A closer look at Placido Polanco's offense

Placido Polanco has a batting average of .303 for his career. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)

A storm system hovering over Florida has prompted the cancellation of both of the Phillies' split-squad games today. They will be back on the field tomorrow at Bright House Field, weather permitting.

Placido Polanco has a career .761 OPS, ranking him in the neighborhood of immortals like Todd Hundley, Shea Hillenbrand, and Rico Brogna (No. 675 on the career OPS list, but No. 1 in your hearts).

Now, keep in mind that hot-ticket free agent third baseman Chone Figgins, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Angels, has a career OPS of .751. But you can certainly understand why plenty of eyebrows in the national punditry shot skyward when the Phillies decided to give Polanco $18 million guaranteed over three years to switch to a position he hadn't played since 2005.

I was surprised with the length of the deal, considering the amount of money the Phillies have locked up over the next three years. But I'm just a hack with a keyboard and a distribution system, so don't take it from me: Polanco himself told the Tigers' web site yesterday that he was unsure of his own market and probably would have accepted arbitration had the Tigers offered it, and in the same article Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski came across as less-than-thrilled with the way things turned out.

"He wanted a multi-year deal, from us or from somebody else," Dombrowski told reporters last month, according to the web site. "I do not know if he'd have gotten a multi-year deal if we had offered him arbitration. I think he would have now that I know what the Phillies gave him, but I did not know that at the time."

Only time will tell if the Phillies were wise to tack on that third year. But the fact that Polanco is a good defender who can play multiple positions would seem to serve as something of an insurance policy against a decline in performance. As Amaro said after Polanco's introductory press conference in December, $6 million would make for an expensive utility player. But even in a worse-case scenario, Polanco is unlikely to represent dead money by the time the contract ends.

And, in the short term, the steady Polanco would seem to be a good fit for a Phillies offense that can be equal parts freakish, frenetic and frustrating. True, he hardly ever walks. And he sees fewer pitcher per plate appearance than any Phillie on the roster. But players who hit .290 with a .360 OBP generally make more than $6 million per year.

1) Polanco's price tag versus Adrian Beltre's price tag

The one-year deal that Adrian Beltre signed with the Red Sox has been offered up as proof that the Phillies overpaid for Polanco. I don't necessarily agree with that line of thinking. First, even the contract Beltre signed with the Red Sox was probably out of the Phillies' price range.

Polanco will earn $5.5 million this million, which is at least $2.5 million less, and up to $4.5 million less than the Red Sox will pay Beltre. That's Danys Baez. Or Ross Gload and Brian Schneider. Or, maybe it's the veteran reliever they might trade for at the deadline. Or Pedro Martinez down the stretch. Or part of Jarrod Washburn's salary should the rotation suffer an injury this spring.

Fact is, if you are an organization operating with a hard cap on payroll spending, sometimes you have to sacrifice potential for cost certainty. I'm told that the Phillies viewed Beltre's initial salary demands as well beyond their means, which meant looking elsewhere. The Red Sox could afford to be patient, thanks to their bigger budget and their in-house options at third base.

The Phillies knew they had to look to free agency for a third baseman (once they declined Feliz's option). They knew they would need to do so again next year, with even less payroll flexibility. As for the third year? Well, time will tell.

2) Polanco's situational hitting

In addition to dollars, the Phillies think Polanco makes a lot of sense for their line-up. We looked at this conclusion back in mid-November, when we broke down the hitting "ability" of the Phillies' six potential free agent targets at third base. In the interest of space, you can check out some of that legwork here.

The overall point is that while Beltre's right-handed power and good defense would have fit right in with this line-up, perhaps even allowing Charlie Manuel to break up all of his lefties, Polanco's contact-hitting ability is an intriguing dimension that the Phillies have lacked over the past couple years.

We broke down Polanco's various contact rates in today's story in the Daily News. The guy put more balls in play than any other hitter in the American League. But he is also known as a good "situational hitter," a guy who moves runners even when making outs, a guy who adapts his strategy to each at-bat.

It's tough to quantify this ability, but the numbers that do exist support the conventional wisdom.

Productive outs: A "productive out" is classified as any out that: A) Advances a baserunner with the first out of an inning (With a man on first and no out, Batter X grounds out to third, allowing the runner to move to second) or B) Scores a baserunner. In his career, Polanco has converted 40 percent of his P.O. opportunities. The MLB average is 32 percent, according to Baseball-Reference.com

Man on third, less than 2 out: It's a golden scoring opportunity, but the Phillies converted on only 48 percent of their opportunities last season (the NL average was 50 percent). In his career, Polanco has scored a runner on 61 percent of his opportunities.

Runner on second with no out: Move a runner in this situation, and you set your team up with a runner on third and less than two out. Polanco has moved a runner in 55 percent of these situations in his career, compared with an MLB average of 43 percent.

Polanco has also converted 75 percent of his sacrifice bunt attempts, which is slightly above average, though he has grounded into double plays on 14 percent of his opportunities, which is slightly below average.

