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Hard Work Jorge Pays Off

Just before the 2016 Major League Baseball season, Jorge Polanco made his debut on Top 100 prospect lists. Ranked 99th and 97th by Baseball American and MLB Pipeline respectively, he was now considered a bubble name when it came to the top up and comers in the sport. Having made unexpected appearances at age 20 and 21 with the Twins, the likelihood that he’d be in Minnesota to stay from 2016 and beyond had grown. What was uncertain is how he would fit, and what the results would be.
Image courtesy of © David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
In 2016, the Twins deserved some criticism for their handling of the up-the-middle defender. Despite having not played a single inning at shortstop in affiliated baseball since 2015 at Triple-A, he was thrust into the starting role with the Twins and logged just over 400 innings. For a guy who already had questions regarding his arm strength, range and reactions would play heavily into how well he handled the position. No matter how you look at it, the results suggest that the first season of shortstop at the big league level didn’t go well.

In those 400-plus innings, Polanco earned a -8 DRS to go with a -10.9 UZR, -5.5 RngR, and a -32.3 UZR/150. Among the 34 MLB shortstops to play at least 400 innings, those numbers ranked 28th, 29th, 27th, and 34th respectively. To put it bluntly, he looked anything but capable of handling the position at the highest level. For a guy whose bat was always expected to play, it was scary just how much of a liability the glove had become.

Fast forward to spring training 2017, and Polanco was ready to work. Having witnessed the ethic and resolve in person, it was apparent the youngster wasn’t about to let a disappointing debut beat him. From fielding the position in Grapefruit League games, to putting in hours of extended sessions on the small field adjacent to Hammond Stadium, the effort was more than present.

From a top-down view following the 2017 season’s conclusion, it sure appears to have paid off. Among 20 qualified shortstops, Polanco finished 14th in DRS (-1), 19th in UZR (-4.3), 9th in RngR (2.0), and 18th in UZR/150 (-5.4). While still not an above average defender, he made drastic strides year-over-year, and found his way into the serviceable category as opposed to being a liability.

It wasn’t just in the field that Polanco put in work a season ago however. Despite being carried by his bat through the entirety of the system, it had begun to fail him for the first time. Ceding playing time and forcing Paul Molitor to look elsewhere, Polanco bottomed out at a .213/.265/.308 slash line on August 2nd. Through his first 79 games, he’d totaled just 20 extra-base hits (three HRs), and was putting over 40% of his balls in play on the ground.

There’s been a growing movement to elevate the baseball, increase launch angles, and use exit velocity to drive hits to all fields. The outdated view that hard hit grounders will get misplayed by big league fielders has become laughable, and the reality is that the only place a ball isn’t being caught is when it’s out of reach. From August 4th through the end of the year, a period of 54 games, Polanco seems to have bought into that principle as well.

Attached Image: LA.gif

Down the stretch, the Twins shortstop slashed an incredible .317/.379/.554 with 26 extra-base hits (10 HRs). It’s no coincidence that was coupled with a 6% decrease (down to 34.7%) in ground balls. Polanco slightly bumped his fly ball rate (44.3% from 41.7%), and also jumped up the line drive rate (21% from 18.2%). Taking a quick look at his launch angles from the beginning of the year, a comparison to those generated down the stretch shows he added lift to the ball. In relation to that lift, Polanco’s radial chart also highlights the quality of contact being significantly boosted as well. For a guy who checks in 12th among qualified hitters in regard to swinging strike rates, Polanco was always putting the ball in play, but was now doing so with higher odds for success.

Attached Image: Radial.gif

Getting the ball off the ground allowed Polanco to not only see his power numbers increase (the 13 homers in 2017 was a career high), but also enabled him to right a sinking ship. His bat again was again a legitimate weapon, and he re-established himself as a fixture in Paul Molitor’s lineup.

Looking ahead to 2018, Polanco will need to replicate how he ended last year. Continuing to watch the ball rise off the bat will be a focus at the plate, while putting in the work to compensate for arm strength in the field is a must. There’s no imminent danger of the shortstop position being taken over, and the more he can entrench himself with value in the role, the better off the Twins will be. It’s more than OK for Minnesota to have a bat-first player at short, but they’ll obviously be looking to avoid deficiencies on both ends as they’ve seen with Polanco at his worst.

