All too often as professional sports fans—especially the die-hard variety—we essentially “cheer for laundry”, as the old saying goes. Players come and go—some for the better, some for the worse—so we ultimately follow the name on the front of the jersey far more consistently than the name on the back.
That being said, it’s impossible not to form emotional—and often irrational—connections to individual players. For example, I’ll always die on the hill for Brad Radke, simply because during my introduction to Twins baseball in the mid-1990s, he was the only starter that gave the team a solid chance to win. Similarly, guys like Joe Nathan & Denard Span shine bright in my mind because I appreciated their unique talents right as my love for baseball was transitioning from a child’s innocence to a more adult perspective. I’m sure everyone reading this could tell similar tales.
For the last 3-4 years, when the inevitable “who is your favorite Twin?” query comes up, my reply has been “Jorge Polanco”. Every once in awhile a “Jose Berrios” might have slipped out, but in my heart it has been Polanco since 2017. His recent hot streak at the plate has really put into perspective for me just how steady of a presence he has been across a turbulent time for the Twins.
Polanco was signed by GM Bill Smith as an amateur international free agent in 2009. Despite Smith’s departure in 2011 in favor of Terry Ryan 2.0, Jorge gained the proverbial “September cups of coffee” in both 2014 (for Ron Gardenhire) & 2015 (for Paul Molitor). He got some more rope in 2016—270 PA—and acquitted himself nicely, posting a 103 OPS+. During that “Total System Failure” season, I recall thinking “this kid can hit!”.
2017 brought another GM regime—The Falvine ™—and it proved to be a tale of two halves for Jorge. His first 287 PA? 60 OPS+. The next 257 PA? 130 OPS+. He was as big a reason as any for the Twins’ wild card berth in the ’17 postseason and looked for all the world to be a lineup fixture for years to come.
Unfortunately, Polanco was dinged with an 80-game PED suspension right before 2018 got underway. When he returned, his 333 PA that year were the same as always: a steady 110 OPS+.
As seems to be a theme in Jorge’s career, his next campaign (2019) brought a new manager—Rocco Baldelli—to prove himself too. He responded with his best career season to that point, posting a 122 OPS+, as well as making the AL All-Star squad as the starting SS and even garnering some MVP votes. Again, seemingly back in the saddle for quite some time.
That offseason, Polo underwent surgery for a chronic ankle injury. Though ostensibly a minor procedure, it clearly hampered his pandemic-shortened 2020 performance. His 83 OPS+ was a career-low, and down the stretch he was borderline unplayable.
Another ankle clean-up commenced after ‘20, and pre-AS Break this year he was back to solid contributor (108 OPS+). Since that four-day respite? Polanco has been playing the best baseball of his career: .360 BA, .407 OBP, .653 SLG, & 183 OPS+. While obviously those raw numbers won’t maintain themselves, Polanco has—yet again—cemented himself as a top bat in the Twins’ lineup.
Another key Polanco point: Through all the organizational and managerial changes across his Twins tenure, he pinballed between shortstop and second base almost constantly. His glove is certainly not his baseball calling card—though I personally refuse to call it “horrible” by any means—but for the first time in his career in ’21 his Defensive Runs Saved metric doesn’t have a minus in front of it (probably indicative that the second sack is where he belongs long-term). Clearly, he takes pride in working to improve that area of his game. From an organizational perspective, simply knowing he can cover SS “in a pinch” when the preferred option can’t hit a lick and/or becomes a fanbase pariah (2021: See All of the Above) must be heartening.
Like I said, forming emotional attachments to individual players almost always ends in frustration. Inevitably either an injury, drop in performance, or business-minded transaction will take him off your favorite squad’s roster. Someday, that will happen with me and Jorge Polanco. But for the time being, I’m simply going to enjoy calling him my favorite. When healthy, he has been as steady of a contributor as any for the Twins the last 4-5 seasons—and hopefully many more.