3) Polanco vs. Victorino

Here is where things get interesting. The Phillies' initial plan is to hit Polanco at No. 2 most of the time. This spot was occupied by Shane Victorino last year. Manuel has said he thinks Victorino is better suited to hit somewhere where he doesn't have to "think" as much, where he can swing a little more freely. The conventional wisdom is that this will be the No. 7 spot, which Feliz inhabited last season. But I wouldn't be surprised to get a decent amount of playing time in the six-hole, with Raul Ibanez batting behind him.

Regardless, the main point is that the Phillies view Polanco as a No. 2 hitter, someone who can move Carlos Ruiz or Jimmy Rollins into scoring position with two out, or send Rollins from first to third, or perform any of the other tasks that his steady bat equips him for.

Again, the numbers support this thesis. Here is how Polanco and Victorino stack up, both last season, and over the last four years:

Productive outs converted
Victorino: 31 percent (2009), 31 percent (2006-09)
Polanco: 32, 35

Moving runner to 3rd w/ lt 2 out
Victorino: 48 percent, 52 percent
Polanco: 54, 53

Scoring runner from 3rd w/ lt 2 out
Victorino: 56 percent, 52 percent
Polanco: 58, 61

Not a huge disparity. But the numbers in these limited categories at least indicate a difference in situational hitting ability.

4) Rollins and Ruiz

Maybe this is actually the point where things get really interesting. Because in order to take advantage of somebody's situational hitting ability, you must first place him in situations. Which, to me, is why Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz are the two most pivotal hitters in the Phillies line-up this season. Note that I did not use the word "important." The Phillies showed last season that they can get by with a horrible year out of Rollins and a mediocre year out of Ruiz. And they showed in 2008 that they can get by with a horrible year out of Ruiz and a mediocre year out of Rollins. And if Cole Hamels pitches like he did in 2008 and J.A. Happ pitches like he did in 2009 and Joe Blanton pitches like he did for most of last year and Roy Halladay pitches like he has for most of this decade, the Phillies might be able to get by with a horrible year out of everybody.

But if Ruiz and Rollins can get on base consistently, this Phillies offense could finally reach the potential that many envisioned for them after 2007.

Of course, Rollins is the more important figure here. Even if he returns only to the form he showed in 2008, the Phillies should be fine with him as a leadoff hitter. For as "good" a year as Shane Victorino had last year, and as "mediocre" a year as Rollins had in 2008, Rollins' .349 on base percentage in 2008 was just .009 less than the .358 Victorino posted last season. Rollins' baserunning ability and Victorino's higher slugging percentage probably cancel out the negigible gain in OBP were Victorino to move into the leadoff spot.

But if Rollins struggles in 2010 like he did in 2009, or even in some of his pre-MVP years, the Phillies will at least have some options. Last year, Manuel responded to suggestions of moving Rollins down in the order with a contemptuous "Who do you want to lead off?" While Victorino was the obvious answer, Manuel had a point when it came to the composition of the entire order. Essentially, he couldn't hit Pedro Feliz anywhere other than seventh. Now, however, he has Polanco, who can pretty much hit anywhere.

This line-up:

  1. Shane Victorino
  2. Placido Polanco
  3. Chase Utley
  4. Ryan Howard
  5. Jayson Werth
  6. Raul Ibanez
  7. Jimmy Rollins
  8. Carlos Ruiz
  9. Pitcher

Looks a lot better than this line-up:

  1. Shane Victorino
  2. Chase Utley
  3. Jayson Werth
  4. Ryan Howard
  5. Raul Ibanez
  6. Pedro Feliz
  7. Jimmy Rollins
  8. Carlos Ruiz
  9. Pitcher

Of course, these are all what-ifs. The point is, Polanco gives the Phillies some of the versatility and consistency that they have been lacking over the past couple years.

5) No. 2

Now, here's a question: will hitting No. 2 in the Phillies' line-up affect Polanco? For whatever reason, hitting second was a statistical boon for the four players who logged at least 20 plate appearances there last season. In fact, as good as Victorino was, hitting .307 with a .370 on base percentage, 90 runs scored and 50 RBI, the three other players who hit there were even better.

Now, this is an admittedly small sample size, so it's tough to draw any conclusions. But it is still interesting to point out:

  • Chase Utley: 82 PA, .309 BA/.415/.529, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 10 RS
  • Jayson Werth: 44 PA, .333/.500/.636, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 7 RS
  • Ben Francisco: 23 PA, .381/.391/.667, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 RS
  • Shane Victorino: 572 PA, .307/.370/.467, 9 HR, 50 RBI, 90 RS

6) Defense

We began this blog post under the premise that Polanco's transition to third base is a question mark that can only be answered through time. Manuel and Amaro both say they think Polanco will have little trouble with the transition. But it is easy to overlook how well Feliz played on defense over the past couple years, given how easy he made the position look. His arm strength and accuracy were amazing. The wisdom of jettisoning that defense in favor of Polanco's offensive strengths is certainly grounds for debate. But again, this particular discussion is about Polanco's offense.