Jorge Polanco’s Defensive Transformation
Image courtesy of © Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY SportsPredestined for Second Base
Throughout his minor league career, there were questions about whether Polanco was going to be able to stick at shortstop. In fact, he played some second base in every season throughout his minor league career. If concerns were there, the Twins have ignored them at the big-league level as he has played all but 14 games at shortstop.
“When I got here [in 2017], some guys told me, ‘Yeah, his defense, he’s got to work on it, he’s got to improve. Maybe he’s second base when [Brian Dozier] leaves,” said Ehire Adrianza, who has backed up Polanco for the past two seasons. “But he works so hard, and he’s been getting better and better. You don’t hear anyone say [he’s not a shortstop] anymore.”
“I thought he was going to become an elite, All-Star-level second baseman,” said Jake Mauer, one of Polanco’s minor league managers. “It’s a testament to Jorge that he worked to make himself better and stayed at short. I’m really proud of him.”
Polanco’s lone full season with the Twins came back in 2017. He logged almost 1120 innings at shortstop and posted a .964 fielding percentage. His other peripheral numbers didn’t stack up as well. He had a -12 Rtot (Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average). He also posted a -1 Rdrs or defensive runs saves above average. The flaws present in his minor league career followed him to the MLB level.
This season, Polanco has been a different player on the defensive side of the ball. His Rtot has improved from -12 in 2017 to 4 in 2019. He’s also improved his Rdrs from -1 in 2017 to 7 in 2019. His fielding percentage is roughly the same, but the other defensive metrics show a remarkable improvement.
However, those aren’t the only areas in which he has improved.
SABR’s Defensive Index
Since 2013, SABR and Rawlings have teamed to use SABR’s Defensive Index to help chose the Gold Glove winners in both leagues. According to SABR, the SABR Defensive Index draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts.
Because of Polanco’s 2018 suspension, he didn’t have enough games to qualify for the leaderboards that season. In 2017, only four qualified AL shortstops finished with a lower SDI than Polanco's -3.8 SDI. This season, Polanco has seen a remarkable improvement as he is currently at a -0.5 SDI compared to his career high (or career low depending on how you look at it) back in 2017.
Since SABR started the Defensive Index, only one Twins shortstop has been able to finish with a non-negative SDI. During the 2014 campaign, Eduardo Escobar finished third in the AL with a 0.0 SDI. He was only 0.2 points away from second place. Polanco might not be in the running for a Gold Glove this year, but he could be on pace for Minnesota’s best shortstop season since SDI was introduced.
Stopping the Revolving Door
Polanco’s offensive production is tough to ignore, but this is a player that once was thought of as a second baseman at the big-league level. Minnesota signed him to a long-term deal in the off-season to help stop the team’s revolving door at shortstop.
Cristian Guzman was the Twins’ Opening Day shortstop for six seasons, from 1999-2004. Since then, no Twin has had more than two Opening Day starts at shortstop. That’s includes 11 different shortstops in 12-years from 2006-17.
Minnesota has top prospects like Royce Lewis and Wander Javier working their way towards Target Field. Neither player will be debuting in the imminent future. For now, Polanco doesn’t seem like he is in a position to give up one of the most important positions in baseball.
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