Despite leading the National League West for much of the season, the Diamondbacks will likely miss out on October. Next year, things might be more difficult as A.J. Pollock will enter free agency. There are few concerns with Pollock, but the largest is his ability to stay on the field.
In 2015, A.J. Pollock was worth 6.8 fWAR as he slashed .315/.367/.498 with elite defense. His was one of the names in the conversation about 2018 being the best free agent class ever. Since then, Pollock has been worth 4.6 fWAR as he missed nearly all of the 2016 season and parts of 2017 and 2018. In 2016, he broke his elbow. In 2017, he missed time with a groin strain. This year, he missed a month and a half with a broken thumb.
Over the last three years, he’s hit for just a 103 wRC+, so when he has played, he hasn’t been the same. He’s gone from being an MVP candidate to merely average-to-good in the field and at the plate.
Even with the addition of the humidor at Chase Field, Pollock’s power numbers haven’t changed much since 2015. He’s slugging .484 this year, and he slugged .471 in 2017. He’s hitting more balls in the air and a greater percentage of them are going over the fence. Per FanGraphs, his hard-hit percentage of 45.5 this year is 11.1 percentage points higher than in his 2015 campaign.
Just looking at those numbers, it’s hard to say that the injuries have held him back. They haven’t sapped his power, but there is a difference in Pollock’s game.
The most noticeable change about his offense has been the increased strikeouts. In 2015, he struck out just 13.2 percent of the time. In 2017, that number rose to 15.2, and in 2018, it has skyrocketed all the way to 21.1 percent. Much of that has to do with his ability to make contact.
The 2017 contact numbers are right in line with his 2015 marks, but in 2018, Pollock’s ability to make contact has slipped. League average contact is 77.1 percent, so Pollock is still an above average contact hitter but just barely. It’d be easy to chalk up the lower contact rate to injuries, but Pollock is swinging more, too.
Pollock’s chase rate and zone swing rate have both risen to career-highs. That’s likely contributed to the increased whiff rate more than anything.
The good news is that Pollock still walks at around the same clip despite swinging more. Still, his OBP has dropped, and that’s because he’s been a tad unlucky with batted balls in 2018 and slightly lucky in 2015.
In his best season, he benefitted from a .338 BABIP. The last two years, it’s been at normal levels (.291 and .295 respectively). His batting average fell accordingly from .315 to .264 this year. Likewise, his 2015 wOBA of .371 eclipsed his xwOBA of .342, but the direction has been reversed this year.
Pollock has lost a step. In 2015, Statcast tracked his sprint speed as 29.0 feet per second. This year, it’s at just 28.2. Oddly enough, Pollock isn’t getting fewer infield hits. Where the loss in speed is manifesting itself is in the defense and basestealing.
Pollock isn’t quite the elite defender he once was. His 2015 UZR/150 of 31.4 has dropped all the way -1.1. DRS and Statcast’s outs above average agree that he’s been around average. That might have something to do with him losing step. Speed isn’t the only factor in outfield defense, of course, but being able to cover more ground in less time always helps.
Then there’s basestealing. In 2015, he stole 39 bases, but he’s only stolen 11 this year. He’s had fewer opportunities to do so (fewer singles, less playing time), but the extra two or three feet he could cover in a base-stealing attempt made things much easier a few years ago. Stealing is still a tool in his shed, but he’s not quite the threat to go he once was.
Pollock is still a good player with legitimate power, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever get MVP consideration again. The increase in strikeouts is something he can live with, and the decline in speed is something every player has to deal with. It’s still unfortunate that Pollock’s peak years were stolen by injuries.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville.