There hasn’t been much that has gone right for the Minnesota Twins this season. After coming into the year with pretty lofty expectations, they faltered at the start of the season and currently sit below .500, now with many questions about the team’s future. At this point, it looks to be less about trying to get back in the race but rather just getting through the remainder of the season with what they have and taking any good performances as a positive as the team starts to evaluate for the future.
One positive for the team is that the second base position looks to be pretty secure going forward, thanks to the resurgent season of Jorge Polanco. He had a breakout season back in 2019 when he seemingly came out of nowhere to hit a then career-high 22 home runs, with four wins above replacement. He perhaps could have been viewed as a juiced-ball benefactor in 2019, as his Statcast metrics didn’t quite line up with his actual results, and when he followed it up with a poor 2020 season, he definitely wasn’t going to be winning many over. There were legitimate reasons to be down on him, as the profile already could have been viewed as one that wasn’t all that glamorous. He didn’t do much to shed that skepticism when he got off to a slow start this season with a paltry .555 OPS in April, as it seemed like 2021 could be an extension of the 2020 season.
Polanco, though has answered back and then some. Since the start of May, he’s performed exceptionally well as he has completely flipped the narrative coming off of the bad year. In that span, he’s hitting .289/.349/.533 for a 139 wRC+ and has been on fire pretty much since the All-Star Break, with a 165 wRC+. One reason for this incredible turnaround has to do with Polanco simply getting fully healthy. He had a nagging ankle injury for all of last season, which goes back to 2019 and likely played a factor in his poor overall season. He had surgery on it during the offseason, and he probably still wasn’t 100% recovered from it coming into this year, which could explain the dreadful start he got off to. It certainly looks like any pain he was once playing through has eased, and that has been a big reason for this recent turnaround.
That’s not just it, though. There are other things in Polanco’s batting profile that back up this new level of play. For instance, he has set new career highs in several key Statcast metrics this season:
He has been hitting the ball harder on average and barreling the ball up at a greater rate than ever, which is quite significant. Going back and looking at his previous career highs in these metrics, it becomes clear why there was not much faith that his standout 2019 season was sustainable. He was more of a quantity-of-contact type of hitter rather than a quality-of-contact hitter. Polanco has always had low strikeout rates (16.3% for his career), so he puts more balls in play, and with that, more opportunities to have those fall in for hits and land beyond the wall for a home run than the average hitter. It’s a good way to accumulate stats rather than “earning” them in a sense. Not that there’s anything overtly wrong with that—results are results, after all—but a Polanco with more harder-hit balls would likely have more sustainable success.
Which has pretty much been the case for him this season. He’s maintained his reputation as a high-contact hitter, with a still-low strikeout rate that nearly matches his career rate at 16.4% and with contact rates that are right in line with previous years. This time around, the contact that he’s making is just being hit better, which is clearly making an impact. It’s not just that he’s hitting the ball harder in general, but importantly, he’s hitting the better batted-ball types (fly balls and line drives) harder too, with career highs and improvements in a few metrics there as well:
Polanco is absolutely killing his fly balls, and line drives this year compared to prior years and has seen a rebound in terms of his average fly ball distance, all of which are playing a role in his strong season.
There have also been some other changes too. He’s been a bit more aggressive, as he has been completely different compared to last year in terms of first-pitch swing, zone-swing, and overall swing rates:
These numbers for 2021 are also all new career highs for Polanco, albeit only slightly in first-pitch swing rate. Still, Polanco is at a completely new level in terms of aggression at the plate that was previously not seen from him. Those extra swings have come with more chases, though—up almost five percent to 27.8%. However, he still makes plenty of contact on those pitches he swings at beyond the strike zone—at a near-identical rate to last year at 64.2%, which is also better than league average. That likely explains why his overall strikeout rate this season of 16.7% is right in line with his career rate.
