Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson, with weeks of major-league experience, are already two of baseball’s top players. They also represent what’s wrong with the expectations and standards to which young players are held.
The development of rookies and young major-leaguers is rarely true in one direction as it has been for Bryant or Pederson. Non-linear, is what the Pirates call it.
A prime example? Bryce Harper, who arrived in the majors touted with the potential to become one of the game’s all-time great hitters at the age of 19. He hit in the .270s those first three years (but with an OPS+ no lower than 113 each season) and played only 100 games last year as he was limited by a thumb injury. At 22, some already wondered if he was a bust relative to the massive potential he had.
Today, Harper leads all of baseball with 18 home runs and a 1.215 OPS.
Gregory Polanco made his major-league debut nearly a year ago on June 10, 2014. At 22, he arrived as the latest product of one of baseball’s best farm systems recently and billed as a player who could turn out better than Andrew McCutchen or Starling Marte. The rookie proceeded set a club record with an 11-game hitting streak to start his career, besting marks set by Roberto Clemente and Barry Bonds. And it wasn’t just a smattering of infield singles or weak hits.
Polanco had multi-hit efforts in five of those 11 games and batted .365 , including a 5 for 7 day at the plate to lead the Pirates to a win in Miami. Although he finished 4 for 30 in the month’s final eight games, he still hit .288/.374/.375 and looked like the boost Pittsburgh needed for its offense.
But remember. Non-linear.
Since, Pittsburgh’s young outfielder has struggled to replicate his success over those initial two weeks. He posted a .595 OPS in July then .638 before his demotion August 25, and a .589 mark in September after his recall.
Polanco finished his initial campaign hitting .235/.307/.343 and lost the starting right field job to Travis Snider.
At the outset of 2015, Polanco appeared to have found his way. He was one of the few Pirates hitting well in April, if not the only Pirate to hit in the first month.
He had the best month of his career since last June, posting a .278/.305/.405 triple-slash. His average peaked at .291 with a .737 OPS May 2.
25 days later, Polanco’s average has plummeted to .247 as he hit .215/.315/.313. in May so far. He’s 6 for 35 since May 13 and was out of the starting lineup for two games this week, before returning to go 2-for-5 with a homer last night.
After 486 career plate appearances, Polanco is hitting .239/.308/.349.
So What’s Going On?
First and foremost, baseball at the major-league level is hard.
For hitters, Triple-A pitching does not come close to what a player will see at the next level. The only way to prepare for it is to experience it. Hitting coach Jeff Branson says while pitchers have also adjusted to Polanco since the beginning of his career, the superior quality of pitching must be accounted for as well.
“He’s better than they are,’ Branson said. “So he does have to be able to make adjustments according to the guy. The stuff is better, but the stuff is the stuff.”
A part of those adjustments Branson notices is the need to fix a disconnect in Polanco’s swing.
“He’s in his lower half but he doesn’t stay in his lower half,” Branson said. “He doesn’t feel that strength in the lower half of his body that connects the top and the bottom.”
When his swing is correct, Polanco hits the ball best to left-center field with authority. When he focuses on hitting fastballs to the opposite field, as with any hitter, that allows Polanco to stay on pitchers’ off-speed stuff as well.
So far, the majority of the balls he’s put in play have been on the ground and to the right side. In other words, the opposite of what can make Polanco a great hitter.
A ground-ball pull hitter indicates his timing is off, and that he’s rolling over too many pitches. If he’s able to put his swing together, his 55.8 percent ground ball rate this season should drop while a 20.8 percent line drive rate will rise.
As far as what it looks like when he’s hitting with sound mechanics, Branson says a short, directional swing will be seen.
“When his swing is right, the lower half is what enables him to get length out through the zone plus direction with his barrel, which increases his vision, [and] be able to hold his spot so everything else slows down,” Branson said.
A concern outside of the organization is the lack of power Polanco has displayed in his near-500 at-bats so far. He’s hit nine home runs, slugged .349 and posted a .110 ISO. The home runs aren’t the main concern, more so that 75 of his first 104 major-league hits are singles.
Hurdle says power comes in time, but that hitters must be taught to hit well overall and not try to hit to power. He says it’s a shame when any young player is encouraged to try to hit home runs.
“That’s why the message has to be pure, clean and communicable here to hit the ball hard where it’s pitched,” Hurdle said. “Strike the ball where it’s pitched.”
Hurdle calls it “hit ability” and, in time, power will naturally show itself.
“He has to become a good hitter first, which he is,” Branson said. “The power shows up from time to time but we’re not worried about his power right now. We want him to become a really, really good consistent hitter for us.”
As mentioned, it’s a logical next step that Polanco’s power will begin to show more as he’s able to connect the upper and lower halves of his swing and uses more of the strength in his legs.
“Home runs are going to come,” Hurdle said. “You’ve got to trust that. If you’re up there trying to create leverage and things like that it usually doesn’t last.”
What goes on in a player’s head can determine success or failure. Now in his first full season, Polanco must adjust to the mental rigors of the major league game as well.
But don’t call it a “rookie wall.”
“I don’t think there’s necessarily a wall that everybody hits,” Branson said. “It’s just how quickly can you make the adjustments to what’s taking place? How quickly can you understand and commit to knowing what makes you good and staying that good?”
General manager Neal Huntington wants to see his young outfielder become more process-oriented. Polanco’s slow start may have altered the way he approaches his game.
“When we don’t get the results, we look for something different rather than trusting our process,” Huntington said. “We’ve gotta get Gregory back to trusting his process.”
Staying confident in what he does will enable Polanco to vault over his current barriers, and the numbers should follow soon after.
“Part of it is trust factors as we all go through,” Branson said. “When you don’t have confidence you’re not going to trust anything you do. So it then becomes a fear.”
“We’ve just gotta keep his confidence up…Clint does a great job of letting him know ‘hey, you’re the guy. You know, we believe in you, we trust you. Go play, go do your job how you know you can do it.’”
At 23-years old and not even 500 plate appearances under his belt, Polanco is still in his development process. Once his mechanics align and he continues to work on trusting what got him to the big leagues, Polanco’s development will not only trend upward but also add another weapon to a Pirates offense that’s become more dangerous by the day this past week.
“It’s not rocket science,” Huntington said. “We’ll just get the young man back to doing what he was doing when he was successful.”
Again, his development never was or will be a straight path. But if and when he figures things out, Polanco’s career will arc higher than most others.