There shouldn’t ever be an expectation that Polanco will turn heads defensively. Jermaine Palacios, Royce Lewis, and Wander Javier all give the Twins a greater hope with the leather. That being said, no matter where he plays in the infield, Polanco’s added effort in all aspects of his game should continue to make him a very valuable piece to the organization for years to come.

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15 Comments

Polanco was actually one of my favorite prospects moving through the system. And it drove me nuts the way he was bounced up and down early in his career, at first only being brought up to sit for depth as he was on the 40 man, then practically forced off SS, (big mistake for a young player still developing), and then thrust in to the limelight as the starting SS.

Maybe SS isn't his ultimate stopping point, but signed as a skinny glove first player initially with speed and athleticism, I have been impressed just far he came defensively in 2017. No telling how good he may become defensively...or not...but work and effort clearly indicate there is room to continue to improve. Amazing huh? A talented youngster gets time, coaching and opportunity and improves. Who could have seen that coming?

As his bat matured in the minors, he was frequently moved from the top of the order to the 3 spot for his various teams. I believe that had to factor somewhat in Molitor's decision to use him there the last couple of months of 2017 when Sano was out. And while his success is probably unsustainable, we have clearly seen some of the offensive potential for this young man. I don't know where he ultimately fits best in the lineup, but I'm very encouraged by his 2017 and potential whichever spot he ends up in.
    • Riverbrian, bluechipper, mikelink45 and 3 others like this
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ashburyjohn
Jan 11 2018 09:01 PM

Polanco was actually one of my favorite prospects moving through the system. And it drove me nuts the way he was bounced up and down early in his career, at first only being brought up to sit for depth as he was on the 40 man

Blame the punitive system MLB has in place toward teams signing 16-year olds. You have to add the player to the 40-man so young. And the 40-man is your reservoir of replacements during a season, so Polanco was used the way he was because of the constraints on the team.

Don't hate the player team, hate the game. :)

    • gunnarthor, Riverbrian, ThejacKmp and 6 others like this

I posed this question on another the Gordon page and its not rhetorical. Even at his very ceiling what does Gordon provide that Polanco does not?The projected 2021 lineup posted earlier has Gordon at 2nd base.Why so much love for Gordon and so little for Polanco?

    • Twins33, bluechipper, slash129 and 2 others like this

I think the Gordon and Polonco comps are fair.  I also think Polonco got so much early exposure, and burned his options.  I was glad to see his August comeback because I do think he is an MLB player.  

 

I think Gordon is worth some of his praise, but his 2nd half fall offs our concerning no matter where you fall on him as a prospect.

 

Super happy with Jorge's progress in the field and at the plate...we need to see more though

Save Lindor and Correa, and I could see being bullish and projecting Polanco's bat over any of the other AL shortstops.I'm not necessarily expecting it, but I wouldn't be surprised.

 

On the glove side ... hoping to see him continue to improve and move from the bottom tier of AL shortstops defensively into that middle tier

 

Once again, save Lindor and Correa, and Polanco is also the youngest of any AL shortstop.

 

 

Leads me to think .... I wonder if a Gordon featured package could get us Duffy off the Royals.

    • Ted Schwerzler likes this

Polanco's season was far from tragic, but he did have a slow start. Like the rest of the team he had an awesome August. 

 

The Twins need to bottle up whatever happened in August and use it liberally next year.

 

I know Polanco can do it. He's still young and still learning. I'm very excited about his future, but let's hope he doesn't spend too long in the batting doldrums like he did last year....

    • Ted Schwerzler likes this

 

I posed this question on another the Gordon page and its not rhetorical. Even at his very ceiling what does Gordon provide that Polanco does not?The projected 2021 lineup posted earlier has Gordon at 2nd base.Why so much love for Gordon and so little for Polanco?

