Like a lot of his teammates, Jorge Polanco grabs his gear early every afternoon and heads for some extra work on his game. One difference, though: Most Twins are carrying their bat. Polanco’s got a glove.
The Twins shortstop’s daily routine is a series of defensive drills, normally conducted under the tutelage of infield coach Gene Glynn, that he believes sharpen and streamline his ability to make plays all over the left side of the infield. And while that dedication to his craft isn’t the sole reason Polanco has exceeded the Twins’ expectations for him at the position, they haven’t hurt, either.
“Jorge is really an impressive worker,” Glynn said, fungo bat in hand after another 20 minutes spent smacking grounders. “Some guys go to the batting cage, he comes out here and works in the field. He has a routine that he’s really diligent about. He gets himself loose and ready to play almost like a pitcher does.”
It’s a habit he picked up in the minors, particularly when the Twins had him playing second base about as often as short.
“Even when I was playing second, I practiced every day at shortstop,” Polanco said. “I was taught, work hard every day. It’s the only way to get better.”
But if Polanco’s pregame work has been noticed, it’s his in-game play that really should be getting attention. And Paul Molitor isn’t sure that’s happening.
“He has been under the radar a little bit, in terms of a guy who has provided a lot of value. Defensively, he’s been much better than expected,” the Twins manager said. “Polanco has been really steady. He had a beautiful game [Monday] night. I wouldn’t say there were any extraordinary high-end plays, but the ones he made were not routine, and he looked very smooth.”
Indeed, the answer to the Twins’ shortstop puzzle — a failure to identify and develop an effective starter at the critical position that’s been going on for more than a decade — might lie in the 23-year-old Dominican who was projected, as recently as 15 months ago, to be a second baseman. Now he’s the Twins’ youngest everyday shortstop since Cristian Guzman 15 years ago, and perhaps their best defensively since Pedro Florimon in 2013.
According to the measure Ultimate Zone Rating at fangraphs.com, which attempts to summarize a player’s defensive ability, Polanco ranks fourth among American League shortstops, behind Kansas City’s Alcides Escobar, Detroit’s Jose Iglesias and Los Angeles’ Andrelton Simmons. And while there is a considerable gap between those three leaders and Polanco, his defense at the key position is a significant improvement on that of Eduardo Nunez and Eduardo Escobar last year.
Best of all, Molitor said, he believes Polanco is improving as the season goes on and his comfort level rises.
“He got his shot and maybe put some pressure on himself early, but he’s been playing really well. I couldn’t be more happy with the start he’s had,” Molitor said. “Offensively, part of the reason I wanted to give him the job is that I trusted him. I was more concerned about how he would respond on the other side. But he’s developed more confidence now that he can play the position up here.”
Polanco, who is hitting .262 with 18 RBI, began the season trying to be perfect with his fielding mechanics, to demonstrate that lingering doubts about his range or throwing arm were misplaced.
“It’s a tough position if you’re really young and especially if you start making mistakes early on,” said second baseman Brian Dozier, himself a former shortstop. “You’re going to have to learn how to deal with failure, but if in the first month, you say, ‘I’ve got to prove it. I’ve got to prove I can play, prove I have range,’ that’s no way to play the position.”
He’s noticeably more relaxed now, Glynn said.
“The mechanics and fundamentals are things he followed so strictly early on — this is how they want me to do it — but he’s really playing above that now. The range, his backhand, throwing balls in the dirt on purpose,” Glynn said. “I really think he found himself. He knows what kind of shortstop he is now, what tempo he plays at, what his game speed is. He’s turning himself into someone who is fundamentally sound, but who is confident enough to go beyond that. The great players, they just get outs no matter what it takes.”