Best Of British – AJ Pollock: 2019’s Best Free Agent Signing

Joel is one half of Four Bases, a British Baseball website that has recently produced a fantastic (and FREE) guide for the 2019 MLB season.

The Landscape

With the benefit of a couple of years of hindsight, the winter of 2018 and spring of 2019 may retrospectively be the most important off-season since the great strike of 1994 in changing the landscape of baseball. Manny Machado got dollars of an epic proportion, 300 million of them to be exact from San Diego. Then seemingly in a game of, ‘whatever you can do, I can do better’ Bryce Harper got paid to the tune of $330m from Philadelphia, 30m more than his comrade in South California. However, this wasn’t particularly unforeseen from the baseball community. Everyone knew that two of the modern-day poster boys were going to get remunerated in a way no-one else had before. However, what wasn’t foreseen was the stagnate free agency market that concerned the remaining 99.99% of the league that followed.

Much to the vocal opinion of many former (and current) ball players, people like Marwin Gonzalez, arguably the game’s best utility man had to settle for a $21m over 2 years, Gio Gonzalez– a 2 time all-star signed with the Yankees mid spring training on a minor league deal and Dallas Keuchel, a 55 game winner over the prior 4 seasons and former CY Young winner remains unsigned.

To complicate the landscape even more, ballclubs have astutely used the uncertain turbulence within the labour market to lock up their talent for the long term rather than letting their players walk the tight rope which is the new free agent market. The White Sox gave Eloy Jimenez $26m having never played in the MLB, The Astros locked up Alex Bregman ($100m 6yrs), The Rockies locked up Nolan Arenado ($260m 8yrs) , The Rays gave Brandon Lowe, a prospect with just 129 MLB at-bats $26m over 6 years and 2019 CY Young Winner Blake Snell, a seemingly below market $50m to match the $45m Aaron Nola received from the Phillies.

Obviously, the elephant in the room is Mike Trout’s $430m. But with the talent Trout has and the value he provides to an organization both on and off the field, its probably best to leave his contract as just that, an elephant in the room. There is only one Mike Trout and basing the labour market model around him will inevitably just make it more of a mess than it already is.  

So here we are. Sat in flux. The top 0.5% of free agency are getting paid a king’s ransom. The free agent class made up of both studs in their first round of FA post arbitration and veterans looking for one last pay check is stalling and having all value sucked out of it by the day. This is consequently scaring players, still on rookie contracts and in their arbitration years into signing long term deals (at a reduced rate) for their long-term financial security. And when you’re getting offered 10’s of millions, who can really blame them?

So where is the value? Surely teams have managed to sneak a bargain this off-season?

The Problem

Yasiel Puig – 118 games

Matt Kemp – 120 games

Joc Pederson – 132 games

Kike Hernandez – 87 games

Cody Bellinger – 81 games

Chris Taylor – 63 games

Alex Verdugo – 28 games

Andrew Toles – 10 games

For seemingly the past few seasons the Dodgers have successfully juggled and manipulated a log jam of outfielders such as Matt Kemp, Chris Taylor, Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Trayce Thompson & Kiki Hernandez to name just but a few to get regular at bats into a plethora of evident talent. It’s evident that the 2018 LA outfield was a position of extreme complexity and intricacy. Often selected on both a platoon and match up basis, the Dodgers rarely fielded the same outfield 2 nights in a row.

The table below contains the outfielders who started at least 60 games in the outfield during the 2018 season. From digesting the numbers below it could largely be suggested that the Dodgers outfield in 2018 epitomized the middle of the road. With the only 2 hitters hitting above .260 (Puig & Kemp) now in Cincinnati as part of a Dodger salary dump, the numbers could easily look a lot more subordinate. And that’s giving Cody Bellinger the benefit of the doubt of being classed as an every day outfielder. Long story short, the Dodgers offense came from everywhere else apart from the outfield. Maybe upon reconsideration that statement is a little unfair, as all but 1 of the 6 outfielders impressively clubbed at least 20 home runs. As very much a group which lived and died by the long ball, the Dodgers outfielders seemingly failed to hit smartly. With a collective OBP of just .332 and average of just .265, the Dodgers outfield didn’t make it particularly easy for the remainder of the line-up.

The Dodgers outfield offensively struggles can be attributed largely to one thing, their swing and miss rate. Within the top 100 hitters of whom swung and missed the most, the Dodgers outfield lay claim to 3 of the top 28 hitters of any position. With Matt Kemp leading the way at 10th missing 13.9% of the time, Chris Taylor was 12th (13.7%) and Cody Bellinger 28th (12.4%) the Dodgers never truly got a reliable at bat from any of their best hitters within the outfield position.

Avg. OBP. Slug. WRC+ HR RBI R
Yasiel Puig .267 .327 .494 123 23 63 60
Cody Bellinger .260 .343 .470 120 28 76 84
Matt Kemp .290 .338 .481 122 21 85 62
Joc Pederson .248 .321 .522 126 25 56 65
Kike Hernandez .256 .336 .470 118 21 52 67
Chris Taylor .254 .331 .444 113 17 63 85
Average 0.265 .332 .480 120.33 22.5 65.8 70.5

With all of this, the Dodgers were still one of baseball’s best teams in winning 92 games on their way to their sixth consecutive National League West title and second successive World Series appearance. Evidently the 2018 Dodgers outfield was tremendously competent yet ultimately the Dodgers failed in their quest for their first World Series victory since 1988. With the right addition, the outfield could be a key compound in taking this squad to winning the last game of the season, something they’ve failed to do for the last two years.

