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Polanco and the value of putting the ball in play

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The Twins’ young SS has upped his game in the young season by cutting his K’s

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
Jorge Polanco faced questions about his glove entering 2017, but he’s answered those — and improved at the dish, to boot.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Twins’ bats lay dormant in Sunday’s 3-1 extra-inning loss to the White Sox. 2016 laughingstock James Shields stymied the Twins’ lineup through six innings, allowing only one run on a Brian Dozier inside-the-park homer and limiting hard contact; Shields allowed only three Twins batted balls — Jorge Polanco’s second-inning lineout, Max Kepler’s third-inning single and Miguel Sano’s fifth-inning groundout — with a greater-than 50% Hit Probability, per Statcast, and, obviously, only one of those batted balls became a hit.

(For context’s sake — and to illustrate just how luck-based inside-the-parkers are — Dozier’s dinger was hit 95.4 mph at a 24-degree launch angle and traveled 374 feet. That batted ball becomes a hit only 28% of the time.)

But baseball is fun because screamers aren’t always hits and squibbers sometimes are.

Which brings us to Polanco’s first hit of the day, which should be linked to in the Wikipedia entry for “Squibber.”

Oh my goodness, do I love this base hit. Especially that Matt Davidson had to dive for it. What a sad, sad dive. An infielder doesn’t get one minute to decide whether to dive, generally speaking. This is not normal. Davidson was entirely befuddled by this dribbler, probably because it traveled with more English than the HMS Victory. (Come for the baseball analysis, stay for the British nautical humor!)

I think Davidson dove because then he wouldn’t have to trundle eight feet back onto the grass to pick up this lousy base hit. That is a true Walk of Shame.

Polanco’s single traveled 13 feet in the air with a launch angle of -13 degrees and an exit velocity of 46.6 miles per hour, which means he managed to cut the pitch velocity nearly in half. That takes some doing, if you think about it. That seeing-eye base knock bore a hit probability of 13%.

That sloppy mess of a single is the second-slowest single to make it through the infield so far this season, per the Statcast data housed over at Baseball Savant. Only 16 other singles have been hit with an exit velocity under 47 mph so far in 2017, and 15 of them were of the infield variety.

Here’s the only other comparably slow single to reach the outfield in 2017, an April 8 single from the CardinalsRandal Grichuk that traveled six feet in the air with an exit velocity of 45.8 mph. Its hit probability was 11%.

Eh. Not as cool. The second baseman was pulled over to cover second on a double play and no one dove tragicomically at it. But Polanco’s bleeder was suffused with pathos. We have all been Matt Davidson, pointlessly diving at a ball to elucidate the absurdity of modern life.

Polanco’s base hit came in a 2-0 count, which is not exactly how one should be striking a baseball when faced with such an advantage. (Not to mention the control issues that plagued Shields through his six innings of work.)

But, in general, Polanco’s putting the ball in play more frequently this season, and the results have been promising: through the season’s first 12 games, Polanco is batting .289/.360/.422, good for a 123 wRC+ and a 124 OPS+ while playing surprisingly good defense at shortstop. Polanco’s hot start at the plate is the primary reason he’s fifth on the team in Baseball Reference WAR at this early stage of the season.

Polanco’s BA, OBP and SLG are all up this season, a jump that’s nearly all attributable to his 5% decrease in K% and a 3.7% jump in BB%.

Image via Fangraphs
Image via Fangraphs

Polanco has maintained a respectable walk rate — even jumping above league-average, through Monday’s game — while cutting his strikeout rate drastically. This plays to Polanco’s strengths: since his debut, the 23-year-old has exhibited the ability to turn batted balls into hits. His 2017 BABIP is .316, and last year he BABIP-ed .328, both of which are comfortably above the major-league average.

Image via Fangraphs

The turd in Polanco’s proverbial punchbowl, however, is that although he’s making more contact this year than last, the quality of that contact has decreased.

Image via Fangraphs

Polanco’s seen a significant decline in line drives and increases in ground balls, fly balls and infield pop-ups, the latter of which is death to a good BABIP. So, although Polanco’s BABIP is roughly in line with his career numbers, (1) his career has been short — only 340 career plate appearances, an awfully small sample and (2) in 2017 he’s gotten extraordinarily lucky on infield hits: 13.3% of Polanco’s ground balls have gone for hits this season, nearly double the MLB average (7.2%) thus far.

Though his speed should help him turn more ground balls into hits than the average hitter, Polanco and Twins fans can’t expect weak ground balls to continue being a viable batted-ball profile.

Here’s a sampling of Polanco’s seeing-eye hits from the first dozen games.

April 3, vs. Royals, off Travis Wood: 96.3 mph Exit Velocity, -9-degree launch angle, 25% Hit Probability.

April 6, vs. Royals, off Mike Minor: 97.1 mph Exit Velocity, -11-degree launch angle, 24% Hit Probability.

April 8, vs. White Sox, off Miguel Gonzalez: 98.5 mph Exit Velocity, 57-degree launch angle, 1% Hit Probability.

April 14, vs. White Sox, off Dylan Covey: 58.8 mph Exit Velocity, -13-degree launch angle, 4% Hit Probability.

April 15, vs. White Sox, off Jose Quintana: 99.1 mph Exit Velocity, -5-degree launch angle, 34% Hit Probability.

Some of these are the typical ground-ball base hits that break one’s way over the course of a big-league season; Polanco has hit roughly as many line drives that have been caught as he has fortuitous grounders. But a couple of these hits — particularly that crap ground ball to Saladino across a waterlogged infield and that wind-addled popup that Saladino couldn’t handle — are purely luck.

But the only way to get lucky is to put the ball in play, and Jorge Polanco has made important strides to do just that in 2017. So far this year, Polanco has cut back on his strikeouts, taken more walks and let the luck fall in his favor as often as possible.