Taking Perspective Of Gregory Polanco’s Career Thus Far

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.

Power Outage

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.”

Trust

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.

  • I said it then I’ll sa it now. He was called up way to early. Huntington knew it then. He didn’t want to call him up. I see no harm in sending him down to AAA until September. He is going to figure it out. I have faith in his abilities but I think he needs to get it figured out before his confidence is destroyed. Bet he’s kicking himself for not taking that contract now.

    • You don’t send the 2nd best base runner in the NL and player on pace for 2.0 WAR season to AAA.

  • The Pirates rushed him to the majors to quell the noise from the fans and the talking heads. He should have been a Sept. call up as he was over matched in the bigs. I saw him take the wrong angle on two drives in the same game. He has unlimited potential to be a super star. What is holding back the Pirates is 1st. base, C, SS, and 3B.

  • Gregory is still developing and far from a finished product.

    Here’s the amount of plate appearances in the upper levels each one of these players had at the time of their call-up:

    Gregory Polanco: 581
    Pedro Alvarez: 820
    Starling Marte: 1,003
    Neil Walker: 1,747
    Andrew McCutchen: 1,960

    Gregory was rushed. He had a very good 2-month stretch in AAA but most of it was inflated by a .399 BABIP and that was about to correct but he was promoted.

    Joc Pederson had 1,072 upper lever plate appearances by the time he made his MLB debut thanks to the Dodgers OF depth last year.

    Kris Bryant had about 600 PA between AA and AAA but his learning curve was different as he was a college draftee.

    Gregory needs time and he will figure it out, just like other elite athletes in MLB have done it… We just have to look at Carlos Gomez, Michael Brantley, Dee Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and others. They didn’t figure it out until age 26 or 27.

    We also forget that Gregory is only 23. Guys like Walker and Marte were in Indianapolis at their age 23 season.

    Patience people.

  • michaelbro8
    May 29, 2015 4:20 pm

    Even though he’s 23, he still seems to be “growing into his body”. Some people mature physically faster than others. I think in a couple of years he’ll be a beast.

  • I think Polanco reminds me of Garrett Anderson

  • It takes time for those long giraffe legs to realize what the other half, way up there, is doing. Once the two come together and polanco realizes that those giraffe legs are the most important part of his swing then it’s watch out league time.

  • Think Darrel Strawberry or Dave Parker. Big men with power and speed. Polanco is in that mold. Will he reach his potential, I don’t know but I hope so. They are all suspects until they make it. We use the word prospect just to get us excited.

  • The whole Pirate team is going through an ongoing “back to basics” tutorial. Why it took this long to come to the realization they cannot take hitting for granted is beyond my limited mental capacity. Seeing guys like Polanco and Alvarez actually trying to use the whole field is refreshing, and the same goes for ‘Cutch – when he is hitting gap to gap, he is the most dangerous hitter in the game. Kang has managed to get that foot down and shorten his swing. Starling Marte has a hole in his swing on inside pitches, but for now, the way he is punishing the ball, I let the pitcher try to hit the spots and attack that problem if it gets to be an issue.

    I was calling for Branson’s head a few weeks ago, but I now praise him for the changes I see these guys implementing. And, I also think the guy at AA is a very strong hitting coach.

    • “Starling Marte has a hole in his swing on inside pitches, but for now, the way he is punishing the ball, I let the pitcher try to hit the spots and attack that problem if it gets to be an issue.”

      This is EXACTLY where I believe they’re failing with developing Polanco, and why they haven’t maximized what they can get out of Alvarez.

      Clint Hurdle’s – and the Pirates in general – one-size-fits-all hitting philosophy is idealistic, not pragmatic. Of course you want every guy to become a “really, really good consistent hitter” that covers the entire plate and hits the ball where it is pitched. Only little issue is that it really, really difficult. The overwhelming majority of Major League hitters are flawed, have weaknesses. They also have strengths. Strengths that can overshadow the weaknesses when they’re maximized.

      Starling Marte hasn’t become a more productive hitter by finally improving his plate discipline or learning to hit balls to all fields. He’s become a more productive hitter by absolutely feasting on the pitches he *can* damage. Pedro Alvarez is actually hitting *less* balls the other way this year, but he’s regained his ability to attack pitches he *can* damage.

