Unheralded Second Half Breakouts: Middle Infielders

The fifth part in our series focuses on middle infielders who made significant improvements in the second half that went largely unnoticed. You might notice they are all shortstops…but don’t blame me. Blame the position, no 2B did anything substantially better in the second half than the first, so I’m cheating a tad, but let’s get started with “middle infielders”!

Jorge Polanco, SS, MIN

Jorge Polanco had a solid overall season, finishing with a slash line of .256/.313/.410. He struck out only 14.3% of the time, and walked a good amount at 7.5%. Both of those numbers improved from 2016. In his very first season spent entirely on a major league roster, Polanco held his own. But his numbers in the second half show a lot of potential.

After the all star break Polanco slashed .293/.353/.511. That slash led to a WRC+ of 128 which placed him second among all qualifying shortstops behind Francisco Lindor (remember Carlos Correa was injured). Those numbers weren’t just a product of better luck, he made improvements to show that slash line is more real than mirage. Polanco started hitting the ball in the air a touch more, and his quality of contact improved. His soft% decreased, and his hard% rose.

Polanco is a young player, who is making some small improvements each and every year. Polanco is not likely to be as good as his second half for an entire season, but he will continue his steps forward and have a career year in 2018. Think something .275/.335/.445, which combined with his speed makes him a 15/15-20/20 threat, that makes him an intriguing across the board option late in drafts.

Didi Gregorious, SS, NYY

Didi has been around for a while, and he has always steadily improved. This past year he hit a career high 25 home runs, only his second year with more than 9. Yankee stadium is a silly bandbox for power, which makes Didi a great fantasy SS for the power he stumbles into playing there. Well good news for everyone, Yankee Stadium isn’t changing, Didi isn’t going anywhere, and he is going to hit 35 home runs this year! Seems crazy right? Well don’t be shocked.

He made some strides this year already, as he hit those 25 home runs in only 136 games. If he played the 154 he averaged the previous two years he would have finished with 28, so he’s already on the way. But look for him to continue what he did in the second half to push him to 35.

For starters, he dropped his k rate in the second half from 14.7% to 10.2%, a significant drop. He played 10 more games in the second half, mitigating small sample concerns. He also boosted his fly ball rate significantly, going from 40.7% to 46.5%. Putting the ball in play more, and putting that ball into the air more is a great way to improve your home run total, and Didi is on track.

Should Didi Gregorious be a slugger? Absolutely not. Even though this was by far his best career year for power, he hit the ball soft% at a career high rate as well, and did not boost his hard%, but that doesn’t matter. All you have to do in New York is put the ball in play into the air toward right field and you’ll stumble into power. Didi is getting better at doing that. Grab the greatest power stumbler since that magical 2011 Jacoby Ellsbury season and ride Didi’s power to glory this year.

Adeiny Hecchevaria, SS, TB

No this is not a joke, the quintessential glove-only no hit shortstop had an incredible second half. From 2013 through the first half of 2017 Adeiny’s ISO fluctuated between .072 and .094. He’s always been a light hitter, then in the second half his ISO rose to .174! His first half number of .074 shows that Adeiny’s improvement was not part of the juiced ball revolution, he did something different.

Adeiny made some incredible changes in the second half. This might be the first time I’ve said this in a positive manner, but Adeiny’s k rate jumped from 15.1% to 21.1%. His previous career high was 16.6%, so he struck out a lot more. His walk rate also improved in the second half from the first, but it was still in range of his career norms.  The increased strike out rate no where near career levels means something. Perhaps that suggests he was being more selective with the pitches he swings at, as well as swinging more aggressively to hit the ball harder. Maybe he wanted to sacrifice some contact to hit the ball harder. Sure enough, his quality of contact increased dramatically.

Before this year Adeiny’s soft%/med%/hard% was approximately 19%/55%/26%, not exactly hitting the ball hard. In the second half of 2017, those numbers were 15.6%/44.1%/40.2%. When Adeiny swung he stung the ball. For reference, those quality of contact numbers were incredibly similar to what Carlos Correa did last year (15%/45.5%/39.5%).

That improved quality of contact led Adeiny to a .259/.295/.434 slash line after the break, which was suppressed by a BABIP that could easily be higher given his improved contact (Adeiny’s was .305 whereas Correa’s was .352). In September, Adeiny had a high but not  unreasonable BABIP of .355 (looks a lot like Correas right?) and had a slash line of .298/.348/.512. In September he hit the ball hard 50.8% of the time, making that BABIP actually legitimate. That said, Adeiny will not hit the ball hard over half the time.  But Adeiny with the strides he made could easily be a .275-.285 hitter.

In the second half he chipped in 7 home runs and 4 stolen bases. Extrapolate that to a 600 at bat season and you get 18 home runs and 11 steals. A .275 hitter with 18 home runs and 11 stolen bases sounds a lot like what you’re hoping to get out of Marcus Semien with a better average, all for someone you can get off the waiver wire in all but the deepest leagues.

There might even be a touch more power in there as well, as in the second half he improved his fly ball rate over what he’s done in his career (33.7% second half to career 28%). If he continues improvement there and boosts it to 36-36%, and keeps his quality of contact where it was, he could finish in the low 20s. Add it all up, and Adeiny could be the most surprising top 10 shortstop ever.

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