Offseason Primer: Twins Should Stick With Jorge Polanco at Shortstop
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Polanco’s 80-game suspension derailed his 2018 season, but he provided a solid bat upon his arrival. From July 1, 2017 through the end of this season, a sample of 624 plate appearances, he hit .279/.340/.445 (.785), good enough for a 110 wRC+. To put that into perspective, shortstops combined to hit .255/.315/.409 (.724) with a 95 wRC+ in 2018, per FanGraphs.
But Polanco’s defense has not been as good, to put it kindly.
Despite missing half the season, Polanco committed 13 errors. Only nine other shortstops had more. Polanco had the third-worst fielding percentage of the 35 shortstops who logged at least 500 innings at the position this season and the second-worst UZR/150.
But is the offensive production worth the drop in defensive ability?
It’s no secret that strikeout rates have escalated the past few years. League average K% has gone up from 17.5 in 2008 to 22.3 in 2018. At the same time, walk rates have remained about the same and home run-to-fly ball ratio has increased from 10.1 percent to 12.7 percent. There are a lot of factors at play in why those numbers have changed, but the end result is fewer balls in play.
Last season, the average team had 38 plate appearances per game and a ball was put into play about 66 percent of the time. That gives us a total number of 25 balls in play you can expect your defense to have to try and field in an average game, but of those how many are actually difficult plays?
If we look at the Inside Edge fielding numbers for the Twins this season, which are available at FanGraphs, it would appear the vast majority of balls in play fall either into the routine play or impossible categories.
2018 Twins Fielding Data Per Inside Edge (3,714 plays tracked)
0% chance: 12.4% (459 total)
1-10% chance: 4.8% (179)
10-40% chance: 4.3% (160)
40-60% chance: 3.3% (125)
60-90% chance: 6.4% (237)
90-100% chance: 68.8% (2,554)
So 81.2 percent of all balls in play were deemed as either routine or impossible and another 6.4 percent land in the 60-90 percentile, leaving only 12.4 percent of all balls in play having a likelihood between 1-60 percent chance of being made. Since there are 25 balls in play each game, that means your defense is only going to be asked to try to field about three of those type of plays in a game. And, of course, your shortstop isn’t even necessarily going to be one of those asked to make those plays.
Taking a look ahead to the offseason, the Twins could make a defensive improvement and sign a shortstop like Jose Iglesias with the intention of shifting Polanco over to second base. On the other hand, Iglesias only hit .269/.310/.389 with a 90 wRC+, and even that was a very strong year for him at the plate.
Keeping Polanco at shortstop and signing a stronger bat to plug in at second base would leave the Twins a little light in terms of infield defense, but it might be worth the extra firepower. For example, free agent second baseman Jed Lowrie hit .267/.353/.448 with a 122 wRC+ for Oakland.
You can apply this same kind of thinking across the diamond. Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Jason Castro all bring plenty to the table defensively, but it's also pretty difficult to try to project any of them to be above league average at the plate. There still may be some growth left with Kepler and Buxton, and you wouldn’t want to go out and downgrade every spot on the diamond, but I still feel like the Twins are in a position to sacrifice defense in order to improve their offense.
Circling back to Polanco, of course the Twins would prefer to have a better defensive shortstop, but there are so few two-way players at the position. Even Manny Machado, one of the big fish on this year’s free agent market, leaves a lot to be desired as a shortstop.
Also, while Polanco will never be a plus defender at short, I’m hopeful he can avoid some of the mistakes he made in 2018. Often times he seemed rushed -- like the game was a little too fast for him -- on the blatant errors he committed on what should have been routine plays. We didn't see that as often in 2017, which makes me wonder if the suspension had anything to do with the backslide he made in the field.
Polanco does not fit the ideal profile at the position, but from a big-picture perspective keeping him as the shortstop gives the Twins a better overall chance to be successful in 2019.
For more on Manny Machado, Jose Iglesias, Jed Lowrie and all the other middle infield free agent options, make sure to preorder the Twins Daily Offseason Handbook.
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