Prior to the 2016 season, a number of fantasy enthusiasts — and Marlins fans — took a look at the healthy distances that Christian Yelich would hit flyballs and wondered what could be if he just hit a few more of them. This season, we got a snapshot of what that would look like. For the first time in his four-year career, Yelich hit ground balls at a rate below 60 percent (56.5 percent, to be exact) and drove his flyball rate up to a whopping 20.0 percent. Those trends, in combination with a higher hard-hit rate and a greater average flyball distance, helped Yelich to become the legitimate power source some of us dreamed of, as he hit 21 home runs and 38 doubles.
By hitting grounders at an extreme rate, Yelich wasn’t making full use of some strong power-hitting skills that his indicators suggested he owned. But could there be a hitter who does just the opposite, hitting too many flyballs in the face of flagging power indicators? If his rookie season is a sign of what’s to come, Jorge Polanco is becoming such a hitter.
Polanco posted a 32.8 percent ground ball rate that was among the lowest in the majors. His 36.8 percent flyball rate, while higher than the major league average, was not extreme, as he laced line drives at a dazzling 30.3 percent rate. However, it bears noting that Polanco had been a line drive hitter throughout his minor league career, but not at that level. Meanwhile, his penchant for hitting flyballs at above-average rates in the minors is well established. The graph below shows that Polanco was uniquely averse to ground balls among those with a hard-hit rate below 25 percent, just as the grounder-prone Yelich was an outlier among those with high hard-hit rates this past season.
Despite those consistent flyball tendencies, Polanco’s highest Iso in a full-season circuit before 2016 was .144, and that was from his 2013 campaign in the Class A Midwest League. This year, Polanco had something of a power breakout at Triple-A Rochester, blasting nine home runs with a .181 Iso in 325 plate appearances. Those power ratios were achieved with the help of a park-adjusted 30.0 percent ground ball rate, which was the fifth-lowest in the International League, according to StatCorner.
At the major league level, Polanco didn’t get nearly as much mileage out of a low ground ball rate. His .264 flyball Iso would have been the 12th-lowest in the majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. He bested Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Harrison and Martin Prado by 10 flyball Iso points or fewer and hit only four home runs in 270 total plate appearances.
Still, Polanco’s flyball tendencies could make the difference between him being a 10-to-15 homer shortstop and someone who hits five-t0-seven home runs. The elevation in power could earn him more attention in deeper mixed leagues, but at what cost? Even though he batted .282, Polanco took a hit on his batting average, as he finished with an .086 BABIP on his flyballs. That paled in comparison with the major league mark of .127. We can’t count on Polanco to rebound to the major league average, since he didn’t hit flies with much authority. His hard-hit rate on flyballs was 25.7 percent. By contrast, Yelich’s rate was 60.7 percent. Stephen Vogt, who has a similar tendency (though not nearly as extreme) to hit too many flies with too little power, registered a 32.6 percent hard-hit rate on flyballs.
Polanco’s high line drive rate saved his batting average and padded his Iso, as 10 of his doubles and two of his triples came on liners. In the likely scenario that his line drive rate dips well below 30 percent, Polanco could fall short of his Steamer-projected .269 batting average.
But enough of the pessimism. Just as Yelich was too good of a power hitter to be destined for a career of single-digit home run totals, Polanco has some skills that he could put to even better use. As mentioned above, he’s been a good line drive hitter for the bulk of his professional career and an exceptional one over the last two seasons. He is also a good contact hitter. If Polanco dialed back his flyball tendencies just a bit, hit the ball a little harder and walked more often, he could be a reliable source of high batting average and an above-average on-base percentage. Throw in the possibility of a string of 10-10 seasons and some run-scoring potential, and you got the poor man’s Francisco Lindor. Or a version of Elvis Andrus who has traded off some steals for batting average points (his .302 average from 2016 notwithstanding).
Polanco, who appears to be set as one of the Twins’ opening day middle infielders, doesn’t need to be drafted in standard mixed leagues, but his potential to hit for average and score runs makes him a potential late-round flier in deeper mixed league formats. The upper ranks at shortstop have gotten crowded in the past year, and Polanco is not a serious threat to join them, but 2017 should be an interesting year for watching his progress. He could embark full-fledged on the Didi Gregorius career path and have a 20-homer season someday, or he could pursue a less flashy course that would make him even more valuable to fantasy owners.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.