      Gregory Polanco is a 6’6″ 235 lb monster with plus bat speed and hand eye coordination that almost never looks like he’s attacking *his* pitch. All too often showing defensive swings that turn into slapping the ball. The chances of him ever becoming a flawless hitter are extremely slim, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as he can maximize what he *can* do, which is plenty.

      • Your last paragraph is spot on. It looks like the game is just a little bit “fast” for him right now (to use a basketball analogy) and he has lost a little confidence. What I wonder about his swing is whether the adjustment they had Austin Meadows make, lowering his hands in his stance, would help Polanco, particularly inhibiting his tendency to slap at the ball.

        • I’m far from someone who knows how much is enough on these types of adjustments, but to my eye it looks like Polanco has already dropped his hands at least a few inches between now and say, his AA swing. I do think this helped him shorten up his swing as much as he can. Maybe a little more wouldn’t hurt, though.

          I can remember reading an article in 2012 where Giancarlo Stanton claimed that a 3″ adjustment he made in hand positioning led to a drastic improvement after hitting poorly for the first month+ of the season. Stuck out to me only because of how much a relatively little move paid such huge dividends.

          • Well, I watched Polanco last night to see where his starting hand position is, and it seemed to vary pitch to pitch between at the top of his shoulders to his letters for a total spread between extremes of 6 inches or more. Hard to imagine how he can get a consistent swing with such a variation in the starting trigger point. Obviously his superior hand/eye coordination is making up for this variation to some extent. But I think he’d be better served to have really quiet hands at the point in time when the pitcher releases the ball, and he should always start from the same position, which given recent comments from the Pirates’ professionals, should probably be around his letters. But he and his coaches are professionals, and I’m confident that they’ll figure it out. The fact that he is hitting .245 or so in his first isn’t a concern to me. I think he’ll be hitting .285 or better by the end of his third full year.

      • Christopher B
        May 29, 2015 5:34 pm

        Regarding Alvarez, I think your point is reflected in his approach of just not swinging as much. Can’t go the other way consistently with the outside pitch? Just don’t swing at it! Sure, you’ll get some called strikes that way, but maybe they’ll be called balls, too. Maybe you’ll get another pitch, and this one will be in your sweet spot.

        It’s really working for him, too. Walk rate is up, K rate is down, power seems to be back. He’s doing the hitter’s equivalent of a pitcher “not giving in” more or less.

        Obviously there are situations where you should still take that opposite-field approach, one being his ground-ball RBI single through the left side against the big shift, but for a guy who can hit the ball into neighboring cities’ ballparks from his own, he might as well mostly swing as hard as he can at pitches he likes and let the rest go by.

        • Christopher B
          May 29, 2015 11:10 pm

          There it was again, a situation where it made sense for Pedro to go soft the other way to take the free hit. On the pitch inside, he took a healthy cut and tried to do some damage, and it went just foul. With two strikes against a guy with a wipeout changeup, go ahead and stay back and try to poke one through that hole.

          Nice hitting again by Pedro.

        • I must be missing this returning to form Alvarez. His batted ball profile mirrors 2010 while facing the fewest LHP in his career.

          His production is currently coming from hits to the opposite field, and has a Tabata like batted ball profile when pulling the ball.

          Alvarez had always needed to improve his fly ball rate and he still hasn’t done it.

    • You were calling for the head of the hitting coach, who oversaw the best offense in the MLB last year?

  • I think they also need to develop his defense. He scares me like Pedro. Catch the ball throw the ball. But he needs to have better routes.

  • I’ll tell you one thing, his swing yesterday on that homer was pure beauty.

    • It was because he stayed on it and hit it where it was pitched. Drove it to LCF. Short path to the ball. If I were the opposing pitcher I’d just get ahead and throw nothing but breaking balls out of the zone. Polanco will get himself out

  • Compare Polanco’s swing to Marte’s or Cutch’s. The barrel has Quick very short paths to the ball Polanco’s swing is ugly. A lot of lefty swings a beautiful.Smooth His looks Bad. hope they figure it out

    • Compare *any* 6’6″ player’s swing to one of a player 6″ shorter and it’s going to look long.

      I don’t see the casting as much of a probleml, except for those rollover grounders where he gets beat; Marte and Cutch will do the same thing in those situations, for what it’s worth. The casting is what causes the rollover.

      Just my opinion, but I think focusing so much on mechanics is exactly what they’re getting wrong with his development. You’re right, he doesn’t have a pretty swing; you’d never teach Josh Harrison’s swing to a Little Leaguer, either, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re both players with the innate ability to put barrel on baseball and hit it hard. Focus on doing that and see where it gets him.

