A.J. Pollock, Better Than You Think, Now Gone

Who’s the best all-around center fielder in baseball? Well, that’s easy. It’s Mike Trout. I could give you a bunch of stats to illustrate that, but I won’t. It’s Mike Trout. Discussion over, at least on that point. Second-best? You can make a case for Carlos Gomez. You can also make a case for Andrew McCutchen. There’s not really a wrong answer there between the two. One gives you a bit more defense, one a bit more offense. No matter which one is No. 2 or No. 3, it’s safe to say that they’re the only two names there.

But after that, it gets a little more questionable. If this was two years ago, maybe Austin Jackson is in that conversation, but he’s well into his second consecutive year of decline from a great 2012, to the point that’s he’s playing like a replacement player right now. Colby Rasmus has his supporters, and he’s also got a .266 OBP. Lots of people like Adam Jones, and it’s hard to argue with the 55 homers he hit over 2012-13. He’s also been a below-average hitter in 2014. Jacoby Ellsbury probably belongs in the discussion, but his 98 wRC+ isn’t doing him any favors. Maybe you like Coco Crisp, although his once-stellar defense has collapsed in recent years.

I guess the point here is this: how many total names would you have to go through — Desmond Jennings, Lorenzo Cain, Denard Span, Juan Lagares, etc. — before you got to Arizona’s A.J. Pollock, who broke his hand over the weekend when Johnny Cueto hit him with a pitch? A dozen? More? And yet, Pollock is one of just five true center fielders worth six WAR since the start of 2013. (I’m discounting Shin-Soo Choo here, who isn’t a center fielder now and was merely trying to impersonate one last year.) If you prefer “over the last calendar year,” he’s still No. 5, behind the big three and Ellsbury. With 2.5 WAR through 50 games this year, he was on pace for 6 WAR in 2014 alone, and had been behind only Trout and Gomez before getting hurt.

As usual — or, at least, as should be usual — no one’s trying to make an indisputable value judgement based on WAR alone, and this isn’t meant to convince you that Pollock is better than, say, Ellsbury. But because Pollock plays on a team that both isn’t very popular nationwide and is mainly known in 2014 for being so awful that they’re trying to wedge Tony LaRussa into their front office structure, it’s pretty easy to see that Pollock has gone under the radar. (Unless you’re the guy in the swimming pool that a Pollock homer took out earlier this year. There’s no extra points in WAR for that, but there should be.)

For example, using the “last 30 days” split on our leaderboards, sorted by WAR:

1) Giancarlo Stanton, 2.3
2) Yasiel Puig, 2.1
3) Edwin Encarnacion, 2.0
4) Josh Donaldson, 1.9
4t) Pollock, 1.9

And while the standard reply is probably something along the lines of “yeah, well, Charlie Blackmon & Dee Gordon were both great for a month this year, too, and look what they did in May,” Pollock was a 2009 first-rounder who only needed 233 minor league games in 2011-12 (after missing all of 2010 with a broken elbow) to reach the big leagues, and managed 3.6 WAR in his first full season on the basis of league-average offense and stellar defense. Like so many other guys in the early part of the season, including Encarnacion, he’s not this good, but he still might be good.

The Diamondbacks, remember, bet in part on Pollock when they made their generally-panned moves to import Mark Trumbo and discard Adam Eaton this winter, expecting Trumbo to play left, Cody Ross in right, Pollock in center, and Gerardo Parra spotting in both center and right. That never really happened, of course, because Ross’ recovery from hip surgery delayed his 2014 debut, and he and Trumbo started all of two games together before Trumbo’s broken foot took him out of the lineup. That pushed Parra to right, Ross to left, and left Pollock alone in center.

Obviously, Pollock wasn’t going to sustain a .370 BABIP all year long, particularly as it appeared he’d begun to sell out a bit in search of more power, seeing his line drive rate decrease as his fly ball rate (and HR/FB% increased). It was working, mostly, because his six homers in 192 plate appearances was a considerably higher pace than the eight he had in 482 last season, though there’s probably a very thin line to be drawn between the fact that all six came at home and the fact that all would have been out of at least 23 parks. But while those numbers were all but certain to come back down, he was making up for it somewhat with signs of limiting his previously large platoon split, at least in the small sample size we have available to us.

This all matters, because while we all wrote the Diamondbacks off weeks ago — for good reason — they were at least beginning to show some respectable play, rebounding to play .500 ball since they bottomed out at 5-18. Now, with Trumbo still out, they’re down to starting outfielders Ender Inciarte and David Peralta, who spent 2006-07 as an A-ball pitcher with St. Louis, 2008-10 out of baseball, and 2011-13 in independent ball. It’s a problem for a team that had seemingly too many outfielders, and now not enough.

Now, they’re without a surprisingly good center fielder for the next two months or so, and this particular injury can be a tricky one. It’s been reported that Pollock fractured the hamate bone, and we’ve seen that before. Aaron Hill missed two months last year with a similar injury, although the upside here is that Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia and Pablo Sandoval (twice!) have all had hamate troubles, and all came back to be as productive as ever, after a time.

For the Diamondbacks, it’s already been a terrible season, with Patrick Corbin & J.J. Putz injured, Trevor Cahill booted from the rotation in favor of the likes of Michael Bolsinger, Zeke Spruill and Chase Anderson, Paul Goldschmidt doing well but not up to his 2014 pace, and no one else on offense other than Miguel Montero being even league-average. You wouldn’t have had to try very hard to make the case that Pollock was their best player, even if some amount of offense regression was coming. Now he’s gone until August at the least, by which time a lost season will be long past the point of interest.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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8 years ago

Really great read. I agree 100%. Yeah, he was swinging and missing more, but he was hitting for more power too. Batted ball distance was up big time. Despite this, he was STILL putting up a .366 OBP. It’s always sad to see a player in the midst of a career changing breakout get injured like this.