What’s Wrong with Placido Polanco?

Yesterday, we learned that Placido Polanco had earned his second career All-Star nomination. After a great start to the 2011 season, his place on the NL All-Star team seemed all but assured. He played stellar defense at third base, but more importantly finished the first month with a .972 OPS. The Phillies’ offense, which had struggled to score runs, was buoyed at the time by Polanco’s hot bat.

As the calendar turned to May, Polanco cooled down. It was expected, as Polanco’s true talent level with the bat does not yield a .972 OPS. His season OPS dipped below .900 on May 7, but continued plunging. By May 18, it was below .800. On July 1, it had sunk all the way to .695. A cold spell lasting more than two months is no longer a streak but a problem. Unlike last year’s hitting woes, Polanco can’t blame injuries as he has yet to land on the disabled list, though he has the typical wear and tear of the baseball season — bumps and bruises from poorly-controlled pitches and wayward foul balls.

Polanco’s issues seem more mechanical this time around. As the following charts from Texas Leaguers illustrate, Polanco started off pulling the ball to the outfield, but in May and June his batted balls rarely left the infield, and when they did, he hit the ball towards right field.

Overall, Polanco is simply hitting the ball with less authority. Using data from Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/X database, Polanco’s ground ball rate has steadily risen while his line drive rate has declined.

While Polanco’s .632 BABIP on line drives is well below the National League average .712, we are dealing with a relatively small sample size (68 line drives) and his overall trend of weaker contact would help explain it. In previous seasons, Polanco’s ground ball rate ended up in the 45-50 percent range, but he typically made stronger contact than he has been more recently.

If this unfortunate trend is a result of age — slower bat speed and/or reflexes, perhaps — then there is not much that can be done. It’s baseball cancer. However, if the problem is mechanical, then the trio of Polanco, manager Charlie Manuel, and hitting coach Greg Gross should be able to find a way to fix it before their third baseman sinks to the bottom.

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