The Dodgers’ AJ Pollock Is Picking up the Slack

When AJ Pollock went down with a Grade 2 right hamstring strain in early September, it wasn’t entirely clear that he would be available to the Dodgers for the postseason, let alone remain as productive as he’d been. Fortunately for Los Angeles, the 33-year-old left fielder made a quick return, hit reassuringly well over the season’s final days — .300/.389/.867 (214 wRC+) in 36 plate appearances post-injury — and is well-positioned to help pick up the slack for the injured Max Muncy, who dislocated his left elbow on the final day of the regular season. In Game 2 of the Division Series against the Giants on Saturday night, the Dodgers’ left fielder played a key role in all three of their rallies.

Pollock, who had taken a pair of 0-for-3s in the NL Wild Card game and the Division Series opener, first made an impact upon Game 2 as part of a move that backfired on the Giants. With two outs and Chris Taylor on second base in the second inning, he got ahead of Kevin Gausman 2-0 by laying off a 95-mph fastball just below the strike zone and then an 85-mph splitter low and away. Rather than challenge him in the zone and risk a big hit, the Giants elected to intentionally walk Pollock, who was batting eighth, to bring up pitcher Julio Urías, a decent hitter who made the Giants pay by driving in the Dodgers’ first run of the series with an RBI single. Pollock took third and then scored on Mookie Betts‘ single.

In the sixth, Cody Bellinger’s bases-loaded, two-run double off reliever Dominic Leone — who taken over for Gausman and made an inauspicious entry by walking Taylor — extended the Dodgers’ lead to 4-1. On Leone’s very next pitch, a slider right on the outside corner, Pollock reached out and lashed it to left field for another two-run double:

In the eighth, with one out, Taylor on first, and the Dodgers leading 7-2, Pollock added a single to his collection, off Zack Littell; he would later come around to score the team’s ninth run on a Corey Seager single.

Together, Taylor, Bellinger, and Pollock — the Dodgers’ sixth, seventh, and eighth hitters in the lineup — combined to go 5-for-11 with two walks, four RBI, and six runs scored. That’s a dramatic contrast to the grim 1-for-19 showing with two walks that the Dodgers got from those spots in the previous two games, with all of the good stuff coming from Bellinger in the Wild Card game.

While the slumps of Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP, and Taylor, an All-Star earlier this year, have received attention, Pollock’s strong season has flown somewhat under the radar, but it deserves notice. He hit .297/.355/.536 for a 137 wRC+, fourth on the team behind latecomer Trea Turner, Seager, and Muncy. Though he played in just 117 games — his highest total since 2015, remarkably — because he also missed time with a left hamstring strain in the second half of May, he nonetheless tied his career high with 21 homers. His 3.0 WAR was also his highest mark since 2015.

Pollock was roughly as productive during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, hitting .276/.314/.566 (131 wRC+) with 16 homers while playing in 55 of the Dodgers’ 60 games, just the second time since his 2013 rookie season that he avoided the injured list. He has continued to evolve as a hitter since his Arizona days, hitting the ball harder and in the air more often via a more aggressive approach en route to stronger offensive production.

Pollock set career bests in barrel and hard-hit rate while matching the lowest groundball rate of his career:

AJ Pollock Batted Ball Profile
Season Team GB/FB GB% EV LA Barrel% HardHit% wOBA xwOBA
2015 ARI 1.74 50.3% 88.9 8.9 4.5% 39.1% .371 .338
2017 ARI 1.39 44.6% 88.0 8.5 5.4% 38.4% .340 .334
2018 ARI 1.10 42.2% 89.2 13.5 9.7% 40.5% .338 .333
2019 LAD 1.18 43.5% 90.6 13.7 7.6% 39.9% .333 .329
2020 LAD 1.00 39.9% 89.6 13.0 10.5% 43.1% .364 .346
2021 LAD 1.03 39.9% 90.3 12.0 11.1% 47.1% .375 .360

I omitted Pollock’s 2016 season, during which he played just 12 games due to a fractured right elbow; the same joint cost him more than two and a half months of 2019, his first season as a Dodger, due to inflammation. Though his exit velocities haven’t varied wildly during the Statcast era, his groundball rate has dropped by more than 10 percentage points, with his barrel rate more than doubling during that span and his hard-hit rate increasing as well.

More air, harder hit, welcome to the party. That’s not an uncommon pattern, but it’s interesting that Pollock has done this while expanding his zone and swinging and missing more often — yet striking out less:

AJ Pollock Swing Rates
Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% SwStr% K% BB%
2015 ARI 30.2% 64.0% 46.0% 85.0% 6.9% 13.2% 7.9%
2017 ARI 27.0% 60.4% 42.3% 83.6% 6.9% 15.2% 7.5%
2018 ARI 33.6% 67.3% 48.1% 77.8% 10.6% 21.7% 6.7%
2019 LAD 31.6% 67.0% 46.6% 75.4% 11.4% 21.6% 6.7%
2020 LAD 33.7% 66.5% 47.7% 78.7% 10.1% 21.4% 5.7%
2021 LAD 37.6% 73.9% 52.8% 77.0% 12.0% 19.0% 7.1%

Just two years ago, Pollock’s swing rate ranked in the 41st percentile among players with at least 300 PA, but this year, he was up to the 87th percentile. Yet his production didn’t suffer for it, even while going outside the zone more often. He swung much more often on both 1-0 and 0-1 counts than before, jumping from 38.8% to 64.9% on the former from 2020 to ’21, and from 41.1% to 56.9% for the latter, though other counts showed more modest increases; when ahead or behind in the count, his swing rate increased by about eight points (from 51.8% to 59.7% for the former, from 49% to 57% for the latter), but when even in the count it increased only by about two points (from 44.4% to 46.5%).

