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Why new White Sox right fielder AJ Pollock is probably better than you think

by Nik Gaur

Yesterday, the Chicago White Sox acquired AJ Pollock from the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for Craig Kimbrel. While Kimbrel has been involved in trade rumors since the 2021 season concluded, the trade was still a shock. Not only did it happen suddenly, but I was also pleasantly surprised by the return for Kimbrel, who I assumed would be traded for nothing more than salary relief and maybe a decent backup catcher.

AJ Pollock comes to a Chicago team that often gets overlooked toward the end of a career that itself has not gotten its due in terms of his steady above-average play. In a way, he’s almost a natural fit for the gritty and under the radar culture of the White Sox. Pollock played for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who drafted him with the #17 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft, between 2012 and 2018. His most successful year was in 2015, when he hit .315/.367/.498 with 39 stolen bases and received a gold glove in center field. Unfortunately, the main reason Pollock did not replicate this style of all-around production was health — which also is the primary factor in his being relatively unappreciated throughout his career.

When healthy, however, Pollock has always been stellar. And what if I told you that, at least on offense, the 34-year-old Pollock is actually better now than he was in 2015? After signing with the absurdly talented Dodgers prior to the 2019 season, the former Diamondbacks standout became one of the least impactful position players on his team, not due to his own skill, but rather to the Dodgers’ famous depth (which is also the very reason he was available via trade). Thus, Pollock’s .297/.355/.536 line in 2021 was impressive, but perhaps not as appreciated throughout the league as it would have been on any other team.

Three of the most popular all-encompassing statistics to evaluate total performance on offense — OPS, wRC+ and wOBA — pretty much all agree that, had AJ Pollock played for the White Sox in 2021, he would have firmly owned the #3 slot as the team’s third-most valuable hitter behind Yasmani Grandal and Luis Robert. The recipe for Pollock’s recent offensive success is fairly simple, too. He hits the ball hard and, unlike most White Sox hitters, excels at hitting the ball in the air. In fact, Pollock joins Josh Harrison as the only players on White Sox roster (minimum 400 plate appearances) that had a ground ball rate under 40% in 2021.

77 hitters had a ground ball rate under 40% last year. Zero were on the White Sox at the time! The White Sox did, however, have two of the five players with the highest ground ball rates in baseball (same 400 PA minimum) — Leury Garcia and Tim Anderson. Obviously, you can be a good hitter and maintain a high ground ball rate, as Anderson proves every season. However, offenses that rely on grounders are increasingly less dangerous in a league with rising strikeout rates and an increased emphasis on power.

Remember when I said that Pollock was a better offensive player now than he was during his tremendous 2015 season? This is largely because of the way Pollock has reinvented himself as a hitter — while he was a better contact hitter in Arizona, he has become a power hitter in Los Angeles while maintaining respectable contact skills. As mentioned, Pollock hits the ball hard and in the air consistently. As a result, his 137 wRC+ in 2021 is actually higher than his 131 wRC+ from 2015. If he could stay healthy enough to play close to a full season in 2022 — which, of course, will always be the biggest question mark with Pollock — we would be talking about a 25-to-35 home run player.

But even looking away from the fact that Pollock is a good roster fit in terms of his contact profile and success against right-handed pitching (which he hit better than left-handed pitching in 2021), he is also just a very good player who has gotten better with age. Despite his lack of experience in right field, I trust him a lot more out there than any of the other popular options on the White Sox given his past success in center field. A full season from Pollock is unlikely, but Adam Engel and Andrew Vaughn (who also should get plenty of DH starts) would figure to fill in to address any injuries. I’d be content if Pollock could repeat his 117 games from 2021, during which he provided a very solid 3 WAR, given his injury history.

Overall, I love this trade for the White Sox. Pollock is better than any position player the team has acquired since Yasmani Grandal, and he probably will hit in the bottom-third of the lineup when it is healthy, which speaks to the team’s depth. The end to the Craig Kimbrel era is unfortunate, as Kimbrel was by all indications a terrific teammate who just did not succeed in his time with the White Sox. I will always be a fan of the initial move by the front office to acquire him, even if it did not work out as intended.

I will also never agree that Kimbrel’s struggles with the White Sox were a direct result of the inning in which he pitched, as he simply had no command of his pitches last summer, even when the team used him in the 9th inning/save situations. That said, he has fixed similar command issues in the past, and it would not surprise me at all to see him turn in a typical Craig Kimbrel season as the Dodgers’ closer.

In the meantime, I look forward to watching Pollock in a White Sox uniform. Not only does he represent the team’s first external right field upgrade in quite some time, he also has quietly been getting better with age. While it might be a little too much to expect that trend to continue, I do feel confident in his late-career power surge continuing in Chicago. Between the largely unnoticed increase in power over the last couple years and Pollock’s early-career excellence on typically underwhelming Diamondbacks teams, I think many White Sox fans will be surprised by Pollock’s skills. While he may not become as beloved as a certain other “AJ P,” I could see his style of play and leadership rapidly making him a fan favorite as well.

Featured Photo: @Dodgers/Twitter

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