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Jorge Polanco will be an upgrade at second base

The data supports the Twins’ hope that the keystone is a better defensive fit

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Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

One of the Twins prominent offseason moves was signing Andrelton Simmons to be the new regular shortstop. The idea of adding a new shortstop had been suggested by much of the Twins blogosphere as an obvious move to improve the team. Doing so was seen as a way to take advantage of a free agent class flush with good shortstops and improve the infield defense that ranked in the bottom third of MLB in converting ground balls into outs the past two seasons. Upgrading at shortstop was the key that could also lead to upgrades at second base and the utility position.

The addition of Simmons means incumbent shortstop Jorge Polanco is expected to shift over to second base. That displaces second baseman Luis Arraez, who is now expected to play in what’s being described as an “every day, multi-positional role” much the same as the one Marwin Gonzalez filled the past two seasons. Arraez will see time at second and also likely at third base, left field, and maybe even some shortstop to keep his bat in the lineup and afford plenty of days off to his teammates. If Gonzalez can be considered the archetype for that role, we should expect to see plenty of Arraez. Marwin started 159 of the Twins’ 222 games the past two seasons, the fifth-most of any Twin behind Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and Nelson Cruz.

The logic of these moves on the defensive side is undeniable. Simmons brings an elite defensive reputation to Minnesota and, despite the ankle injuries that have slowed him the past couple of seasons, he is a clear upgrade over Polanco.

Since 2017, among qualified shortstops, Polanco ranks fifth-worst in defensive runs saved (DRS) with minus-23. By ultimate zone rating (UZR), his minus-16.4 ranked second worst. By those same measures over the same time period, Simmons ranked as the best at the position with +73 DRS and +48.5 UZR. By the newer, Statcast driven Outs Above Average (OAA) Polanco ranked 37th of 38 qualified shortstops (minus-26 OAA) and Simmons ranked 2nd (+43 OAA).

While the numbers confirm Polanco was miscast at shortstop, the Twins are optimistic he’ll be an upgrade at second base where Arraez has also been below average defensively, albeit in a smaller sample. Among second basemen with at least 500 innings played at the position the last two seasons, Arraez ranked 31st out of 40 by DRS (minus-6) and 35th of 40 by UZR (minus-4.2). By OAA, Arraez was 40th of 44 (minus-5 OAA) in 2019 and 24th of 38 (0 OAA) in 2020.

The optimism about Polanco at second is bolstered by the 200 games and almost 1,700 innings Polanco played there in the minor leagues. His last significant exposure at second base came in 2016 when he started 64 games at AAA Rochester and covered 43 innings for the Twins. Unfortunately, detailed defensive data from the minor leagues is not readily available beyond putouts, assists, and errors and the small major league sample isn’t meaningful. We aren’t able to glean much insight about how Polanco might perform at second from that data. Nonetheless, he’s not entirely unfamiliar with the position, which should help the transition be somewhat easier.

While that data is mostly a dead end for trying to project Polanco at second, we can get some idea of how he might fare from Statcast data. Before Statcast was implemented, defensive measures were calculated using a fielder’s typical starting location on the field. For a second baseman that meant the area between first base and second base where second basemen have historically stood.

That was a data limitation that proved increasingly problematic with the rising rate of defensive shifts, which frequently changed the typical starting location for fielders and made it more and more difficult to measure an individual player’s defensive contributions. With Statcast, the fielder’s starting point is now tracked and able to be referenced relative to a batted ball, allowing us to have visibility into all the defensive plays a player is involved in whether they are in their traditional zone or not.

Thanks to that and the Twins’ propensity for utilizing defensive shifts on the infield in recent seasons, we have some data that could be helpful for assessing how Polanco might do at the keystone.

Jorge Polanco, ending position for all plays 2017-2020

Going back to 2017, Polanco has had the primary opportunity to make the play on 1,173 batted balls, which are plotted above. All of them came while he was listed in the Twins’ lineup as the shortstop. Of those, 120 came when he started the play in the traditional area of the second baseman.

Statcast’s formulas evaluate each play for difficulty, based on distance, time, runner speed, and other factors. By these calculations a league average defender would have turned 90% of those 120 opportunities into outs. Polanco’s actual success rate on that sample was 92% and Statcast measured him as +2 OAA on the plays in the second base area. It’s a small sample to be sure, but +2 is leaps and bounds better than his negative numbers in the shortstop area and an improvement on Arraez’s negative numbers in the second base area.

This data is encouraging and suggests Polanco should be solid at second, especially with a full spring training to get comfortable with the transition.