The Solution

On January 26th the Los Angeles Dodgers signed AJ Pollock to a 4-year deal worth $55m and the option for a further fifth year worth $10m. Initially, many questioned the Dodgers willingness to hand out $50m to a guy who has played 150 games only once in his 7-year career whilst still in the infancy of the 2019 free agent market. When Pollock signed, it wasn’t like barrel was bare; Bryce Harper, Marwin Gonzalez, Michael Brantley, Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz all able outfielders were still on the board. So why Pollock? Why was he the man to address the gaping problem of the Dodgers roster.

Pollock has fairly or unfairly accumulated a public perception of him whereby he is deemed fragile and injury prone. Having spent significant time on the disabled list for 4 of the past 6 seasons its certainly hard to argue with. But when looking a little deeper below the surface, it could largely be suggested that Pollock has been the victim of some freakish injuries:

  • 2010 – Broken elbow on diving catch (Missed whole season)
  • 2014 – Hit in the hand with a 92-mph fastball, (Final 8 weeks)
  • 2016- Slid into home plate and broke his elbow (Nearly his entire season)
  • 2017 – Groin strain (50 Games)
  • 2018 – Attempted diving catch and broke his thumb (8 Weeks)

With only his groin strain a red flag for many front offices, Pollock’s injury resume although a full one isn’t a massively concerning one. That said, his groin injury hasn’t seemed to cost Pollock much, if anything within his speed orientated approach to the game. His sprint speed courtesy of MLB statcast topped out at 29.00 feet per second in 2015 and was 28.2 feet per second in 2019. So, in gaining 3 years of age and suffering a bad groin strain, Pollock only lost 0.8 feet per second when on the base pads.

Amazingly his defence has got better with age (and injury!), his expected catch percentage was 82% in 2016 compared to his 87% level in 2018. So, although he has got fractionally slower, albeit minutely, his defensive ability as improved significantly.

In the chart below, we can clearly see that Pollocks range in catching deep fly balls in a position away from the regulation starting point of a centre fielder is significantly higher than the Major League average. With anything within the green shaded line denoting a well hit ball which combines both trajectory and power thus making it harder to catch, Pollock clearly excels.

With all of this said, the Dodgers outfield is defensively sound. Bellinger, Puig, Hernandez and Pederson are all above or elite defenders for their position. Using AJ Pollocks fielding to state a case for his value to the Dodgers isn’t necessarily the purpose of my argument, albeit it does help. My point is, that for a guy who is often seen as fragile and brittle, Pollocks defensive output in a position which demands speed and agility has never once wavered. Maybe Pollock has just been the victim to some freakish injuries rather than being the injury prone CF which never quite delivered on his billing. When healthy, he’s elite at his position. You don’t reach that level with health queries.

Offensively, Pollock has always shown the signs of potentially breaking into one of the game’s most elite hitters combining power with contact and speed. When added to his defensive skillset and arm strength, you’re suddenly looking at baseball’s holy grail, a 5 tool player.

Over the past 5 seasons Pollocks .283 batting average is more than the 6 Dodger outfielders previously mentioned from 2018 (Bellinger, Hernandez, Puig, Pederson, Taylor & Kemp) with his .483 slugging pct. trailing only 2017 rookie sensation – Cody Bellinger.

We previously discovered the main flaw in the Dodgers outfield offensively, was their tendency to swing and miss. Since 2015 the Dodgers 6 outfielders have attributed to the following swing and miss rates: Matt Kemp (14.1%), Cody Bellinger (12.9%), Chris Taylor (12.4%), Yasiel Puig (11.8%), Joc Pederson (11.5%) and Kike Hernandez (10.6%). Collectively the sextet account for an average 12.21% of swinging and missing at pitches both in and out of the strike zone.  AJ Pollock in that time has a swing and miss rate of just 8%, 6.1% better than the Dodgers highest (Matt Kemp) and 4.21% than the Dodgers average.

It’s clear that Pollock’s arrival in Los Angeles immediately improves the Dodgers, but I’m not sure people realise just by how much. Pollocks reduced swing and miss rate should and will act as a catalyst for getting on base at the top of the line up ahead of the likes of Justin Turner, Corey Seager and previously mentioned Cody Bellinger.

Despite playing significantly less games over the past 3 seasons than Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp – Pollock has more stolen bases (76), a larger RaR (Runs above replacement) 114.8 and more importantly more runs than all but Kemp. Through May 2019 before succumbing to his broken thumb, Pollock had complied a season with a wRC+ of 152. Despite the weighted small sample size, Pollocks wRC+ was over 31 runs higher than the average of all Dodgers outfielders with over 60 games registered.

The Outlook

The Dodgers will be confident about AJ Pollock being able to avoid seemingly yet another freak injury, but should the worst happen – the Dodgers have made the necessary adjustments to his contract. Firstly, the Dodgers can choose to opt out of the contract at either the end of the 2022 season should Pollock have not amassed 1000+ plate appearances between 2019 and 2021 or 1,450 between 2019 & 2012.

Away from the injury insurance, the Dodgers have laden the contract with handsome performances bonuses. Pollock will receive a $1m bonus should he finish in the top 6 places of NL MVP voting. He would earn $1m per point (1st = 5pts, 2d to 5th= 3pts, 6th = 1pt).

Assuming AJ Pollock can stay healthy and consistently man the middle of the outfield for the Dodgers, then there is no reason not to believe that he can’t be arguably the best free agent signing this winter. Particularly if he can rediscover his 2015 form when he hit .315/.367/.498 with 20HRS and 111 runs scored.

Amidst a market of uncertainty and without structure, the Dodgers have quietly improved the one position they needed to. Given the way his contract is structed to account for his unfortunate past, Pollocks annual value in the region of $13m may prove to be one of the most astute signings this offseason. The Dodgers may be paying a genuine dark horse MVP candidate just $13m if he can stay healthy. Not bad business from the Dodgers. Not bad at all.

Featured image from Yahoo Sports

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