his 11 starts this season.

In one regard, Simmons’ homer was the exception that proved the rule. Yet it also highlighted why Ausmus has Simmons where he wants him.

“He puts the ball in play a lot, there’s a lot of contact,” Ausmus said. “It keeps some speed in front of Albert with Kole and Trout. … Two of the hitters in front of Bour have some speed. It diversifies the top part of our lineup.”

Simmons, 29, committed himself to adding strength this past offseason. The goal, he said in spring training, was to add velocity whenever he puts the ball in play. Putting the ball in play has never been a problem for Simmons. He’s finished sixth among all qualified hitters in contact rate each of the last two seasons.

Impressively, Simmons has also continued to add exit velocity and launch angle every season since Statcast began tracking these figures in 2015. And yet, the home run Monday was Simmons’ first extra-base hit of the season. He finished the day with a meager .263 slugging percentage.

Facing a 1-and-1 count against Chacin, Simmons didn’t need to protect the strike zone. He wasn’t trying.

“I’m just trying to hit,” Simmons said. “Sometimes I swing at strikes. Sometimes I swing at balls. … My eyes light up, I swing.”

Simmons knows this approach can get him in trouble sometimes. By the time it crossed home plate, Chacin’s slider was 3.6 feet off the ground. Only four home runs have been hit this season on a higher pitch, according to Statcast. But Simmons has done this before. He’d already connected on 20 higher pitches for hits in his career, including two home runs.

If the ability to make quality contact on a variety of pitches is what Ausmus values of his cleanup hitter, and hitting more home runs is among Simmons’ goals for this season, Monday was an unqualified step in the right direction.

“I think I’m capable of hitting that ball,” Simmons said. “I’ve done it once or twice.”

INJURY UPDATES

Andrew Heaney played catch from flat ground Tuesday, a small but significant step for the ailing pitcher. The left-hander is attempting to come back from a persistent elbow injury.

Ausmus had not spoken to Heaney when he addressed reporters prior to Tuesday’s game, but the plan appears to be more week-to-week than day-to-day.

“We just have to be patient,” Ausmus said. “It’s been a couple times where it’s kind of flared back up, so we want to avoid that, so I think at this point we want to be patient.”

Shohei Ohtani took 26 swings on the field in batting practice, in addition to his early work in the batting cage. Ausmus said Ohtani will not travel with the team to Chicago on Thursday, but will be monitored in Anaheim as he continues his scheduled hitting and throwing progression.

GRAB A BAT

Chris Stratton, Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Cahill are lined up to start the Angels’ first series in a National League park this weekend against the Cubs. All three have played for NL teams before, so this will not be their first game holding a bat.

They’re still putting in extra work this week.

“They’ve been in the cages a little, hitting off the tee, bunting,” Ausmus said. “You see them out here a little bit during batting practice doing the same, so they have some comfort level with a baseball being thrown at them instead of them throwing at hitters.”

Matt Harvey isn’t starting in the series, but Ausmus said Harvey is putting in extra work too.

A career .108 hitter in 269 plate appearances for the Mets and Reds, Harvey is “in there bunting some balls, slashing, just in case there’s a scenario where we have to pinch-hit for a pitcher,” Ausmus said. “We’d rather use a more experienced pitcher because Harvey pitched for the Mets for a very long time.”

UP NEXT

Angels (RHP Felix Peña) vs. Brewers (RHP Brandon Woodruff), Wednesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports West, 830 AM

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