The biggest difference, though, regarding Polanco and what’s been driving his newfound level of success this year is where all of that contact ends up going. Take, for instance, a look at Polanco’s spray charts from 2018-2020 from both sides of the plate (remember, he is a switch-hitter):
It certainly did look like in the prior three seasons that Polanco was a pretty even hitter– spraying the ball to all fields and not favoring any particular direction of the field over the other. Keep that in mind now when looking at his spray chart from both sides from this season:
This year certainly looks to be quite the contrast as Polanco has suddenly turned into an extreme pull-hitter, and from both sides of the plate to boot. All told, it’s a whopping overall pull rate of 52.7%—one of the highest in the game this year:
And it’s not as if this has been a gradual increase over the years from Polanco, and this is just the culmination of it. This has been an almost overnight type of surge as Polanco has never come anywhere close to this level of pulling the ball in past years or from either side of the plate:
So yes, this is definitely a big shift from the past. He’s never even really pulled the ball this much, even when looking back at rolling windows going back to 2018:
While his pull rates have fluctuated a little bit over the course of the season, it notably has consistently stayed above prior career norms throughout the year.
Why is that important, though? Well, it is important to remember that Polanco has a pretty good batted-ball distribution. He keeps the ball off the ground at a great rate and has for several years now:
From this, we see that Polanco has constantly been better than the league average in terms of keeping balls off the ground, and by a substantial amount. This has not been any different this season, either. Overall, he’s one of the game’s best in total “Air Ball Rate”– essentially just combining fly ball and line-drive rates. Among qualified hitters, Polanco ranks inside the top-ten hitters (league-average is around 50%):
Polanco was already a part of the “fly-ball revolution,” which was a big part of why he was able to have as much success as he did in 2019. Now though, it looks like Polanco has taken the next step and joined the “pulled fly-ball revolution,” which is significant for a few reasons.
All the hubbub over pulled balls is that the pull-side is usually where most hitters get their best results. That has been the case for Polanco as well the last few seasons, and from both sides of the plate:
Considering such drastic splits between results to the pull side and the other parts of the field, it does make sense for Polanco to try and tap more to the pull side. It is also notable when looking back to those earlier spray charts of his from 2018 through 2020 that Polanco didn’t hit a single opposite-field home run, with the overwhelming majority of the home runs he did hit going to the pull side. So, while Polanco was perhaps a bit more even at the plate in the past, he was getting his best results by far when he pulled it. Instead of having an even split just for the sake of having an even split, Polanco looks to have just gone all-in on pulling the ball this season. The end result is something that resembles the trends from the past three seasons, as Polanco has continued to crush the ball to the pull side. This time, with even better results to that side, especially as a lefty:
For Polanco overall, it’s a .498 wOBA to the pull side combined, which ranks in the top-30% of the league and a .259 wOBA mark to the other fields, which ranks towards the bottom of the league– 181st out 196 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, specifically. That leads to a .239 difference, which is one of the top-20 largest differences in this group of hitters. For context, the average difference is somewhere right around 100 points of wOBA, so the difference for Polanco definitely stands out.
Now, the sharp difference doesn’t matter nearly as much because he isn’t going to the other fields at such a high rate, which was not the situation for him earlier in his career. Polanco knows he’s at his best when he pulls the ball, so he’s honing on an approach that allows him to do that at one of the highest rates in the game.
It has been hard to argue with the results thus far, as even after the slow start to the year, Polanco is showing that his 2019 season wasn’t his breakout year after all– it’s this one. Now that he’s fully healthy, he is getting the opportunity to really show what he can do, and the result has been one of the better hitters in the game for the last few months. It has sort of been a surprise, too. Not many would have expected Polanco to be this type of hitter, considering he never really wowed anybody with overwhelming Statcast metrics in past seasons, but instead benefited from superb contact ability while also running into some power with a juiced ball.
This year though, the results certainly look a lot more believable. He’s hitting the ball harder while continuing to keep balls off the ground and embracing a pull-heavy approach that has seen his power take-off. He is well on track to surpass his previous career-high home run total, and there’s still a little over a month left in the season. It has been good to see this from him coming off what was a disastrous 2020 season, and while the Twins have faltered this year, Polanco has shown the team that he is someone that should be sticking around for a while.
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)