In 2021, Gordon will be cheaper. The Pohlads won't pay to keep Buxton, Sano, Berrios, Kepler, Rosario and Polanco together. We can hope they'll keep most but they might not even do that. They certainly won't keep all. By 2021, all of those guys salaries could be a combined 80m or more.  

    • Dantes929 likes this

I posed this question on another the Gordon page and its not rhetorical. Even at his very ceiling what does Gordon provide that Polanco does not? The projected 2021 lineup posted earlier has Gordon at 2nd base. Why so much love for Gordon and so little for Polanco?


I think it's a fair question. I believe Polanco has every bit as much talent and potential as Gordon. If not more. Perception wise, Polanco suffers from not being a top draft choice, and from some initial struggles/questions that Gordon hasn't had to necessarily deal with yet. Hes still shiny and new.

Now, I don't wish struggles on either of them and hope both grow, develop and kick butt. But I believe that this is where there is a perception issue.

    • Dantes929 likes this
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Buddy Holly
Jan 12 2018 09:52 AM

The one thing all the stats don't take into account for Polanco's first half of the season is the human factor. He lost a family member and this affected him. He has hit at every level. I throw the first half of 2017 out. We forget that players are human like everyone and stats don't track this. I give Molitor credit for knowing this and letting Polanco to play through the first half and not making it a issue. There is more to life and baseball thana bunch of stats. 

    • gunnarthor, Twins33, zenser and 2 others like this

Buddy Holly beat me to it.

 

I want to say that a family member, possibly grandmother, was very ill most of the season and that family member raised him.I thought I heard that on one of the radio broadcasts.I am not sure if that was the case or not but that could definitely weigh on ones mind.

 

 

As much as I loved last year, I am concerned about regression, about half year or shorter periods of production at many positions and the potential to select the months we like and project them for the future.Our young team has a lot of growing pains ahead - just look at Sano's time since he came up.Injuries, wrong positions, weight problems, and off the field issues - yet his promise is as strong as ever.I just want to see it fulfilled.Polanco coming back strong was great, but is it real?2018 promises to show us a lot about our team. 

    • caninatl04 likes this
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Parker Hageman
Jan 12 2018 11:03 AM

I took a look at Polanco last September and you can see some of the changes he made -- most notably toning down the pre-swing movements -- that led to more and better contact. 

 

 

There were two interesting datapoints -- the first being that his performance greatly improved as his out-of-zone swing rate dropped. The second being that when he started on his hot streak in August, he was seeing a huge amount of fastballs (hitters chase fastball out of zone at a lower rate). Teams likely looked at his numbers/recent performance in the middle of the season and figured they didn't need to resort to trickery -- just give him fastballs and he'll get himself out. 

 

After Polanco began to destroy fastballs in August, teams adjusted again, throwing fewer heaters, but this time Polanco continued to rake. 

 

I don't recall which beat writer wrote about Polanco in September, but the crux of it was both Molitor and Polanco said he didn't change anything about his swing. That part may be true. The actual swing did not change, just a lot of the pre-swing movements. 

 

I do agree there is human element at play that explains some of his sagging numbers at the beginning of the year. I also believe he refined somethings and made his swing more effective. 

 

    • Ted Schwerzler and caninatl04 like this
Yes, his performance at SS in ‘18 is important, but SS may be the position of greatest depth in the Twins’ MiL organization. Perhaps if he reverts to a bat-first OK glove player, he could move to 2B or 3B by ‘19.
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HitInAPinch
Jan 12 2018 04:24 PM

I liked Polanco far better at 2nd...

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Ted Schwerzler
Jan 12 2018 07:25 PM

 

The one thing all the stats don't take into account for Polanco's first half of the season is the human factor. He lost a family member and this affected him. He has hit at every level. I throw the first half of 2017 out. We forget that players are human like everyone and stats don't track this. I give Molitor credit for knowing this and letting Polanco to play through the first half and not making it a issue. There is more to life and baseball thana bunch of stats. 

I tweeted about this often last year, and failed to include it in the piece. The loss of his grandfather was no doubt a big factor. It was reported he was essentially Jorge's dad. With something like that weighing on you, the game becomes that much harder.

    • MN_ExPat likes this

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