A little over a week ago, the Reds made the somewhat surprising (if not warranted) move to non-tender Billy Hamilton, bringing his five year tenure as a Red to an abrupt end. The defensive wizard started 626 games in center field over that time, which is just over 77% of the available starts in that time. And in those 626 starts and thousands and thousands of innings, there seemed to be a never ending highlight reel of Hamilton making plays in the field.
He made the hard plays look easy. He made the impossible possible. And he was always a lot of fun.
The offensive numbers have been pored over constantly in those five years. Even before, there were plenty of questions about whether Hamilton would ever hit enough in the Major Leagues to be effective. The answer, eventually, was “not really,” especially not at the dollars he was about to command in his ARB-3 year. Thus, the non-tender is, probably, the right move.
But this is all to say: Billy Hamilton removed from this roster creates a giant hole to fill in center field. It’s one that the Reds aren’t well equipped to fill, not just on their current roster, but throughout their organization. The options they do have elicit many feelings from this author, ranging from “meh” (Scott Schebler), to “I could maybe talk myself into it” (Phil Ervin) to “completely unknown but kind of exciting” (Nick Senzel). Jose Siri isn’t ready (his defense is, but his bat ain’t). Neither is Taylor Trammell.
So, it’s not all that surprising that the Reds are pursuing some out-of-house replacements. It may be a little surprising that they’re eyeing the top of the market, as they are reportedly pursing former Diamondback CF AJ Pollock.
Let’s just get it out of the way; adding AJ Pollock’s bat to center field would give the Reds an impact offensive player at the position they haven’t had in a very long time. Even if you consider the year that Shin-Soo Choo filled the position, that was still only a rental deal. Names like Drew Stubbs, Willy Taveras, and Corey Patterson preceded Choo.
Pollock, now 31, is a right handed hitter coming off a 2018 where he slashed .257/.316/.484 in 113 games (460 PA). The season featured a career highs in dingers (21) and ISO (.228), flashing a little more power than he’s really known for. That was surely fueled by a career high in hard hit percentage (the 44.5% was over seven points higher than at any other point in his career). He hit the ball softly only 11.2% of the time, good for top 10 in baseball (minimum 400 PA). In that way, he’s the anti-Billy, who’s Soft% was third in baseball, while he rarely ever hit anything considered hard.
Still, there are plenty of red flags. It’s hard to overlook the age, especially for a player looking to command a four or five year contract. 31 isn’t exactly ancient (he writes, having just turned 30 himself a week ago), but it might be a bit more concerning for someone the team is counting on to play a full time position as demanding as center field. It’s even more concerning for Pollock, considering his recent injury woes.
Pollock has played more than 140 games just once in his career, which came all the way back in his All Star 2015 season where he garnered votes for MVP, won a Gold Glove, and looked like an up-and-coming star Arizona could pair with Paul Goldschmidt. Unfortunately, the next several years would be plagued by injuries, some more severe than others.
In 2016, Pollock only played 12 games in August and September after he fractured his elbow on a head first slide into home plate in an exhibition game. It was a re-injury of something that initially happened in 2010 while he was a minor leaguer. It was surgically repaired in April and Pollock tried to come back at the end of August, but only made it until September 9th before being shut down for the rest of the season.
In 2017, Pollock logged 112 games while missing a month and half due to a groin injury (another type of injury he’d suffered in the past, in 2014). He slashed .266/.330/.471 that season, which is perfectly solid, especially considering he was dealing with the injury. Last year, he missed nearly the same amount of time, at the same point in the season, due to a thumb fracture he suffered diving for a ball in the field.
The injuries are troublesome, but they’re also quite fluky in nature. Broken bones happen during physical pursuits and are completely unavoidable in any sport. It’s not like he’s dealing with chronic joint issues, or back problems, or conditions that can’t be treated. They are, in many ways, just the outcome of a guy playing a game and playing it very hard. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. They are, however, a lot more palatable when a player is making his arbitration salaries. It’s more of a problem when considering to pay a guy upwards of $80 million.
It also seems that as the injuries have piled up, Pollock hasn’t been the same player, even when nominally healthy. Over the course of the last two seasons, even with a bit of a raw power surge, Pollock’s posted a 103 OPS+ in 926 PA. After posting a .367 OBP in 2015, that number has started to back up, to .326 in that very abbreviated 2016 season, to .330 in 2017, to .316 last season. You don’t have to look hard to figure it out. He benefited from a .338 BABIP, while it’s backed up to a more “normal” .284 in 2018 ( .291 in 2017).
Still, after striking out only 13.2% of the time in that stellar All Star season, Pollock struck out 21.7% of the time in 2018, while walking only 6.7%. He’s never been particularly prolific at taking bases on balls, but the strikeout percentage in 2018 is his highest number by a fair amount. The plate discipline isn’t all that concerning, really, as most of those numbers are fairly in line. He’s swinging more overall, which could easily be explained by a tweak in approach and emphasis in hitting the ball hard and in the air. We’ve seen that all over baseball. The biggest problem in 2018 was that he wasn’t making nearly as much contact. The Swing% of 48% was the highest of any season, but it wasn’t appreciably higher than 2015’s 46%. Same goes for O-Swing (31.6% and 30.7%). The concerning part is the percentage of contact, which was way down. The 77.6% contact rate in 2018 was the first time that he’d ever made contact less at less than 80% and it was 6% lower than 2017 (8% lower than 2015). While he was swinging at the same rate, he just wasn’t putting the barrel on the ball, especially on pitches outside the zone.
It’s worth mentioning again that Pollock dealt with a hand injury in 2018, which could’ve adversely effected this and make it a one-off thing. I’m sure there’s a mental block when working back from an injury like that, as guys are hurling projectiles at your hands and arms at 95+ MPH. AJ Pollock still possesses a good bat and is worthy upgrade to a position the Reds haven’t got all that much out of at the plate in many years.
Still, it’s a trend worth watching.
I haven’t talked about defense, but he does it anywhere from fine to good, depending on who you ask and where you look. If the Reds do pull the trigger and sign AJ Pollock to a contract, inevitably the comparison will come back to Billy Hamilton. That’s not fair at this point. A 31 year old AJ Pollock won’t be making as many plays that Billy Hamilton has made or will make for his new team. But, for 2019, AJ Pollock is likely to play a perfectly fine center field and a potentially good one. And, if the Reds are looking on the market to fill the void, Pollock is the only legitimate option, unless you still consider Adam Jones an option in center field, which, nah.
Pollock, for his part, is looking for a pay day. USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale has reported that Pollock is searching for a contract similar to those inked in recent years by Dexter Folwer and Lorenzo Cain. That would be in the area code of five years, $80 million as I mentioned above, which would probably price the Reds out of that market, considering the other more pressing needs on the roster (you know, getting the pitching). MLBTradeRumors has him pegged at a more palatable four year, $60 million.
I don’t know if that makes it really any more attainable for the Reds, but it’s appreciably less. They need the pitching, for sure. But subtracting Billy Hamilton from this team is a serious thing, just because we don’t know if there’s anyone on this team that can really play center field full time. It wasn’t a lock that this offense was good enough going into 2019, anyway. Adding the defensive need and the opportunity to add a valuable bat at the position makes a lot of sense for the Reds. AJ Pollock is a good baseball player.
But the money has to make sense.