The rest of the lineup features perennial all star Ivan Rodriguez, a rising Curtis Granderson and arguably the best number nine hitter in the league in Brandon Inge. Because of the star-studded lineup of the Tigers, Placido Polanco is usually an after thought to fans, but make no mistake about it: opponents know what Polanco brings to the diamond everyday, especially after his MVP performance in the ALCS. Fresh off a hot postseason, and then an even hotter spring training in which he batted .491, Polanco is primed for a big year.
Besides a road bump Wednesday night against Baltimore in which he went 0-6, Polanco hasn’t skipped a beat since spring training, hitting .385 through the first nine games.
Offensively, Polanco fits the Tigers’ needs perfectly as a classic number two hitter. He is an extraordinary bat handler and has the ability to hit the ball to all fields. Whether hitting a grounder to right side with a man on second or third or laying down a perfect bunt, Polanco does his job to provide RBI opportunities for the big bats behind him. He also rarely strikes out, which gives Jim Leyland the ability to call a hit and run to avoid a rally-killing double play.
Perhaps the only thing lacking in Polanco’s offensive game is power, with all but one of his hits this season being singles. Home runs have never been part of Polanco’s game, as he has only recorded double digit home runs twice in is career. On a team with as much power as Tigers, it doesn’t matter if Polanco doesn’t hit the ball 400 feet, just as long as he gets on base.
Polanco is just as valuable in the field and on the base paths, where he provides solid defense and hustle. Tuesday's game against Baltimore featured a vintage Polanco moment that didn’t show up in the box score. A Neifi Perez single, followed by a Curtis Granderson walk set Polanco up for a bunt situation. He reached base due to poor coverage by Melvin Mora and Scott Williamson, which loaded the bases for Ordonez after Sheffield struck out. He then broke up a tailor made double play with a hard slide into second base, prompting an errant throw from Brian Roberts, giving Detroit two runs and the win.
While Polanco's defense and hustle will continue to spark the Tigers, it is his hitting that will garner attention this season. While Polanco’s average has finally dipped under .400, there is no reason to think that he can’t be a serious contender for the American League batting title this season. The competition will be stiff with the likes of Joe Mauer, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Ichiro, but the same skills that make him an exceptional number two hitter are the same ones that will put him among the league leaders when all is said and done.
Hitting for a high average is nothing new for Polanco, a .300 career hitter. In 2005 he hit .331, including .338 during his time with the Tigers, and followed it up by hitting .295 in 110 games last season. He managed that mark despite suffering from a sore back early in the season, and then missing most of August and September with a separated shoulder.
Expect a healthy Polanco to continue slapping the ball around, and finish closer to the .331 he posted in 2005 than his sub .300 performance of last season. He has all the skills of a professional hitter, and if he stays healthy and continues to do all the little things that help the Tigers win, he’ll have a chance to become the A.L. batting champion.