Public relations-wise, it's been a bit of a tumultuous off-season for Phillies 3B Placido Polanco. He took a fair amount of understandable, if somewhat unfair, heat for the Phillies' playoff loss to the Cardinals, after going only 2 for 19 in the series. Then, over the next few months, rumors of varying levels of credibility swirled that the Phillies were trying to replace him with Aramis Ramirez or David Wright. Thankfully, we're now on the eve of the regular season, and Polanco is still right where he left him: with the team, as the starting 3B.
A lot of what I have to say about Polanco, I already said in two articles from the offseason: "Placido Polanco Is Good at Baseball" and "In Baseball, Positions Matter, But Roles Don't". The shape of things is pretty clear:
• He isn't a particularly good hitter anymore
• His fielding metrics are strong
• Since joining the Phillies two seasons ago, he's been injury-prone
• He's now 36 years old
• He's set to make $6.25 million this year, which is peanuts (get it? peanuts? waka waka)
So there you have it. To what extent that basket of goods is a strength for the team depends largely on whether you prefer Fangraphs WAR or B-R WAR. If you're on Team Fangraphs, then Polanco has been a very substantial boon for the Phillies and he should continue to help them in 2012 (as long as he experiences only a normal amount of age-related decline, and as long as his health isn't worse than it was in 2010 or 2011). If you're on Team B-R, then Polanco hasn't been that big of a strength, but he hasn't been a weakness either.
So, the one-sentence summary of Polanco's second tour of duty in Philadelphia is that, if the fielding metrics are accurate, then his defense has been so good that it has outweighed his deficiencies as a hitter.
I get the impression that some people have a hard time accepting that concept. Intuitively, I can kind of understand why, but if you think about it, it doesn't make rational sense because (in my view) very few would have the same difficulty accepting that a shortstop's great defense can outweigh his weak offense (think of guys like Brendan Ryan or Alcides Escobar). One might argue that "SS is more of a premium defensive position than 3B is, so defense is less important at 3B," but that's a fallacy and we need to push back against it. Defensive ability is less important at 3B, but defense (which I'll define here as how good you are at stopping runs relative to your peers) is not less important at 3B, or even, for that matter, at LF or 1B. To the contrary, defense is equally important at every position on the field. The only thing that differs from position to position is the standards.
I think the reason why some get hung up on this is because of the different ways in which offensive and defensive metrics are represented. Since hitting stats aren't positionally adjusted, we all understand that when we need to make a mental adjustment whenever we look at, say, Ryan Howard's BA, HR, wOBA, or wRC+. But defensive stats are already positionally adjusted, so we don't need to make a mental adjustment. If you're +10 runs at 1B, those +10 runs are precisely as valuable as +10 runs from SS or CF. Everyone understands this, but (at least for me) it requires conscious thought to overcome my subconscious autopilot tendency to apply the positional adjustment anyway.
Back to Polanco. We're still left with a few open questions in trying to project him for 2012. For instance: (1) Even the best defensive metrics are volatile and imprecise. Can we trust them? (2) Didn't he drop off a cliff in the middle of 2011, and doesn't that mean he's likely to be much worse in 2012 than his cumulative 2011 stats indicate? (3) He missed one fifth of 2010 and one fourth of 2011, so isn't he likely to miss an even greater share of 2012?
I would answer "no" to all of these questions.
First, yes defensive metrics are subject to a pretty wide margin of error. But when all (or nearly all) of them are in agreement, then you have to give them more credence. And since Polanco moved back to third base in 2010, nearly all of them have, in fact, agreed that he's one of the best defensive third basemen in the game.
Second, Polanco didn't really fall off a cliff over the course of 2011. It may seem like he did because he was so red-hot at the plate in April and ended up with below-average offensive stats. But what actually happened is that he fell off a cliff in the middle of the season, then went on the DL, then came back and ended the year with hitting stats that were merely below-average (roughly equivalent to his cumulative stats). I don't think it makes sense to interpret this as revealing an inexorable downward decline. It just shows that he was really streaky and volatile last year. He's 36 so there's a good chance he'll decline some in 2012, but a fall off a cliff isn't likelier for Polanco than it is for any other 36-year-old.
Third, yes Polanco is injury-prone. It would undoubtedly be unwise to expect him to play 150 games. (In fact, he shouldn't be permitted to play that many games even if he doesn't get injured, right Charlie?) But just as even paranoids can have enemies, even the injury-prone can be injury-unlucky. Polanco's two-year trend may force us to account for a worse worst-case scenario, but I don't think it gives us enough data to conclude that the midpoint projection for how much time Polanco is likely to miss in 2012 should be equal to or worse than what we saw in 2011. The projection systems agree: James, ZiPS, and Fans all project Polanco to play more games in 2012 than he did in 2011, with an average of 127. That obviously wouldn't be a great number, but it would be manageable.
So, in sum, I think the proper view of Polanco heading into 2012 is one of cautious optimism. He's still a pretty decent player, and that's even ignoring his dirt-cheap contract. In fact, not only am I happy to have Polanco back in 2012, but I think there's a pretty strong possibility that picking up his option for 2013 will turn out to be the right move when the time comes (although the Phillies may not have a choice in the matter since it's a mutual option).
One final thought: It's always a bit odd to be defending Polanco here. You would typically expect a "scrappy," fundamentally sound contact hitter to be overappreciated by the masses and thus disdained by saber-friendly commentators. Why that hasn't happened with Polanco is for you to decide.