The Twins 2020 offseason acquisitions effectively failed on all fronts, but a star is emerging, and his name isn’t Byron Buxton
As the Braves celebrate their World Series victory, it’s hard for Minnesota fans to see former players like Eddie Rosario popping the champagne. Rosario broke into success in the postseason setting, while the Twins are still looking for their first postseason win since 2004.
Now a few days into November, Minnesotans on their couches are asking the same question that they have since mid-April – “What went wrong?”
After a year where the Twins seemed stacked on outfielders and let Rosario go, they scrambled to find injury replacements with the likes of career infielder Rob Refsnyder. What seemed like solid free agency signings with Andrelton Simmons, J.A. Happ and Alex Colome, all led to vast underperformances or expectations that were not met.
Sure, Byron Buxton had a mammoth April where he hit .426, had 8 homers, and slugged nearly .900 – but that hype was short-lived due to injuries.
But there’s one Twins player that few outside of Minnesota seem to have noticed had a career season in 2021 – infielder Jorge Polanco.
After a dreadful 2020 season that was plagued by ankle injuries, Polanco was penciled in at second base to perhaps split time amongst utility player Luis Arraez, while the shortstop position went to Andrelton Simmons. Going into the season, many fans were hoping Polanco could return to 2019 form, but most would’ve likely been satisfied with a healthy, service-level 2021 campaign.
Not only did Polanco stay healthy during the course of the season, he absolutely blew past his career totals set in his 2019 All-Star year.
Polanco batted .269 this season, cranking 33 home runs and slugging .503. His home run total was tied for 23rd-best in the major leagues, and his slugging percentage was 4th best among primary second basemen.
While Polanco’s batting average and on-base percentage fell, it’s evident that he’s starting to embrace the new generation of baseball, based on the three true outcomes – hard hits, walks, and strikeouts.
His walk rate fell from 8.5% in 2019 to 7%, and his strikeouts increased from 16.5% to 18.3%, but his strategy at the plate has shifted from using the whole field to pulling the ball, and doing so with power.
In 2019, Polanco was pretty evenly split between ground balls, fly balls, and line drives (29.8%, 29.0%, 30.9%), a majority of which (over 50%) were driven to the middle of the field. Polanco only pulled the ball on about 27% of his at-bats.
During 2021, Polanco’s at-bats accounted to fly balls on 32.8% of his swings – a small increase, but significant nonetheless. However his pull-rate drastically increased to a whopping 41.6%.
As such, the switch-hitting Polanco found the short porches on more occasions. He hit 11 more home runs this year than his 2019 campaign, in 60 less at-bats. That moved his true outcome of a home run from 3.1% of all at-bats in 2019 to 5.1% in 2021.
A majority of those 33 home runs came at the left-handed side of the plate (24), but Polanco still had a respectable .495 slugging percentage batting right-handed.
So Polanco hits the ball harder, strikes out more, and walks less than before. Does that mean he’s swinging at more junk while trying to hit the ball out of the park?
Well, not necessarily. According to Fangraphs, Polanco did swing at the highest percentage of pitches this season (49.2%) compared to his other previous seasons, but his plate discipline took a step in the right direction. Of Polanco’s swings, 71% of them were on pitches inside the strike zone, the largest such percentage Polanco has had in a season. Over the course of his career, Polanco has swung at 64.6% of such pitches.
While the offense is improving significantly, so too is Polanco on defense. Polanco is by no means a Gold Glover, but his fielding value has increased since 2019. This is largely in part due to Polanco moving from shortstop to second base, but let’s take a look.
In 2019, Polanco amassed 1,233 innings at the shortstop position, committing 22 errors, and finished the season with a .957 fielding percentage. This past season Polanco only played 236 innings at shortstop, with a fielding percentage of .948.
Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating metric can help plot the difference of these performances over the course of 150 games, in which Polanco’s UZR was -15.7 runs above average in 2019, while 2021 was marginally better at a mark of -14.3.
Regarding Polanco’s shift to second base, he enjoyed better success there with a fielding percentage of .974, and a UZR/150 of -10.5. For comparison’s sake, Major League fielding percent average for second basemen was a .982, so Polanco’s defense at second is trending more towards the middle of the statistical bell curve, so to speak.
The 2021 season was obviously a disappointment for Minnesota and their club expectations – but with a retooled pitching staff that has seen the likes of Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan dig their feet in, and some time for team to heal, the odds are good that the Twins will once again be feared in 2022.
I would not be surprised that with a year of getting comfortable at the second base position under his belt, and some increased reps of pulling the ball with authority, Jorge Polanco could be a dark horse MVP candidate next year. If he stays healthy, Polanco hitting 40 home runs and rattling off a batting average near the .300 mark could very well be attainable.
It all starts with getting off on the right foot in 2022, and the first step awaits in the offseason.
(Photo Credit: Nick Wosika/USA Today)