Evaluating the A.J. Pollock Signing

Outfielder, A.J. Pollock has signed a 4 year $55 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The deal includes a $10 million option for the 5th year or a $5 million buyout.

Outside of Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock was the best outfielder on the open market. What made Pollock attractive clubs was his presence as a true center fielder, coupled with the fact that when healthy, he is not only one of the top right handed free agents this year, but one of the top right handed hitting outfielders in the MLB. Therein lies the biggest concern about A.J. Pollock, health. Some players, even Dodgers have been notorious as injury prone, and Pollock was certainly that during his time in Arizona.

Virtually no player is perfect, as we all know. There was legitimate concern among teams that considered signing him. However, there is also belief that the risk greatly outweighs the reward. Although a bit cliche, Pollock can be classified into three categories: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Good

A.J. Pollock was certainly a unique name on the open market, largely due to the fact him and players alike are finite. A.J. Pollock is a center fielder by trade, in a market where all the other top outfielders are in the corners. Although it may not appear is such to the average fan, playing center field requires a different level of range and defensive ability that being a corner outfielder may not require.

As the game becomes more analytically driven, the way in which MLB players are valued becomes more sophisticated and accurate. For years, the only stat that was looked at for defensive purposes by teams and fans was fielding percentage. Now, with the rise of sabermetics and advanced statistics, players defensive abilities are more accurately evaluated. Compared to the Dodgers options in center field last year, A.J. Pollock is an upgrade defensively.

As I mentioned earlier, range and athleticism play a huge role in the defensive success of a center fielder. ultimate zone rating (UZR) is essentially a statistic that measures range, fielding percentage, arm of an outfielder and how well they can assist in double plays. Essentially, it is a reliable metric to measure the value of fielders and what they ultimately are capable of. UZR/150 is just the 150 game average of the fielder at a specific position. With a career UZR/150 of 5.9, the veteran A.J. Pollock’s is higher than all of the Dodgers options in center field. That includes the likes of Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Kike Hernandez and Joc Pederson. In addition to that, Pollock was 6th among all center fielders in terms of defensive runs saved (DRS) behind the most elite class of defenders, including Lorenzo Cain, Mike Trout and Albert Almora Jr. Through adding A.J. Pollock, the Dodgers have solidified themselves on defense, with someone who is an asset on defense and will even take away runs from opposing teams that would have otherwise scored.

Throughout this Dodgers era that has six straight division titles and back to back National League championships, they’ve played soundly in all aspects of the game. The lineup has always been both powerful and deep, their rotation is often the envy of the league and in recent years their bullpen has shifted from a weakness to a strength.

The only thing a person could nitpick about with this Dodgers team is their struggles against left handed pitching. Losing shortstop Manny Machado to free agency only weakened their lineup, as they lost the most potent right handed bat. In order for the Dodgers to improve, it was up to the front office to add an impact bat, preferably from the right side that will serve to significantly boost the lineup versus lefties.

Enter A.J. Pollock. Throughout his career, A.J. Pollock has hit both lefties and righties well, but overall has hit lefties better and with more power, albeit in a smaller sample size. Pollock owns a respectable career OPS of .825 against left handed pitchers, along with a wRC (weighted runs created) of 116 and wOBA (weighted on base average) of .351. All of these statistics indicate that Pollock has found a niche in his career through his efficiency against lefties. The most surprising of these is his wRC+ of 116. Pollock has had essentially a thousand more plate appearances against righties, yet has created more runs against southpaws (116) than he has right handers (112).  In a league that tends to hit right handed pitching, on average, better than it does left handed pitching, it is somewhat of a shock Pollock was not more sought after.

The Bad

In December, A.J. Pollock turned 31 years old. Technically, 31 is the “prime” for many players, albeit the final year or so of this, most are still highly effective still at this age. However, athletes are all individuals and everybody ages differently. Part of the reason certain players age “better” or “worse” than others do is based primarily upon two separate things, the type of player they are and the bill of health they have maintained.

At age 34, Player One had just signed a 4 year $57 million deal with an organization. He went on to become a silver slugger, all star and even finish 6th in MVP voting for his respective league. He averaged over 40 home runs during his tenure for this organization and very well may play into his forties. Player Two is also 34 years of age, but his story differs greatly from Player One’s from there. After years of injuries and declining productivity, Player Two was released by his organization by June of his age 34 season. Player Two was essentially forced into retirement following his release due to the fact no team had much of a need for him. Two baseball players, the same age, yet two stories that differ greatly from each other.

Player One is named Nelson Cruz, Player Two is named Carl Crawford. Carl Crawford, once considered one of baseball’s best all around players, played the game on with his strengths, speed and athleticism. Unfortunately for Crawford, these two tools are the ones that deteriorate the quickest and most dramatically, from a historical standpoint. The more an athlete relies on athleticism and their body, the greater the risk is that they face injury and deterioration. Cruz on the other had has largely been viewed as a one dimensional player, a great hitter, who hits for power. Luckily for Cruz, his are of expertise is skill based as opposed to athletically based. As a result, the one dimensional Cruz has been afforded the opportunity to thrive in the league through his late thirties due to the sustainability of his skill set. The lesson of this story is that players who rely on athleticism will be out of this league quicker than those who rely on skill.