      • Here’s a guy who was same height as Polanco and could’ve been an HoFer if not for some poor personal decisions… it was a long, majestic swing, and often very productive.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAFvBcRuoK0

        • That Strawberry swing is a much quicker path to the ball. Marte and Polanco both have poor pitch recognition, the difference is Marte has a shorter swing and he’s a good bad ball hitter. Polanco isn’t because it takes him a lot longer to get the bat to the ball. Sure he’s got a patient approach. SOmetimes to patient. He’s got to jump on every hitable fastball he see’s and get better at recognizing breaking pitches and lay off them unless they are hangers.. He will never reach his upside with his current swing.

      • Add in the fact that Polanco has an upper percentile limb to torso ratio, I don’t think is possible for his swing to be anything but long. Also to properly look at his swing you are going to need a lot of video from side.

    • Reminds me a little of Hunter Pence. Living out near Philly I got enjoy Pence for a year. He’s incredibly awkward out there but he’s also one of my favorite players not on the Pirates.

    • I saw Polanco hit in AA, and his swing was a bit long but smooth and fluid. it appears to me that you have not paid one bit of attention to what Jeff Branson had to say about connecting his bottom with his top, having to learn how to adjust, and having confidence in what one is doing at that level. Advice for you ? Let the professionals handle it, people like you have no clue.

      • Says the guy who thinks watching AA baseball somehow qualifies him as an expert. Maybe you should heed your own advice. Lol

    • Looking awkward is what happens when you are 6’6, 3/4ths of your body is legs and you are still somehow super athletic. You arent gonna “look” comfortable at his height and build. Thats really not his fault, its your for assuming you gotta look comfortable to be a quality player. He’s got growing to do, but he isnt ever going to look as fluid as others since his physical attributes are way different.

    • I don’t think he looks ugly at the plate. He has a slashing swing, and his timing is off. That is why he looks bad, but because of his swing.

  • It’s easy to see what his problem is. His swing is so long. It looks like he’s casting a fishing pole, If they can’t figure out how to fix that there is something wrong. the knob off his bat should go from the top position directly to the ball. Instead the barrell is being cast out. Plus his stance is way too closed off . they need to open him up.

    • I don’t think the issue is that they don’t realize his mechanical breakdown. It is getting him to do what he should. The article was very clear about that.

    • His swing has been long his entire career, but his hand speed and ability to get the barrel in quickly and on the ball make that a different situation than most. If he was struggling to hit anything inside then the length is an issue, but his issues arent getting to a quick inside FB, but hitting a ton of balls at his knees to the 2Bmen and rolling over.

      You arent gonna totally change his swing because he is adjusting to the ML level, you are gonna do what this entire article said: get back to the process that got him here and continue to develop as a very young player.You dont change his swing and his stance 1 year into it and expect him to get better.

      • Actually Polanco’s biggest problem is that he almost always takes the best pitch he gets to hit in an at bat. He just isn’t always ready to hit early in the at bat, he needs to be a little more aggressive at the plate. It’s almost like he has this high school mentality of take until he gets a strike. I can’t tell you how often he looks at a first pitch fast ball down the middle only to swing at a garbage 0-1 pitch out of the zone. Noone hits well with an 0-2 count, noone

        • I think its a bit more complicated than simply him taking anything first pitch, as hitters are often looking for one type of pitch in a certain location first pitch. You arent gonna swing at a pitchers pitch, and at time you arent gonna swing at a decent pitch if its a curve and you were sitting FB. He does take pitches, but i dont see him getting or taking a ton of clearly mashable pitches early on. He seems a bit unsure of his swing, but his patience has actually served him well at times when struggling as it keeps him on base and works the count.

          His biggest problem i see is just not trusting his talent level and doing what he did in AAA. Its gonna be tougher than AAA, but Polanco seems to at times not trust his ability to hit certain pitches in certain spots (such as anything at the knees). Get him back to trusting his swing and he’s solid.

