By Anthony Franco
The topsy-turvy 2009 MLB draft is nearing its tenth birthday. Next June figures to see its fair share of retrospectives, no small number of which will retell how this generation’s greatest player fell to the back end of the first round. For all the attention on that draft’s star-studded high school class (led by Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado), the college hitters were a less ceremonious group. The class’ top college hitter, Paul Goldschmidt, lasted until the eighth round. The top three college position players off the board (Dustin Ackley, Tony Sanchez, and Grant Green) toiled through unceremoniously short MLB careers. Amidst a first-round stocked with college disappointments, AJ Pollock stands out as a glaring success. Taken 17th overall by the Diamondbacks after three years at Notre Dame, Pollock rewarded the organization with one of the class’ best careers. Now a free agent, he and his camp enter the Winter Meetings with a deal in sight.
Pollock’s professional success doesn’t surprise Dave Schrage, who inherited Pollock as an incoming freshman when he took over for Paul Mainieri in South Bend in 2007. It wasn’t preordained, either, though. Despite winning the 2008 Cape Cod League MVP and walking more often than he struck out in each of his three seasons on campus, Pollock wasn’t seen as a lock to go in the top 20. Baseball America’s pre-draft report noted that “there’s debate as to whether he’s a true first-round talent,” with some scouts panning Pollock’s set of tools as vanilla. Having seen him firsthand for years, his coach didn’t see things the same way. “We thought he would go in the top two or three rounds because he was the full package,” Schrage told CBBSN. “He ran well, he threw well, he hit for some power his junior year. He hit for average that year and all his numbers were getting better every year. We really thought he’d go in the first, second or third round, and we were so happy that he got the opportunity to go in the first round to Arizona. His (pro) success didn’t surprise me at all.”
As Schrage points out, Pollock’s power output took off during his third year on campus. After combining to hit seven home runs between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Pollock knocked ten homers while slugging .610 as a junior. That was no coincidence, Schrage said. To some extent, Pollock was ahead of his time as a fly ball revolutionary. While there are no batted ball data available to gauge whether Pollock kept the ball off the ground more often throughout his junior season, his approach at the plate matured throughout his college career. “There was a little bit of a swing change to drive the ball, because we thought he could do that,” Schrage confirmed. “Obviously, he did with ten home runs…. He got stronger (as well). Of course, everybody grows into their body, and by the time he was a junior, he was stronger than he ever had been in our program.”
While Pollock isn’t typically associated with the uphill swing path that has become so prevalent in the major leagues in recent seasons (Justin Turner and JD Martinez seem to be the universal first examples), his cerebral approach in the batter’s box has carried over as a professional. The Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro noted that Pollock worked individually with Robert Van Scoyoc, Martinez’s private hitting coordinator who has since become the Dodgers’ hitting coach, over the 2017-18 offseason. Much like the rest of his profile, Pollock’s mechanical work as a hitter has flown a bit under-the-radar. Nevertheless, he set career marks in home runs and isolated power in 2018, despite the Diamondbacks’ installation of a humidor designed to tamp down Chase Field’s previously hitter-friendly confines.
While Pollock may not always get the respect he deserves as a hitter, his outfield defense has drawn its share of plaudits. Between 2013 and 2015, Pollock was worth at least eight defensive runs saved each season in center field, and he was rewarded for his efforts with a Gold Glove in 2015. Ironically, he came into his own as a defender later than he did as a hitter, though through no fault of his own. Pollock started his college career as an infielder, logging most of his time as a freshman at third base. “That shows you how smart we were,” Schrage deadpanned. Despite his self-deprecation, though, Schrage and company did identify how to turn Pollock’s athleticism into defensive value entering the 2008 season. The coaching staff asked Pollock to move into the outfield as a sophomore, and the player took to the grass with ease. For Schrage, that was as much a testament to Pollock’s makeup- his willingness to embrace change and his on-field instincts- as it was to his speed and arm strength. “His instincts were really good. His first step was really good,” Schrage confirmed. “We definitely weren’t surprised (by how good a defender he was), but we were like, ‘wow, he has a great first step.’ His angles to the ball were really good…. If you know AJ, he’s always the guy out there before practice, after practice, taking extra fungos and fly balls, working hard during BP reading balls off the bat. He really worked at becoming more comfortable as well.”
So where does Pollock go from here? Entering his age-31 season, he’s a free agent for the first time. With the Diamondbacks entering something of a transition phase- most notable in their trade of longtime face of the franchise Goldschmidt last week- Pollock’s decade-long stint with the organization seems to be nearing its end. As a player on the wrong side of thirty who- due to myriad, albeit fluky, injuries- has only once exceeded 500 plate appearances in a season, he’ll be hard-pressed to find a megadeal. Nevertheless, Pollock’s performance when he has taken the field has been star-level, highlighted by a 2015 season in which he received deserved MVP support. He’s the only true center fielder on this year’s open market, and Pollock’s plus instincts should age well. Indeed, Schrage believes Pollock’s makeup has allowed him to maximize his physical tools.
“You’ll hear this a lot about successful baseball players, but he’s got a great demeanor about him,” Schrage said. “No matter if he was 0-4 with four strikeouts or 4-4 with four home runs, he had the same approach, same attitude, same demeanor. ‘Hey, I’m going to have fun today playing baseball. I’m going to give you everything I’ve got.’ He was never a player who let things bother him.” Quantifying makeup is difficult, if not impossible, and each team will value Pollock’s differently. Nevertheless, Pollock’s levelheadedness and capacity to make adjustments on both sides of the ball has resulted in remarkable consistency. Per Fangraphs, he’s offered above-average baserunning and defensive value in every semi-regular season of his career, and he’s been an above-average hitter in four out of five. With teams like the Reds, Mets and Twins willing aiming to push toward contention in the near future and facing varying levels of uncertainty in center field, Pollock figures to be a key name to watch throughout the rumor mill during the upcoming days and weeks.