Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Hip Hip Jorge, Polanco has Arrived

We’re only 20 games into the 2019 Major League Baseball season, but Jorge Polanco is currently the fifth most valuable hitter in baseball by fWAR standards. The Twins shortstop has a cycle to his credit, nearly paired that with another, and has been on an absolute tear out of the gate. For a guy who was always expected to be carried by his bat, the production isn’t that surprising, but the level in which he’s producing is a bit shocking to say the least.

Coming up through the Twins system, there was plenty of questions regarding where Polanco would play. He had the athleticism and quickness for shortstop, but his arm strength and glove work left some to be desired at such an important role. Starting out in the organization as a 16-year-old, he bounced between the middle infield and some brief outfield work until 2014. Getting in 117 starts at short between High-A and Double-A that year, it looked like he’d found his home. Then 2016 happened. After playing 64 games for Triple-A Rochester at second, he was promoted to the big leagues as the regular shortstop. It didn’t go well.

During his first full time experience with the Twins, Polanco turned in a -8 DRS and -9.8 UZR in just over 400 innings at short. From there, he’s worked incredibly hard to make that a thing of the past. North of 1,100 innings in 2017 saw just a -1 DRS, and in a suspension shortened 664 innings last year, that -1 number was replicated. Working with the small sample size of 162 innings in 2019, Polanco owns his first positive DRS tally of his career.

We’re here for the sexy part of this story though, and everyone knows that’s offense. Minnesota’s shortstop owns a .392/.452/.716 slash line and his .478 wOBA is 6th among qualified hitters in all of baseball. Sure, the sample size here is equally small, but there’s less than five players going better offensively than Jorge Polanco is right now.

It’s painfully obvious how nice the production is, but the real questions are how, and will it continue? Jorge currently owns a 42.9% hard hit rate which is easily a career high and is 14% higher than his career average. He’s also elevating the ball more, combining to get it off the ground over 80% of the time. That’s helped to not only produce extra base hits but has him looking at a career best 12.5% HR/FB ratio.

Like many of his teammates, Polanco’s swing chart hasn’t changed too drastically. He’s up slightly in his swinging strike rate, but chase rates and swing percentages are all along career norms. If there’s an outlier, it’s that Polanco has increased his contact percentage by about 7%. Aggressiveness and ambushing opposing pitchers is a blueprint that this Rocco Baldelli team has bought into, however. Minnesota has the lowest pitches per plate appearance tally in baseball, seeing just 3.68 on average.

As the season goes on, Polanco’s greatest adjustment will be like one many in this lineup will see. If their current attack focuses on jumping early, they’ll need to make sure pitches still warrant swinging at. With opposing pitchers looking for soft contact and to generate more swinging strikes, they’ll likely need to work down in the zone, or serve up fewer enticing offerings altogether. If Polanco can keep honed into an eye allowing him a career best 9.5% walk rate, he should be able to discern what is being wasted on him early in counts.

There’s no reason to believe that Jorge Polanco, or any hitter in today’s game, is going to hit remotely close to .400 over the course of a season. From a batted ball profile though, hitting the ball harder, higher, earlier, and on better offerings is a recipe destined for success. We’ll see regression, but the only question is whether that trends towards a more stable level, or just average career norms. Right now, I’d bank on that being closer to the former than the latter.