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AJ Pollock's turnaround in a Dodgers uniform

It's been a remarkable three years for AJ Pollock with the Los Angeles Dodgers

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Friedman’s tenure with the Dodgers has been nothing short of extraordinary. Since the former Rays general manager signed on to be the president of baseball operations out west the Dodgers, have taken full advantage of their resources to truly become a juggernaut.

But in baseball there’s so much being done constantly that even the best can make some questionable decisions. It’s really a volume business at its core.

The A’s “gave up” on Max Muncy, the Rays flipped German Marquez for a return headlined by Corey Dickerson, the White Sox acquired veteran James Shields for Fernando Tatis Jr. and Friedman added reliever Josh Fields for one Yordan Alvarez.

Once in a while players develop in a way no one predicted and it’s easy to say in hindsight that the team looks really bad, but as you can see such thing could and does happen even with the best run organizations in the sport. That particular kind of mistake is not the one we’ll focus on for the very reasons that were listed above. Instead, redirect your attention to these names:

  • Hector Olivera: six years, $62.5 million
  • Brandon McCarthy: four years, $48 million
  • Scott Kazmir: three years, $48 million
  • Yaisel Sierra: six years, $30 million

None of those signings really produced what was expected out of them, and if you look closely, a pattern will emerge. The biggest budget in baseball offers a lot of advantages, and one of them is the ability to gamble what would otherwise be a significant amount of money for your average franchise on second-tier free agents who offer a decent amount of upside, but with plenty of risk.

If the Tampa Bay Rays or even the Toronto Blue Jays sign one of those players for that amount of money, a significant amount of their budget is being allocated to that contract. With that, the needed production out of that player is simply higher than with the Dodgers, who can accumulate assets and endure a worst-case-scenario outcome.

Looking at his whole era in Los Angeles, this isn’t really a point to criticize Friedman, more so just acknowledge it. In fact, he even managed to get out of the Olivera contract pretty soon with a three-team trade that brought Alex Wood to town. All of this serves as an introduction to a player that early on appeared to be following the same route as those three but who’s been quietly turning around his fortunes over the last couple of years.

Before the 2019 season the Dodgers signed AJ Pollock to a substantial contract — $55 million guaranteed over four years, plus a player option for a fifth season — to play primarily in an already crowded outfield even before the arrival of Mookie Betts. In 2019, Chris Taylor, Alex Verdugo, Kiké Hernandez, Joc Pederson all had claim to playing time. That's not to mention that one of the outfield positions was already reserved for Cody Bellinger, with Max Muncy's emergence as an All-Star first baseman.

It was easy to be skeptical about committing to an injury-prone player that didn't quite offer the upside you already had with cheaper, younger options to play your outfield,. For the first year all, of those points really stood out as Pollock got off on the wrong foot in Los Angeles.

Although Pollock managed to maintain a very similar batting line to his most recent seasons in Arizona, the now left fielder missed significant time due to injury. He received plenty of scrutiny after his pitiful 0-for-13 performance with 11 strikeouts in the Dodgers NLDS loss to the Nationals. It goes without saying that conclusions shouldn't be made based on such a small sample size, but it'd be foolish to not admit that the pressure didn't grow, and that the perception of his Dodgers tenure took a big hit.

Them came 2020, and something changed.

Pollock hadn't been the same hitter since his season-ending injury way back in 2016. Here's a comparison of how he was before and after it:

  • 2014-15: .311/.363/.498 131 OPS+
  • 2017-19: .263/.324/.475. 105 OPS+

At the time of his signing the general consensus was that Friedman was paying for post-elbow-surgery Pollock, a slightly above-average, injury-prone outfielder with solid but unspectacular defense. Was that really worth the commitment?

Here we are three years later and after 2019 the former Diamondback seems to have turned back the clock, remaining relatively healthy throughout the last couple of seasons. Here's his batting line the last two years:

2020-21: .289/.339/.529. 131 OPS+

Highest Dodgers slugging percentage, 2020-21

Player SLG
Player SLG
Will Smith .531
AJ Pollock .529
Mookie Betts .524
Corey Seager .507
Max Muncy .492
through September 21 Source: FanGraphs

Some of the bat-to-ball skills aren't quite there, but he's making it up with the best power numbers of his career, which is even more impressive considering his switch from Chase Field to Dodger Stadium.

To give some perspective, during this run Pollock is second in the Dodgers with a .529 slugging percentage, behind only Will Smith (.531) since the start of 2020.

That earns respect, and it moved Pollock from a complementary piece to one of the more important hitters in the lineup. His absence with a right hamstring strain over the past few weeks has been quite the blow to the team. If not for Gavin Lux’s recent hot streak, this outfield would be in definite trouble.

Now that we acknowledged Pollock’s improvement, where has it come from?

Take a look at this graphic with Pollock's wOBA in each season since the beginning of his career against different pitches:

Source: Baseball Savant

During his peak years Pollock was always a hitter that feasted on fastballs, doing the bulk of his damage against the heater. He's managed to bring that back over his last two campaigns.

Pollock's batting profile hasn't changed all that much. It's not like he's swinging or making more contact with pitches in the zone relative to his career, but this return to form that was the backbone of his peak years has been enough to propel him out of the “bad contract” conversation and into the “invaluable, major piece of the puzzle” one.