Can Jorge Polanco's Power Survive a New Baseball?
Image courtesy of © David Berding-USA TODAY SportsThat deal locked in his salary, but his value to the team as it reaches the meat of its contention window remains unknown. The key to solving for that variable, especially if and when he moves off shortstop, is answering the question: Is his power real?
Polanco has demonstrated some measure of meaningful pop, on and off, ever since the second half of 2017. However, for most of that span, the ball has also been juiced, and that has helped players who would otherwise be slightly underpowered even more than it’s helped others. After his stellar finish in the Twins’ push to the Wild Card Game in 2017, Polanco was suspended for the first half of 2018 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and when he returned, he didn’t tap into the same power (especially the same over-the-fence power) he’d shown in the latter third of 2017.
If those two seasons represented inconsistent progress, though, Polanco’s 2019 was a full-fledged breakout. The thing is, the ball was juiced more than ever this year, and it’s not clear that the same will be true come 2020. For that matter, we have to tackle the questions attached to the way Polanco’s power slumped as the season progressed.
In the first two months of 2019, his expected slugging average (according to Statcast) was a robust .527. In June and July, that figure fell to .436, and in August and September, it was a paltry .393. If that decline was all about Polanco playing while banged up, or the normal grind of the season, it’s not overwhelmingly worrisome. If, however, it showed that teams had either spotted the holes in his swing or started playing matchups to minimize his chance to access his power, it’s a bit more troubling. Note, too, that the early- and late-season slices also show a big gap between actual slugging average and expected slugging. The quality of Polanco’s contact wasn’t quite commensurate with his results.
Slicing and dicing his production even further, something important pops out right away: all of Polanco’s power comes when he bats left-handed. His left-handed swing generates natural lift. He has a hole in his swing, down and in, and his power is limited on inside pitches, but his power gains in 2019 (in terms of average exit velocity and in frequencies of the highest-value types of batted balls) came almost exclusively on pitches from the center of the zone up, and from the middle of the plate away, when he was batting against right-handers.
As a righty, facing lefties, Polanco remains what he’s always been. He has great contact skills, but the plane of his swing from that side is flat. He’s more aggressive and more reliant on his speed, as well as on using the whole field. That makes him more likely to age well from the left side of the plate, but definitely exposes him to some matchup vulnerabilities.
More importantly, the fact that the unimposing Polanco both fails to consistently generate hard contact and relies on power generated on outside offerings, suggests that he might not find even double-digit home runs if the juice is suddenly taken out of the baseball.
Traditionally, there’s been an expectation that power develops late, and that a player finds more pop as he reaches his mid- and late 20s. That’s hard to count on in Polanco’s case, though. Firstly, with Statcast data, we have an easier time identifying the best candidates for power boosts, and Polanco doesn’t seem like one of them, given his batted-ball profile. He’s not blessed with the bat speed to generate exceptionally hard contact, such that he might do so more consistently with age and polish.
Secondly, as the game has evolved to favor youth (and as sports science has advanced to prepare bodies for the highest level of competition at earlier ages), we see players make those jumps sooner. Indeed, given that Polanco has already solved his launch-angle problem from the left side, he might already have made the biggest advancement of which he’s capable.
None of this means Polanco can’t make adjustments and continue to hit for power, even as teams try to find ways to neutralize the power he’s developed, and even if the ball does lose its juice. We’ve seen Didi Gregorius, another lithe and relatively unmuscled shortstop, sustain consistent power production despite unimpressive Statcast batted-ball data in the aggregate. Some of that is attributable to Gregorius having played his home games at Yankee Stadium, but some of it lies in his ability to punish mistakes, and to shift between looking for a pitch to drive in the air and looking for something he can punch through the infield.
Polanco already makes that transition fluidly, based on situations, and he’s a better runner than Gregorius, which allows him to sustain a higher BABIP. His offensive profile isn’t wholly dependent on power. If he wants to be the Twins’ third baseman or left fielder of the future, though, he’ll need to continue adapting, and find ways to hit the ball hard more consistently.
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