Then again, he might not need that much transition time. Many of the plays he was asked to make on the right side of the infield as a shortstop looked a lot like plays you’d expect from a second baseman. For example:

That looks like a pretty routine 4-3 ground out. How about something more challenging?

No problem. His experience at shortstop should be helpful on backhand plays moving to his right. How about starting a potential double play?

Yes, that was then third baseman Miguel Sano teaming up with Polanco and Willians Astudillo to execute a 6-5-3 double play that looks a lot like a pretty standard 4-6-3 turn. Despite being listed as the shortstop, Polanco got it started cleanly from the second baseman’s area with a nice backhand feed.

Those plays all look like a second baseman to me.

What remains to be seen is how Polanco will fare on plays moving backward and to his left. His OAA grades by direction at shortstop can give us some insight there. Of his minus-26 OAA at shortstop since 2017, minus-24 came on plays to his right and in toward home plate. But on the plays to his left and backward, Polanco was about average, grading out as minus-3 to his left and +1 going backward. That suggests he should be just fine on those kinds of plays at second base.

Much of Polanco’s difficulty on plays to his right came as a result of weak and inconsistent throwing that even led to him revamping his throwing mechanics to rely more on a side arm slot. While that angle was more comfortable and helped improve his accuracy it cost some velocity that prevented him from converting some outs that required longer throws. The side arm throwing should play better at second base where the throws are generally shorter.

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Beyond the assessment of Polanco’s individual fit at second base the Twins likely took a look at other players and teams that have attempted this kind of adjustment as part of their decision process. Players moving to second base from other positions is becoming a bit of a trend across baseball and Polanco isn’t even the only former shortstop making this same transition this winter — new Blue Jay Marcus Semien is doing the same. Current Reds second baseman (and former Royals’ third baseman) Mike Moustakas successfully made the move to second last offseason after dabbling with it in Milwaukee and the Dodgers have had reasonable success the past few seasons with frequent first baseman Max Muncy spending time at second base. Moustakas and Muncy have considerably different body builds and athletic profiles than Polanco (and neither was a big league shortstop) but both have been average-ish defensively there. Those cases add support to the idea that Polanco can be a plus defender in his new role.

In pieces analyzing the Moustakas and Semien moves to the keystone for, analyst Mike Petriello pointed out that a big driver in teams being willing to make these kinds of moves at second base is that the difficulty level of defense at second base has declined from the past.

Changes in the way the game is played have had a big effect on the requirements for a second base defender. Consider that there were 11,467 more strikeouts and 1,083 more home runs hit in the 2019 season than the 2000 season. As teams and players have leaned into the launch angle and three true outcomes philosophies there have been significantly fewer ground balls for second basemen to corral. From 2008 to 2019, the number of batted balls charted in the zone of the second baseman decreased by 25%. At the same time, teams also heavily deployed infield shifts, essentially shrinking the amount of territory second basemen need to cover. Finally, the number of double plays are also at an all time low. There were just 0.8 double plays per game in 2020, the lowest in 100 years.

The net result is there are less plays to make, fewer opportunities to turn two, and less ground for second basemen to cover than ever. Then throw in the recent slide rule changes that have all but eliminated take out slides and it’s clear the athletic demands of the position are significantly less than they used to be.

Forward thinking teams have been reconsidering how they staff that position and are frequently looking to use that spot to add more offensive punch to their lineups. In Polanco’s case, it’s a bit of the best of both worlds. He fits more in the mold of a traditional second baseman in terms of athleticism and defensive range while also bringing the upside to be an above average offensive player.

Since the 2016 season when he came to the majors for good, he’s hit .278 / .334 / .434. That compares favorably in each category to the .260 / .323 / .410 composite line produced by all second basemen over the same time frame. The upside is even greater if he’ll be able to return to his 2018-2019 form. Polanco’s .348 wOBA over those two seasons would have stacked up as 7th-best at second base among qualified players, between DJ LeMahieu (.350) and Whit Merrifield (.345).

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With good health, Simmons is a clear upgrade on Polanco at short. The numbers throughout this piece suggest Polanco should be a clear upgrade on Arraez at second. At least offensively, Arraez will be a clear upgrade on Marwin Gonzalez in the utility role. Taken together these moves should also have positive impacts for the pitching staff due to improved infield defense. Altogether this could pretty easily be a 3 to 5 win upgrade for the club.

This combination of moves is not without risk, though. Simmons and Polanco have both struggled with ankle injuries the past few seasons. Arraez has had his own knee troubles in his short big league career and how he’ll fare defensively in the multi-positional role is a question mark.

But, of all the possible risks facing the Twins with this series of moves, Polanco’s fit for second base doesn’t appear to be one of them. Everything points to him being an above average second baseman.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.