Quick. By wRC+, who has been the best hitting shortstop in baseball this year? I’ll give you a minute.
And stop. Let’s hear it.
Carlos Correa? 4th – 154.
Javier Baez? Closer … 3rd – 155.
The answer is Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco — who was 2019’s first batter to hit for the cycle — with a robust 165 wRC+ to start the year, first among shortstops and 8th in all of baseball. Pretty slick. Polanco’s never produced a wRC+ above 110 in a full season (he’s hit that number twice, in 2015 and 2018) and further, never hit more than 13 bombs. Through 38 games, he’s already at 8.
Something fun is cooking with Polanco and the Twins overall, who sit in first place in the AL Central and third in run differential in the AL, buoyed in part by an exceptional offensive start.
A couple things stick out for the young shortstop:
- He’s striking out a lot less than last year: 18.6% in 2018, 14.0% in 2019
- He’s walking more than last year: 7.5% in 2018, 9.9% in 2019
- He’s hitting the ball a lot harder: 83.9 MPH exit velocity in 2018, 88.4 MPH exit velocity in 2019
- He’s hitting the ball in the air: 15.5% launch angle in 2018, 21.7% launch angle in 2019
- He’s putting the barrel on the ball far, far more: 3.7% in 2018, 9.4% in 2019
You tell me, guys. Is it better to strike out less, walk more and hit the ball harder and with a higher launch angle? Yes. Yes it is. Check out his 2019 heat map (note that the numbers are his slugging percentage per pitch):
Throw the ball over the heart of the plate at your own peril against 2019 Jorge Polanco. He’s especially mashing fastballs, slugging an incredible .700 off heaters. That, kiddos, is good.
Obviously, it’s fun to marvel at the heatmaps and the Statcast metrics, but I’m more impressed with the improvement to his walk and strikeout numbers. A young player who learns to walk more is a young player I like, and Polanco’s still only 25. These sorts of developments can and do happen. Polanco always profiled as a high-contact player — more on this in a moment — so him adding patience and power are quite encouraging signs.
It should be noted that he’s carrying a somewhat-high .345 BABIP, but as long as it stays somewhere above .300, he’ll be fine. Given his pedigree, he might be able to maintain that — through the 77 games he played last season, his BABIP was that same .345.
This slow-motion video of Polanco’s swing shows us just compact and quick to the ball he is. No wasted effort.
I’m not saying he’s going to maintain his 2019 pace, but I do think he’s an above-average hitter now. Even if he ends up around 120-130 wRC+, for a shortstop that’s a heck of a number. For example: last year, Francisco Lindor hit a 130 wRC+, Javier Baez 131 wRC+ and Xander Bogaerts 133 wRC+. That would be some great company to maintain.
It’s still early enough that Polanco could regress. Maybe pitchers probe around enough and find an opening; maybe that leads to more strikeouts, which subsequently drags down the overall production. It’s early and this is baseball, where nothing can be fully believed as Gospel. Things happen.
But this feels real. We’re seeing things that tell us this isn’t a fluke — much like Luke Voit bashing the cover off the ball indicated his early success wasn’t temporary. We can see tangible things from Polanco that suggest he’s taken a serious step forward.
Given that the Indians rolled the dice on health and came up snake eyes — Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger are hurt, Jose Ramirez seemingly can’t hit anymore — Polanco’s emergence comes at a great time. The AL Central is wide open.
Why not the Twins? Byron Buxton is healthy and running his way into a slugging percentage north of .400; Eddie Rosario is tied for second in the AL in homers; Jose Berrios‘ curveball is so gorgeous I want to buy it dinner and try my luck; Mitch Garver probably hasn’t become Ted Williams, but hey, it’s something. (I really, really want Buxton to maintain his current production with the bat; baseball needs players like him.)
Look, some of what has lifted the Twins to their strong start will fade. I doubt Rosario hits more than 40 homers and I seriously doubt Garver maintains his surge in isolated power (especially after last night, yikes). But with the Indians reeling, the Twins have a great opening.