The Chicago White Sox have long been looking for a corner outfield solution, as you are likely aware. In their ascent to competitive baseball after years of rebuilding, they tried the stopgap reclamation project in Nomar Mazara (2020) and the veteran reunion project in Adam Eaton (2021) before designating him for assignment and utilizing a committee. To say that both of those free agent signings failed would be an understatement. Both players got on base under 30% of the time in their recent seasons on the south side.
Entering 2022, it was a mystery as to what Rick Hahn and the front office would do to rectify this problem. Although there were several intriguing prospects in the minor league system such as Yoelquis Cespedes and a few in-house options such as Adam Engel, Gavin Sheets, and Andrew Vaughn (the latter two playing out of position), it still was identified as a position of need.
The plan became clear when the White Sox traded Craig Kimbrel to the Los Angeles Dodgers for AJ Pollock on April 1st. Thankfully, this was not an April Fool’s Day joke, as MLB insiders confirmed the reports and Pollock headed from sunny California to the Windy City. Pollock’s addition to the team was a welcomed sight, as he sported an excellent .297/.355/.536 slash line with the Dodgers in 2021 in 117 games. He looked the part in his first few plate appearances in the 2022 opening series in Detroit, but the excitement stopped there, as he left the second game of the season with hamstring tightness and was placed on the Injured List three days later.
Though the rust showed upon his return to the active roster and he struggled for several weeks, the veteran has turned things around in a big way in the last couple of weeks. He thrived in the leadoff role in Tim Anderson’s absence, with a robust .400/.434/.580 slash line in 50 at-bats, accompanied by a dynamic 1.014 OPS. The Sox are set on keeping Anderson as their leadoff man and table-setter, so while Pollock has moved away from the leadoff spot, he still continues to swing a hot bat.
Let’s take a peek into three key areas of Pollock’s recent surge: his success in the month of June, his exit velocity/slugging, and his damage versus fastballs.
Since the calendar turned to June, AJ Pollock has turned into a wrecking machine. In 82 at-bats, he is slashing .305/.345/.463 with an .808 OPS. He’s more than turned a corner – he’s proven that he deserves to be a lineup mainstay for the White Sox. One could argue that he’s been one of the best three hitters for the Sox this month. Remember, this is not a massive shock by any means, as Pollock is a guy with a proven track record. This is the hitter fans were excited about when the Kimbrel swap was completed in early April.
In a month headlined by injuries, mediocre play, and questionable managerial decisions, Pollock is quietly going about his business and delivering quality at-bat after quality at-bat.
Pollock has never been a true homerun hitter or dominant slugger. Having said that, across his career, he’s displayed solid-to-good exit velocity and slugging numbers. From 2015 to the present (since Pollock entered the league), the average MLB exit velocity on batted balls is 88.4 mph. Pollock’s career average exit velocity currently sits at 89.2 mph, with his 2022 number being 88.3 mph. He’s listed in the 37th percentile in the MLB in terms of 2022 average exit velocity. Furthermore, while his 2022 slugging percentage rests at a modest .389, it’s notable that his expected slugging is in the 68th percentile in the majors and his slugging percentage this month is an excellent .463.
There are a few key takeaways here. First and foremost, Pollock’s 2022 numbers take his dreadful start to the season into consideration. It’s impressive that he now ranks as an above-average hitter regarding expected slugging given the slow start. He was hitting a mere .220 on the season as recently as June 8th. He’s now up to .254 with a 96 wRC+. While this is nothing extraordinarily encouraging, it’s a huge improvement over the subpar hitting we’ve seen out of the right field options over the last few years. Additionally, as Pollock continues to heat up, the expectation is that he will creep closer to the 90 mph average exit velocity mark and his metrics will post as better than average.
As seen below, Pollock isn’t short on batted balls that are categorized as hard-hit (95+ mph exit velocity). In fact, almost 40% (38.8%) of his batted balls can be described as such, a tick behind his career average of 40.7%. As more opportunities have been presented to Pollock, he’s been able to show that he puts significant dents in baseballs.
Take a look at the bottom graph that depicts a visual of Pollock’s rolling slugging percentage on the year (minimum 50 plate appearances). As you can see, over the first 70 or 80 plate appearances, he was reeling a bit and not posting a respectable slugging percentage. However, with time, he’s been able to make steady strides in this area and right the ship, as seen by the gradual increase in the graph. Now, Pollock is an above-average MLB hitter as far as slugging percentage goes.
Pollock vs. Fastballs
In 2022, AJ Pollock is seeing fastballs thrown to him at a 49.6% clip. Against such offerings, he has maintained an excellent .344 batting average and .548 slugging percentage. What Pollock is doing against heaters is nothing less than destructive. He still has rather quick hands for a veteran player and possesses the ability to identify fastballs in the zone and drive them all over the diamond.
As seen in the clip below versus the Astros from a week ago, he takes what’s given to him. Instead of trying to pull a fastball that’s middle/out, he goes with it and drives it to the right-center gap for a three-run shot. In the second clip, you can see what he does to fastballs middle/in. His quick hands allow for him to turn on the ball and rip one to left field off the wall. He’s had success in this league for a reason. One aspect of his success is a refined, cerebral approach. Another key component of his success is his innate ability to hammer fastballs.
In a rollercoaster of a season, AJ Pollock is no exception to the up-and-down ride that White Sox fans have experienced. He’s been injured, suffered through a prolonged slump, and battled through a roster crunch. However, all three of those items have been put to rest.
Based on his exceptional month at the plate, sound slugging metrics, and consistent ability to smash fastballs, it’s apparent that Pollock’s skills are very much intact and he is a key contributor to this roster. The Sox will continue to rely on his solid, veteran bat to produce throughout the summer and down the stretch of the 2022 season.
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Featured Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports