Rarely do the graphs line up as nicely as they do for Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco, who changed his season — and maybe his baseball future — on a dime. Over a span of 310 plate appearances leading up to the end of July, he’d recorded a slash line of .213/.265/.305, a mark roughly 50% worse than average after adjusting for park and league. In the 170 plate appearances since then, however, he’s produced a .347/.409/.626 mark, 70% better than league average. There’s been some batted-ball fortune maybe, but that hardly accounts for the enormity of the improvement in the numbers.
While the change in outcome has been significant, the change in process has been relatively simple. Polanco has basically followed three steps to rethink his approach, allowing the former top prospect to regain his standing with the team.
Step 1: Reach less.
A player’s swing rate is the first stat to become meaningful in a given season, and it’s the third-stickiest stat year to year. Generally, hitters are aggressive or patient, and though they may make adjustments in between the two poles, they generally adhere to a signature approach.
Simply because most players don’t make wholesale changes, that doesn’t mean that none of them do. And because swing rate becomes reliable in such a small sample, it’s pretty easy to identify because of how quickly the numbers become reliable. Which makes sense: swing rate is almost entirely in the batter’s control. Will I be aggressive? Or will I hang back?
Polanco wasn’t necessarily aggressive last year, swinging at 42.7% of the pitches he saw. (League average is 46.5%.) He was reaching more than average, though, and probably struggling as a result.
That all changed two months ago:
Step 2: See more fastballs.
A reach at a ball outside the zone turns a ball into a strike. That puts the hitter into a bad count, swinging to protect instead of swinging to attack.
So it’s no surprise that Polanco has seen better counts since he started reaching less often. Since that first graph is a rolling 15-game graph, we can kind of assume that he made a big change 40 games ago — the 25 that look good plus the 15 that came before. In his first 155 games, Polanco saw an 0-2 count in 71% of games. In his last 40, he’s seen an 0-2 count 50% of the time.
Give away fewer strikes, and the pitchers have to go to the pitch with better strike outcomes. Four-seamers, for example, are in the zone nearly 30% more often than changeups. So, yeah, Polanco has seen more four-seamers since he started reaching less.
Step 3: Rake.
It’s tempting to try and reach around for different explanations. In the midst of a fly-ball revolution, it seems as though every breakout is the product of a change in swing plane. I asked Parker Hageman if he’d noticed anything different mechanically and discovered that we’d been on the same track when it came to approach. The Twins Daily writer pointed out that both Polanco and his manager have said nothing is different on that front. As Polanco told Phil Miller at the Star Tribune:
“It’s nothing different. I just keep working, keep practicing, knowing it will change,” he said. “Only thing [that changed]: I worked with my hitting coaches on waiting for my pitch. Just try to swing at better pitches.”
Has he pulled the ball more? Maybe a little recently, but it didn’t presage the success. (He was actually pulling a bit too often earlier in the year.) Did he put the ball in the air more? Yes, but only now that he’s seeing more fastballs and is comfortable at the plate. In other words, the graphs are messier for these stats.
But not when it comes to reach rate and his breakout. This graph is so fresh and so clean.
While simply swinging less is related to positively to walks and strikeouts and power — meaning overall production goes up, but so do strikeouts —
reaching less seems like an unmitigated positive. After an early dip in zone swing rate, Polanco has turned the trick of swinging at strikes and declining to swing at balls.
|Career to 7/26/17||31.1%||58.4%||7.2%||15.8%||0.302||0.365||0.283||75|
Forty games ago, Jorge Polanco began making a real effort to change his approach at the plate and reach at balls less often. Because of that, he saw better counts and then more fastballs. And then he started to rake.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.