Placido Polanco Doesn’t Need Your Pity

When speaking about a woman, saying “she has a great personality” is interpreted as “she’s ugly”. It’s a weak compliment, and it’s weak because there isn’t much else to compliment. The baseball equivalent is to laud a player by saying that his contributions don’t show up in the box score, for they are intangible (and thus can never be disproven). David Eckstein can barely hit the ball out of the infield, but he’s gritty and scrappy and has heart.

Baseball traditionalists use stats to compliment a player truly worthy of praise. Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs; Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak; Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games played, etc. are prominent examples. Even if one is completely ignorant of Sabermetrics, people still default to numbers, which makes the praise of a player’s intangibles all the more transparent. If a player is good, his numbers are cited. If his numbers aren’t brought up, then he probably wasn’t that good.

John Finger of recently wrote an article praising Polanco, saying that his contributions can’t be found in stat form. It’s amusing because Polanco is not in need of the assistance. He’s been a second baseman with a career .761 OPS. Not exactly Chase Utley numbers, but he’s been about average offensively at a premium defensive position. He also happens to have been a very, very good fielder at second base.

This is not David Eckstein we’re talking about, he of the career .358 slugging percentage; he of the noodle arm who must muster all of the strength in his body to toss the ball to first base.

This is Placido Polanco. Among second basemen in the 2000’s, there have been just 20 player-seasons in which a player has racked up 500 or more plate appearances and struck out 46 or fewer times. Polanco is responsible for six of them (30%). Three of the top-five slugging percentages belong to him. He doesn’t strike out much and can hit for some power (despite being quoted as saying he can’t in Finger’s article).

At second base, where he has racked up nearly 8,500 innings, his UZR/150 is at an even 10.0, meaning that for every 150 opportunities, Polanco will make ten more plays than the average second baseman. At third base, a position he hasn’t played regularly since 2002, he has a 9.9 UZR/150.

As for base running, Baseball Prospectus thinks he’s been a boon as well. Using EqBRR (definition), he’s been at 1.3, 3.0, and 0.8 over the last three years. Pedro Feliz, on the other hand, was at -5.6 and -0.7 in 2009 and ’08 with the Phillies.

Bringing it all together, FanGraphs values him at 28 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) since 2002, an average of about 3.5 WAR per season. In that span of time, he’s been worth $100 million ($12.5 million per season) and been paid a meager $31.6 million (about $4 million per season). On average, Polanco has been worth about three times as much as he’s been paid, meaning that the Phillies and Tigers have really gotten their money’s worth with him.

Among all second baseman over the past three years, only Chase Utley (23.6 WAR), Dustin Pedroia (15.7), and Brian Roberts (12.5) have been more valuable than Polanco (11.4).

Finger writes, “there’s just something the grizzled baseball men see in Polanco that defies measurement.”

This is insulting to Polanco! The numbers beautify his contributions on the baseball field. No, he’s not the “three true outcomes” basher that have been popularized by Sabermetrics, like Adam Dunn. However, would a “grizzled baseball man” claim that Polanco was more valuable than both Ryan Zimmerman and Jose Reyes in 2007? More valuable than Carl Crawford and Derek Jeter in ’05?

It’s true that there may be some facets of Polanco’s game that aren’t quantified on Baseball Reference or FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus. I’m sure he’s great in the clubhouse. However, to focus on those aspects instead of what is staring you right in the face — his average offense, his incredible defense at second base, his ability to run the bases intelligently — is to completely misunderstand and underestimate Polanco’s value on the baseball field.

Polanco does not need the window dressing compliments reserved for the David Ecksteins of the baseball world. He’s been good enough to throw his hat in the ring with the best in the game.

Despite being complimentary of Polanco here and admitting that GM Ruben Amaro signed Polanco for well under market value, I still remain a critic of the signing. I don’t like signing an aging player to a multi-year deal to play a position he hasn’t played regularly since 2002. I don’t like paying $6 million on average for Polanco when Chone Figgins, who has more upside, was signed for $9 million on average.

To criticize the signing is not to criticize the player, however. We can say, at the same time, that the Phillies should not have signed the fourth-most valuable second baseman of the past three years to a below market contract. We can recognize Polanco’s value while still being critical.

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My first entry at Baseball Prospectus should be up at 9 AM EST today. Click here and it should be at the top at that time.

EDIT: Here it is.

I am currently working on Phillies previews for The Hardball Times and Baseball Daily Digest. Both should run at the end of the month. Additionally, ESPN is also asking for my input on the Phillies. Stay tuned for that. I’ll provide appropriate links as they become available.