In 2008, before a game in Detroit, Tigers’ second baseman Placido Polanco became an American citizen during a ceremony on the field at Comerica Park. Polanco will never forget a moment like that, and the ceremony makes his years in Detroit even more special. But next year the former infielder could have another momentous day if he gets “the call” telling him that he’s been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Polanco is one of twenty candidates appearing for the first time on the Hall of Fame ballot for 2019, to be voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).
The Dominican-born Polanco spent five seasons in Detroit, where he became a fan favorite and found himself in the middle of several big moments. The largest came on October 14, 2006, at Comerica Park, when Polanco was on first base when Magglio Ordonez hit a pennant-winning home run into the left field seats. Polanco’s jubilant dash around the bases on that cold autumn night in the League Championship Series remains one of the iconic moments in Detroit sports history.
“I just started jumping like crazy. It was very special,” Polanco remembered at a ten-year reunion in 2016.
Polanco’s best overall seasons came in a Detroit uniform, where he batted an impressive .321 at Comerica Park. He batted .311 overall in the Motor City, winning two Gold Gloves for his play at second base. Polanco was primarily known for his defensive work with the glove, he had excellent range, a strong arm, and was skilled at turning the double play. But his bat came alive in Detroit where Polanco hit .338 after being acquired by the Tigers in the middle of the 2005 season, won the 2006 LCS Most Valuable Player Award after hitting .529 in four games against the A’s, and hit a career-high .341 in 2007. That season, “Polly” became the first Tigers’ second baseman with 200 hits since Lou Whitaker in 1983. Polanco also did not commit an error in 153 games played that year, setting a league record.
Manager Jim Leyland typically batted Polanco second in his order, and for good reason. Polanco was a great hit-and-run man and was one of the toughest batters in the game to strike out: he averaged just 36 strikeouts in Detroit, and in 2007 when he finished 17th in MVP voting, Polanco struck out about once per week.
After the 2009 season, Polanco signed a free agent deal with the Phillies, returning to the team the Tigers had acquired him from. In Philly, Polanco won another Gold Glove (this one at third base) and collected his 2,000th career hit. Polanco remains one of just two players to win Gold Gloves at two different infield positions.
Given where he came from, Polanco’s career accomplishments are incredible. He was the 540th player selected in MLB’s 1994 amateur draft, picked by the Cardinals. He debuted during the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, with teammate Mark McGwire smashing homers at a record pace. For the first few years of his career, Polanco was seen as a valuable utility infielder, nothing more. In 2000, even though he didn’t have a set position, Polanco batted .316, and he followed it up with a .307 mark in 2001. That’s when the Phillies traded Scott Rolen to St. Louis to get Polanco so they could play him at second base. Polanco hit over .290 twice and even found some power at that point in his career, hitting 14 homers in 2003 and 17 in 2004 for the Phils.
Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski gave up closer Ugueth Urbina to get Polanco in June of 2005. Dombrowski and Leyland thought Polanco’s defense up the middle would help their young pitching staff, and his pesky righthanded bat would help bolster the top of the lineup. Polanco and shortstop Carlos Guillen teamed as a double play duo during Placido’s time in Detroit. The duo became the first Detroit second base/shortstop combo to both hit over .300 since Whitaker and Alan Trammell.
Polanco’s .993 career fielding percentage is the highest in baseball history for a second baseman. His range factor is comparable to that of Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, and he ranks twelfth all-time in Zones Runs Saved. The 19th round pick ended up as one of the best defensive second basemen to ever play the game.
His .297 career batting average ranks 15th all-time among players who appeared in a minimum of 1,000 games at second base. He ranks 19th in hits for a second baseman, but his other offensive stats do not measure up well against second basemen historically. Based on OPS (on-base plus slugging), Polanco is 47th among second basemen, and in runs scored, RBIs, and extra-base hits he’s below 40th.
Using analytic methods, Polanco’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) places him 38th among second baseman, behind such non-Hall of Famers like Chuck Knoblauch, Julio Franco, and Davey Lopes. The average career WAR for Hall of Fame second basemen is 69.5, Polanco came in at 41.5 WAR. Polanco’s best seven seasons place him 34th, well behind non-Hall of Famers like Bobby Grich, Willie Randolph, and Whitaker.
It’s likely that Polanco will fail to receive the 5 percent needed to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Polanco had a fantastic career, a longer and more successful career than anyone could have imagined considering he was drafted so low and started as a utility player. His best skills were his sure hands at second base, ability to pivot on the double play, and his ability to make contact and hit for a high average. The fact that he fails to meet the stringent test of Hall of Fame election shouldn’t detract from the great memories that fans have of his time in Detroit.