Written by: Zach Hayes (@PineTarKeyboard)
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Despite an All-Star appearance a little more than a year ago, you’d be forgiven for missing the Jorge Polanco breakout. Hitting in the two-hole for the most homer-happy team ever (that smashed the franchise’s run record along the way), it’s not surprising that his 4 WAR season got a little lost in the fray. There are a lot of heavy hitters in Minneapolis, and despite his surprising thump being covetable at shortstop, it’s hard to stand out at a position with the Francisco Lindors and Carlos Correas of the world at the top of their game.
Still, whether you were aware of it or not, Polanco was one of the 10 or so best shortstops in the game last season. By advanced numbers like wRC+ (119) and expected wOBA (.346), he was a better hitter than Lindor, Javier Baez, Trea Turner, and Fernando Tatis Jr., and a notch below studs like Trevor Story, Gleyber Torres, and Tim Anderson. He’s always been excellent at making contact (career 16.4% whiff rate), and when paired with his good eye and league average walk rate, the offensive surge he experienced last year was enough to vault him near the top of the middle infield leaderboards. The question, of course, is whether it’s sustainable. Do we need to start putting Polanco in the conversation with some of those guys when we talk about the best shortstops in the game?
It’s helpful to have a visualization of what his breakout season looked like. The distinction between a player getting hot for longer than usual and evolving to the next level as a player is an important one. Here’s Polanco’s rolling 15-game wOBA from last season, courtesy of FanGraphs:
Hmm. That’s not ideal; we see a hitter who set the world on fire for about a third of a season before returning to his career norms. Let’s get a look at some of those splits, breaking off his first two months of 2019 from the rest of his career:
Hmm, again. If the best indicator of future performance is past performance, it doesn’t look like we’d do well to expect Polanco to be 20% above average with the bat this year. An outlier season is not necessarily the same thing as a season boosted by a couple outlier months. Polanco’s speed and contact ability will probably allow him to consistently outperform expected stats to some extent, but the last four months of the year look a lot more like the “real” Polanco than what we saw prior to the All-Star Game.
Of course, that’s a shallow basis for such a broad judgment. When trying to figure out whether a breakout is for real, I like to look at the game of adjustments always being played by pitchers and hitters. Polanco’s hot start didn’t fall off a cliff just because his luck dried up. It takes two to tango, and after a couple months of playing like one of the best shortstops in baseball, the opposing scouting report is more likely to change than not.
So what did pitchers do differently after the league caught a whiff of Polanco’s bat? There were two subtle changes.
First, they appeared to attack him more aggressively with fastballs. After accounting for 31.4% of pitches seen by Polanco through the end of May, pitchers ramped up their four-seam usage to 37% for the rest of the year:
They also stopped leaving them over the plate for Polanco to do what he wanted with. Here are the heat maps of where pitchers threw their four-seamers to him over those same splits:
Early on, pitchers were giving him an unhealthy (for them) dose of fastballs out over the middle. His above average bat control (and maybe a little juiced ball magic) doesn’t make it super surprising that he was able to take some of those fastballs right down the pipe on the left and turn them around with power.
It tracks logically. With Nelson Cruz and Miguel Sano behind him, Polanco probably hasn’t been a good enough hitter to warrant messing around on the edges. Despite the power outburst in 2019, his career-best 87 MPH average exit velocity was still just in the league’s 20th percentile. When he wasn’t getting quite as many fastballs on a tee, he simply wasn’t hitting them with as much authority, dropping his average launch angle by several degrees and seeing his average EV on four-seamers tumble from 89.6 MPH to 86.6 MPH. It’s difficult to be super confident in a player sustaining a power surge when it was initially solved by pitchers moving their fastballs up and down the zone a bit.
The second shift was in the mix of breaking balls offered to Polanco. Moving away from the general trend seen around the league, as the season went on, he gradually began seeing more curveballs where pitchers had been throwing sliders:
This may have been a coincidence, but that seems less likely knowing that Polanco has consistently hit the curve better than sliders over the course of his career:
This is also a good place to remind people that expected stats can be sketchy (especially when looking at individual pitches) and do not always dictate the best course of action on the field! There are times when such numbers suggest a counterintuitive but valid way to be effective. It’s also sometimes okay to take surface stats at face value. At least in 2019, pitchers certainly seemed to find more success against him the more they relied on the uncle Charlie:
I don’t mean to rag on Jorge too much. He’s performed well in the big leagues, and the Twins’ front office will be more than happy to have him on the $4 million he’s slated to make in the second year of the 5-year, $26 million deal he signed last February.
He’s good enough to be the starting shortstop on one of the best teams in the league, and he’ll still be a useful part of a contending team if he returns to the vicinity of his career .281/.339/.444 line this year. But it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to address these issues over the coming season. Even with preternatural contact ability, it’s difficult to consistently hit for power when you hit the ball with such little authority.
Perhaps he’ll trade a bit of that contact rate for a little more bang in his bat. Maybe he won’t, and he’ll still be a perfectly good shortstop, albeit an unspectacular one. Either way, the Twins will be better off at short than much of the league. Before we go any further, though, he’s got a little more work to do to be considered in the same class as many of the names near to him last season.
Follow P365 MLB Analyst Zach Hayes on Twitter! @PineTarKeyboard
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Jim Mone and the Associated Press