The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs both get a lot of attention for their offense (and rightfully so), but an offense that is consistently overlooked is the Pittsburgh Pirates. When you take a peek at their infield, consisting of Francisco Cervelli, John Jaso, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Jung Ho Kang, David Freese, and Sean Rodriguez, you see a group of guys that collectively provide some above-average offense. However, their outfield is a completely different story. What if I were to tell you Andrew McCutchen, the five-time All-Star and 2013 NL MVP, is Pittsburgh’s worst outfielder? Well, when you have Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco flanking you, it shouldn’t really be much of a debate. Now, do not get me wrong. McCutchen is still one hell of a baseball player and the face of their franchise, but at age 29 and with 1,085 career MLB games under his belt, his best days are behind him.
Your average baseball fan should know of Starling Marte by now, who has been a 5.0+ WAR player over the past three seasons and is well on his way to surpassing that mark again this season. However, the real name to know in the Pirates’ powerful offense is Gregory Polanco. Polanco, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Pirates back in 2009, became a superstar prospect in their system and someone who was projected to be a five-tool player.
When Polanco initially came over to the United States, he was 18 years old and well under 200 pounds.1 He had a projectable frame however, hovering around 6-foot-3 with much more room to grow physically. In his first two seasons of rookie ball (Gulf Cost League), he played in 101 games and hit a meager .218 with a .289 OBP, but was 37 of 39 in stolen bases. However in 2012, Polanco’s first season in A-ball, he began to scratch the surface of his potential. In 116 games, he went onto slash .325/.388/.522 with 16 HR, 85 RBI, and 40 SB. That 2012 campaign put him on the map and he finally sprung onto top-100 prospect charts. The following season he saw relatively the same success in high-A ball and double-A and in 2014, after proving he could hit triple-A pitching, finally got his chance in the Majors.
His first half season in the Majors, like many rookies, had its ups and downs. He slowed glimpses of his potential, but only wound up hitting .235/.307/.343 with seven HR and 14 SB. When you take a deeper look at his season, you will see something strange. He saw many pitches on the middle to outer half of the plate, like many rookies do, but decided to take his hacks at pitches that ran high and in on him. Below, the first chart shows where he was pitched to. The second chart shows what he decided to swing at. The third chart shows what he was slugging per pitch in each part of the zone.
I have had a hard time finding another player who swings at the same sort of pitches, at least with that consistency. A guy like Harper likes pitches high, but typically over the center half of the plate. Carlos Gonzalez is another who can be somewhat compared to Polanco. Again, he likes high pitches, but nothing that far inside (for the most part). You could say that what Polanco was swinging at was a tad extreme. But for the few pitches that the then 22-year-old was seeing high and in, he was making contact – and hitting the ball for power. Yet, he was struggling basically all across the rest of the strike zone and especially where a majority of the pitches were thrown. It seemed like all Polanco was doing was waiting for that one pitch high and in to attack. That is not a recipe for success.
Fast forward to 2015 and you will see a change in his approach to the plate. You will also see better numbers. The right fielder saw a 21-point jump in batting average, 13 points in OBP, and 38 points in slugging (.256/.320/.381). Combine that with his defense and plus-running on the base paths, that gave you a 2.1 WAR player, according to Baseball Reference. Not too shabby. You also saw a change in selectivity at the plate. He saw roughly the same number of pitches in certain parts of the zone as the year prior, but he was looking for much different pitches.
We now see almost a completely different hitter. Like I mentioned, he is seeing the exact same location of pitches as he did the season prior (and for what it’s worth, the type of pitch he is seeing does not change much). But now, he is offering at better pitches to hit – ones that are right over the middle of the plate. And even better, he is now seeing some success with those pitches. His slugging with pitches over the middle of the plate is drastically better than 2014.
There was also another change Polanco made during the 2015 campaign, and that was in his load prior to the pitch. During 2014 and the first half of 2015, he used a slight toe-tap prior to pitches being thrown. Somewhere during July or August last season, he began to incorporate a leg kick. It is very slight initially, but we can now see how much more definitive it is this season.
2014 HOME RUN:
2015 HOME RUN (April):
2015 HOME RUN (September):
2016 HOME RUN:
If you flipped through all four videos, you will see in the first two a toe-tap prior to hitting a home run. In the following two videos however (and the most recent ones), you see that he now has a leg kick/load prior to swinging the bat. Results? Fantastic.
In 20 fewer plate appearances, Polanco had five more doubles, three more home runs, saw a 39-point jump in batting average, and a 87-point spike in slugging. Those power numbers may have been an outlier if it weren’t for the start of this season, where Polanco is now one home run shy of last year’s total in 436 fewer plate appearances. On top of that, he leads the National League in doubles (18) and his walk rate is up more than 3%. Instead of drastic changes to his swing that has often been criticized for being too long, a slight change in his load and selection of pitches has made a world of difference.
Lastly, we will take a look at Polanco’s pitch-location percentage, swing-location percentage, and slugging/pitch charts for the 2016 season:
Once again, pitchers are still pitching him relatively the same – the outer edge of the plate. But his pitch selection now is primarily pitches in his wheelhouse, and he is certainly capitalizing on them. He is absolutely crushing balls over the middle of the plate. If you get a change to rifle through the home runs he has hit in the past nine months, you will see he is jumping all over bad pitching. He has become a much smarter hitter at the plate. While his K% remains almost unchanged since he has entered the league, his hard-hit contact has definitely improved.
As you can see, Gregory Polanco has made much better contact since entering the league in 2014. His hard-hit percentage is up significantly since 2014, which has made an obvious impact in his production on the field. The combination of his pitch selection and change from toe-tap to leg kick has been monumental in his emergence this season. Plus, the guy is 6-foot-5 and now weighs 240 pounds. Dude is a tank. We should see a huge uptick in his power numbers but unfortunately, like many speedsters-turned-sluggers, his stolen base numbers will probably slide. Most recently, we have seen this from Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. On the other hand, maybe he turns out to be just like McCutchen – a perfect mesh of power and speed. Regardless, Polanco is still just scratching the surface of the major potential he possesses. I bet you the Pirates feel pretty damn good about themselves after inking him to a five-year, $35 million extension this April (can max out at seven years and $60 million with options and performance clauses). Hopefully the foot injury he sustained Tuesday night is nothing serious and that he can continue his power surge for the rest of the season and beyond.
Photo of Gregory Polanco – http://www.bucsdugout.com/2010/3/14/1372792/pictures-from-minor-league-spring ↩