This is concerning for the Dodgers and their new center fielder. Although Pollock does not rely so heavily upon his body and his speed quite the way Crawford did, much of his game is centered around what Crawford’s was. At 31 years of age, playing one of the most demanding positions in baseball, Pollock is due for regression.

Naturally, it is expected that for every year after 30, a baseball player tends to lose 0.5 in WAR on average. For Pollock, coming off a season in which his WAR is 2.5, which means that during his time on the Dodgers, it is unlikely that he has a season in which his WAR exceeds 3. According to Fangraphs, a player is worth $9 million a season per WAR. As of right now, Pollock is actually considered somewhat of a bargain, which keeps this deal from becoming ugly. But with each passing year, as Pollock inches closer to the end of this contract, what once was a steal of deal can turn into a financial liability for the Dodgers.

The Ugly

I reiterate, Pollock is a fine hitter who plays solid defense. He may be getting older, but at only 31, he still has some quality production left in him. I am not really concerned about his age much. Besides, at less than $14 million a season, the Dodgers, one of the wealthiest sports franchises in the world can easily afford slight over evaluation of a player. However, there is one thing about A.J. Pollock that frightened fans in Arizona and will now haunt fans in Los Angeles.

“When healthy…” is a phrase commonly said during discussions about A.J. Pollock. Yes, he is a unique breed of power and speed. Yes, he is a right handed bat that will force managers to take remove their top left handed pitchers from games. Yes, he plays well above average defense in center field. All of these things are true, but you know what else is true about A.J. Pollock?

He is injury prone.

In most every article I write or in nearly all conversations I have about baseball, I rely on advanced metrics and analytics to prove my points and solidify my claims. The game has grown more intelligent, sparking not only a new era of talent evaluation in baseball, but in all professional sports alike.

However, it does not require any knowledge of sabermetrics or even any knowledge of basic statistics like batting average and on base percentage for somebody to flip over A.J. Pollock’s baseball card and see “12” under the games played category for the 2016 season. In his entire career, A.J. Pollock has played only one full season. He has spent weeks and months at a time on the disabled list too many times in his career.

Google “A.J. Pollock” and numerous articles ranging from injury announcements to analysis questioning whether Pollock is ever going to be the player many though he was capable of becoming.

Even if a player ages and their productivity decreases as they enter their mid thirties, the sheer fact that their team knows they can rely on them to be out on the field most every day still carries value. But if a management lacks confidence that they can even rely on someone that is on their team to be available when called upon, there is rightful cause for concern. Pollock’s injury history is not only troubling, it is flat out ugly.

The Final Verdict 

The goal of every MLB team is (or at least should be) to improve from the team they were last year. For some organizations, this is easier than others. The Dodgers are fresh off back to back World Series appearances. Although many fans are dissatisfied (rightfully so) with the growing championship drought, becoming reactionary and impulsive to sign the biggest name free agent is simply unnecessary. The Dodgers are an organization that is run from the top down fantastically, with a strong core, and not many additions need to be made.

Have the Dodgers upgraded?

The most fair way to judge A.J. Pollock’s signing is with that question right there. Following a trade that sent Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood to Cincinnati, the pressure was on Friedman and company to make a corresponding move that would not only offset the loss but serve as an upgrade from the prior situation.

Alex Wood is a pitcher and Matt Kemp, despite such a compelling first half, showed so much regression that simply dumping his contract for financial flexibility was an upgrade within itself. Therefore, the question is, is A.J. Pollock an upgrade over Yasiel Puig?

Many fans and connoisseurs of the game would laugh in my face for even posing that question. However, it is a fair question and there is an answer. The answer is yes.

For starters, Pollock is the superior defender. Center field is the most demanding position for an outfielder to play, hands down. Pollock has played the overwhelming majority of his career innings in that spot. Yasiel Puig on the other hand has played the vast majority of his career innings on defense in right field. Remember that stat, UZR/150, the one that Pollock has received a career score of 5.9 from? Yasiel Puig’s career score is 3.3. In addition to that, Pollock has played nearly 700 fewer career defensive innings than Puig, yet in terms of DRS (defensive runs saved), Pollock has saved 12 more runs over his career than Puig. Just imagine if they played the same number of innings.

Puig was certainly exciting to watch in the batters box, and fans knew that at any moment, he could bust the score open with his game changing power. Ironically though, for being a right handed hitter, Puig struggles immensely against southpaws, and it became more apparent in recent years. Pollock on the other hand, has hit lefties incredibly well over his career, slightly better than he does righties. And as Dodgers fans know, the team certainly needs to upgrade their lineup against left handed pitching for not only now but more importantly October.

Again, Pollock’s record of health is alarming and his age indicates that he is likely exiting his “prime”. But he provides a level of consistency and balance to a Dodgers lineup that will not only be an upgrade, but may actually turn out to be the steal of the offseason.

Ian Nielson has served as a writer and contributor for @DodgersLowDown since 2018. Follow him on twitter @inielson23