How Jorge Polanco Can Develop into a Better Defensive Shortstop
Image courtesy of © Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY SportsIn the latest Gleeman and the Geek, John posited that Jorge Polanco’s arm might be a compound problem for him as a defender if his lack of confidence in making long throws led him to play a step shallower than stronger-armed shortstops. Despite his good sprint speed, and despite hands deft enough to generate one of the highest contact rates in the majors when at bat, Polanco is a poor defensive shortstop. His range is deficient, but in particular, he has a weak and erratic arm. Thirteen of Polanco’s 22 errors in 2019 came on throws. Since the start of 2018, Baseball Info Solutions counts Polanco as four plays to the good when it comes to positioning-adjusted range and playing balls in the air, but 13 plays to the bad on throws alone. However, we have tools that can tell us for certain whether Polanco is also giving away range because of that arm.
According to Baseball Savant, 25 shortstops played in a shifted infield with a right-handed batter at the plate at least 200 times in 2019. (That makes for convoluted reading, but those qualifiers help ensure that we’re comparing apples to apples.) Of them, Polanco played the second-shallowest, an average of just 142 feet from home plate. Perhaps, however, that had something to do with the dramatic way the Twins deployed shifts against right-handers last year, with Polanco so far into the hole that it only made sense for him to pinch down, toward a traditional third baseman’s starting spot. The same database showed 28 shortstops as playing at least 100 times in what it coded as “Strategic” alignments against righties—what previous generations would have called shaded, but not shifted. Among those 28, Polanco played fourth-shallowest. Finally, among 31 shortstops who played at least 1,000 plate appearances against right-handed batters in “Standard” alignments, Polanco played seventh-shallowest.
The last list provides the cleanest data. The guys who play deepest, on average, are ones like Nick Ahmed, Javier Báez, Francisco Lindor, and Fernando Tatis, Jr. — the shortstops renowned throughout the league for their cannon-strength arms. Polanco isn’t hedging as much as some of the game’s most inexperienced and undertooled shortstops, but he’s definitely striving to cut batted balls off a half-step sooner, when he’s able, in order to shorten the throw across the diamond. Yes, his arm is costing the Twins outs, not only when he’s unable to turn a double play or throws away a routine groundout, but by making it harder for him to create angles and give ground in order to make tough, ranging plays.
As has been enthusiastically and repeatedly mentioned since the signing of Josh Donaldson, the Twins are aware of this problem. Their frequent and drastic shifting in 2019 was, in part, an attempt to hide Polanco. Donaldson makes that easier, because he can cover dramatically more ground (including and especially in the hole between third base and shortstop) than could any of the team’s previous options. In the long run, the solution to this problem is to successfully develop Royce Lewis or Keoni Cavaco as a shortstop. Given Lewis’s documented struggles with mechanics both at the plate and at shortstop, however, and given that Cavaco played more third base than short in high school, neither fix is a sure bet.
In the meantime, then, the Twins need to keep Polanco plugging on some of the small ways he can shore up his fielding, and (especially) improve the utility of his arm. Recall that he just revamped his throwing motion last year, but that was done on the fly, in-season. The dropdown in throwing motion implemented by third-base coach Tony Díaz did seem to help Polanco’s accuracy, but it cost him in terms of both timing and getting zip on his throws. Polanco needs to work this spring to develop a throwing motion that allows him to transition more fluidly from fielding the ball to throwing it, and that gives him a chance to fire the ball across with more urgency. That should be more easily done under the more flexible practice conditions of spring training. His footwork is another potential path to improvement: Too often, he receives relatively routine grounders in positions that force unnecessary stutter-steps, or doesn’t reach a ball because his first step is too hesitant.
If Polanco can make any of these small adjustments, the effect will compound in a positive direction. He’ll be able to play deeper and open up more options for the team’s defense against ground balls. If he can’t, the Twins will have to hope they can continue to outhit and mitigate the damage done by having him at short on an everyday basis.
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