In terms of Statcast’s Swing/Take runs, Pollock was much more effective in the shadow zone, the borderline of the strike zone, than he’d been in the previous three seasons:

AJ Pollock Swing/Take Runs
Season Team PA Heart Shadow Chase Waste Total
2015 ARI 660 13 -5 10 8 25
2017 ARI 479 -8 -3 11 10 10
2018 ARI 457 9 -17 7 7 6
2019 LAD 355 -2 -10 4 7 -1
2020 LAD 253 7 -15 3 4 -1
2021 LAD 427 11 -4 7 8 23
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Since his playing time from year to year is rather uneven, it might be more helpful to summarize like so: over the previous three seasons, Pollock was 25 runs below average per 600 PA in the shadow zone, but he improved to -6 runs there in 2021.

I’m not sure how sustainable that is, but the approach is working for Pollock right now, and the Dodgers really need it with Muncy’s absence. While the team’s offense was certainly potent — the Dodgers led the NL with 5.12 runs scored per game, and their non-pitchers’ 113 wRC+ was just one point below the Giants for the league lead — their most productive hitters each missed considerable playing time. Trea Turner (153 wRC+) was a July 30 acquisition who played in just 52 games. Seager (147 wRC+) played in just 95 games due to a fractured metacarpal in his right hand. Muncy (140 wRC+) played in 144 games and served a stint on the IL due to an oblique strain. Betts (131 wRC+) played in only 122 games while making two trips to the IL for inflammation in his right hip.

Consider this table showing the number of players on each team who hit for at least a 100 wRC+ in 200 PA or more in 2021, and the share of total non-pitcher plate appearances they occupied:

Share of Plate Appearances Taken by Players with 100 wRC+ or Better
Team # 100 wRC+ PA Non-Pitcher PA Pct
Rays 10 4507 6196 72.7%
Giants 11 4283 5890 72.7%
Astros 8 4316 6270 68.8%
Padres 7 3982 5845 68.1%
Red Sox 7 4115 6098 67.5%
Blue Jays 8 4041 6050 66.8%
Dodgers 8 3902 5889 66.3%
A’s 7 3514 6080 57.8%
Cardinals 6 3215 5707 56.3%
Phillies 6 3097 5786 53.5%
Reds 6 3090 5841 52.9%
White Sox 8 3205 6060 52.9%
Mets 6 2742 5572 49.2%
Tigers 5 2813 5960 47.2%
Orioles 5 2702 5963 45.3%
Mariners 5 2671 5991 44.6%
Brewers 6 2581 5794 44.5%
Twins 6 2695 6060 44.5%
Braves 4 2403 5742 41.8%
Cubs 5 2045 5700 35.9%
Yankees 4 2132 6045 35.3%
Rockies 4 1768 5709 31.0%
Angels 4 1780 5993 29.7%
Royals 3 1768 5966 29.6%
Nationals 3 1571 5807 27.1%
Rangers 3 1536 5923 25.9%
Diamondbacks 3 1283 5846 21.9%
Marlins 4 1230 5642 21.8%
Indians 2 1102 5889 18.7%
Pirates 1 646 5716 11.3%
Includes only players with at least 200 plate appearances for that team. Yellow shading indicates Division Series participant.

The Dodgers have the third-highest total of such players, but the seventh-highest percentage share, and fifth-highest among the remaining playoff teams — and that’s counting Muncy, who’s not currently available. Of course the Giants have a similar problem without Brandon Belt, and the Braves probably don’t want to hear either of them whine about it given the absence of Ronald Acuña Jr.

Another way to look at this reprises a graph that Owen McGrattan made in examining why the Astros’ Kyle Tucker is hitting seventh (I’ve limited mine to include only the eight remaining teams):

Given the various fill-ins they used due to the absences of the aforementioned hitters, the Dodgers again look only middling here from the fourth spot down, and that’s before taking away Muncy, who most frequently batted second. The presence of Pollock, who missed roughly a quarter of the season but who wielded one of the majors’ most potent bats while hitting in the sixth through eighth spots, is key when it comes to lengthening the lineup:

Top Hitters While Batting 6th, 7th, or 8th
Player Tm PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Yasmani Grandal CHW 142 .252 .440 .660 191
Ramón Urías BAL 151 .344 .430 .573 174
Gavin Sheets CHW 106 .313 .368 .656 174
Tyler O’Neill STL 116 .303 .336 .679 167
AJ Pollock LAD 283 .314 .360 .613 155
Kyle Tucker HOU 397 .304 .361 .574 152
Austin Riley ATL 120 .330 .433 .500 151
Brandon Crawford SFG 214 .319 .383 .565 150
Christian Walker ARI 100 .311 .380 .544 145
Jacob Stallings PIT 132 .290 .424 .449 142
Will Smith LAD 120 .271 .383 .510 135
Ryan McMahon COL 198 .294 .389 .524 131
Carlos Correa HOU 189 .281 .360 .479 130
Mike Zunino TBR 277 .214 .292 .552 129
Kevin Plawecki BOS 121 .321 .388 .450 129

Pollock is fifth in wRC+ among this group, but second in PA only to Tucker, who enjoyed a nice breakout season and who has thrived with so many strong hitters in front of him. Smith, whose 130 wRC+ ranked fifth on the Dodgers, is in this group as well, as are several players from other teams still in the playoffs.

Admittedly, this is a lot of work to illustrate a concept that really ain’t rocket science: having more good hitters available is good, actually. But on such a star-laden team, it’s easy to overlook Pollock, who has had a fine season, and who has suddenly become that much more important to the defending champions as they battle for another title.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Why is there a Twitch livestream auto-playing when I load up FG main, and why is there no way to turn it off? (outside of ublock origin, which I promptly used to block it, but the audio seems to remain)