Along Goes Polly

Placido Polanco finished the 2011 season with a .277/.335/.339 line, easily the worst of his 14-year career. Stats which adjust for league and position make that line look a bit better, but it is hard to ignore the trend that Polanco has been in steep offensive decline since 2007. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections don’t expect Polanco to improve much at all in the coming year (.307 wOBA; .304 in 2011), so that begs the question: should the Phillies have done more to improve at third base over the off-season?

Going by FanGraphs WAR, Polanco was the fifth-most valuable third baseman in the National League at 2.8 fWAR, a fact that will likely surprise a lot of Phillies fans. Third base has become a position of scarcity. 2011 was the first season since 2003 in which the average OPS for National League third basemen was below the overall league average.

Season NL OPS 3B OPS “OPS+”
2000 .782 .771 99
2001 .759 .760 100
2002 .748 .737 99
2003 .755 .729 97
2004 .763 .773 101
2005 .749 .751 100
2006 .768 .792 103
2007 .758 .766 101
2008 .749 .761 102
2009 .751 .756 101
2010 .728 .733 101
2011 .720 .705 98

“OPS+” simply divides 3B OPS by NL OPS and multiplies the quotient by 100.

It’s not as if third basemen with a better bat than Polanco’s were both plentiful and available at an affordable price. The Phillies were rumored to be interested in former Chicago Cub Aramis Ramirez, but that was before they re-signed Jimmy Rollins. Aside from Ramirez (who signed a three-year, $36 million contract), there were seven other third base-capable players that signed guaranteed Major League deals: Willie Bloomquist, Greg Dobbs, Jerry Hairston, John McDonald, Nick Punto, Edwin Encarnacion, and Adam Kennedy. Obviously, none of the seven compare favorably to Polanco.

Upgrading third base was never a realistic option for the Phillies, at least not without taking a hit somewhere else (in the Ramirez example, the Phillies would have been worse at shortstop). They will have to live with Polanco in the last year of his three-year, $18 million contract, and that’s just fine. Even if you apply a high dose of skepticism towards UZR (and his 2011 NL Gold Glove award), Polanco is considered to be one of the best defenders at the hot corner. The following table lists defensive data (FanGraphs) for third basemen with at least 750 defensive innings in 2011. A shade of red indicates Polanco led; a shade of green indicates he ranked second.

Name Team Inn DRS RZR OOZ DPR RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
Placido Polanco PHI 1044.2 16 0.775 38 -2.3 10.4 5.9 14 16.7
Pablo Sandoval SFG 904.2 22 0.78 42 -0.6 10.8 2.2 12.3 17.9
Casey McGehee MIL 1233.1 -2 0.71 36 0.3 9.4 -3.2 6.5 7.3
Ryan Roberts ARI 902.1 -4 0.713 23 0.3 -0.3 1.7 1.7 2.6
Chase Headley SDP 895.1 0 0.685 31 0 -2.8 -0.2 -2.9 -5
Ryan Zimmerman WSN 866.2 0 0.677 23 -0.3 -3.4 0.7 -3.1 -4.4
Greg Dobbs FLA 755.0 -5 0.691 17 0 -2.6 -2.2 -4.8 -10
Chipper Jones ATL 1006.1 -5 0.668 35 0.4 -12.2 3.8 -8 -12.4
Aramis Ramirez CHC 1241.1 -12 0.653 22 -0.2 -10.7 1.5 -9.4 -10.9
David Wright NYM 893.2 -7 0.673 40 -0.7 -4.8 -5 -10.5 -16.4
Chris Johnson HOU 841.1 -16 0.668 14 -0.1 -14.2 -0.2 -14.5 -22.2

Glossary – DRS: Defensive Runs Saved; RZR: Revised Zone Rating; OOZ: Out of Zone plays; DPR: Douple Play Runs; RngR: Range Runs; ErrR: Error Runs; UZR: Ultimate Zone Rating; UZR/150: UZR per 150 defensive games.

As long as Polanco can hit close to the league average for third basemen and continues to play great defense, he will be more than worth the $6.25 million the Phillies will pay him in 2012. The only frightening variable is Polanco’s health — the 36-year-old missed 31 games last year with a back injury and a sports hernia. If Polanco does succumb to injury, Ty Wigginton can easily fill in at the hot corner.

The Phillies’ off-season has been open to quite a lot of criticism, but looking back, you have to give them credit for addressing the third base situation properly: by doing next-to-nothing.