          • Luke- do you intentionally wait for me to post something and then just feel the need to argue with it, or are you truly my arch enemy? In all serious though, I watch all the games, so my comments are generally observational, and I know stat guys really don’t like that, but whatever. He constantly takes the first pitch, it doesn’t matter what it is. That was my point. Pitchers also KNOW he takes the first pitch, so I generally see really mediocre, get over fastballs used against him throughout the game, medioce meaning (2-3 MPH less than the fastballs he gets at any other point in the at bats). If he isn’t looking for that pitch to hit, then he really shouldn’t be in the major leagues. My guess is that he has a real……problem….with swinging at first pitches, maybe because he doesn’t have confidence reading speed and movement without seeing one. That being said, as I stated, the pitcher almost always follows that up with a breaking pitch or off-speed pitch, and he always always swings at it (unless its inside) and he never does anything with the pitch. The only time i’ve actually seen him do anything was when the pitcher was dumb enough to follow up that first medioce fastball, with another hittable fastball on the 0-1 count.

            • Its relatively tough to find stats on singular situations like this (to actually prove he is doing what you are saying, since the alternative is just bloviating and saying we all know it) but F-Strike accounts for anytime a player is behind 0-1 after the first pitch or he puts that pitch into play.

              Cutch is either down 0-1 or has put the first pitch into play at a rate of 58.9%, with Polanco at 59.8. So very similar in that rate. That doesnt distinguish between if the hitter puts it into play or takes it for a strike.

              One way to try to see how often he is down 0-1 and how that impacts him is looking at his PAs for each count. 91 PAs through 0-1, so he does take a good deal of 1st pitches. Interestingly, the next largest set is 1-1, meaning he also does a good job of getting the count even after taking. He goes 0-2 far less than 1-1, so thats a positive sign that he isnt totally lost after taking the 1st pitch. His habit of taking early also isnt totally just him, as Cutch also has gone 0-1 at roughly the same rate as Polanco.

              So from trying to delve into whats happening in a small way, Polanco takes the first pitch about as much as Cutch and roughly league average like, and it doesnt lead to him going 0-2 as you said he almost always does. Polanco doesnt appear to have a vastly different approach to the first pitch of an at bat than that of Cutch, and his plate discipline allow him to take pitches but not strike out. So again, i think you overstate what you “see”, and tend to believe the issues for Polanco are trusting himself and hitting his pitches as opposed to trying to be perfect.

              • Luke- thanks for quantifying this, I also would say that Cutch takes way too many hitters pitches on the first pitch. Funny you found him as a comparison. Cutch can get away with it because pitchers are scared of him, and is really not all that likely to go 0-2 because pitchers are likely to pitch to the corners and be picky more. I’m not saying that a lot of hitters don’t use that approach, but it isn’t going to work for everyone, so putting up stats or trying to compare him to another player orto the league really doesn’t help. Polanco’s lack of confidence comes from hitting behind in the count IMO, and a big part of that can be addressed by being more aggressive early in the count. I’m sorry but you can’t argue with that by showing stats.

                Just out of curiousity though, Can you figure out what Polanco’s swing % is on a 0-1 count? The fact that Polanco gets the account back even to 1-1 really isn’t surprising to me, he isn’t going to swing at a pitch which doesn’t at least “look” like a strike. The specific pitch he has been vulnerable to after going 0-1 has been the low curveball from a righty or a changeup. That’s how the league is pitching him. If the end result is 1-2, that really doesn’t put the hitter in any better position than 0-2.

                Instead of trying to disprove what i’m saying all the time, do what the players do. Put down the notebook and watch film. I’d again challenge you to watch the game, and observe. That’s what being a fan is about. Cervelli also again dropped a ball cleanly leading to a pass ball and dropped two more pitches while trying to frame on Friday night. He is definitely doing his job hitting though, so i’m not complaining, just letting you know i’m still paying attention

                • I played the game for many years, including at the collegiate level. I know multiple professional players at the minor league level. So put down the condescension and acting like you know what players do/think and that stats are somehow lesser than your memory or watching the game. Players absolutely value the stats i look at along with film, because they compliment each other.

                  I watch every game, and when its over and i discuss it i look at stats so i dont have to rely on human memory and my eyes to be “right” or “wrong”. Being a fan is about cheering for the team, not how you go about forming an argument. You base it off what you see while watching a game, i do that and then look up the stats from the game to see things. So when you see Cervelli dropping a ball, thats true. Then when you look up how catchers frame and field, it shows Cervelli is one of the best in the game this year at framing (thus getting the team extra strikes) and blocking. So i could care less how many times he drops it if in the end, he rates as the best pitch framer that season. It means he is getting the team strikes that most catchers dont.

                  • You don’t act like you watch the games, you act like you watch box scores. And that’s okay, because not everyone can make the time, but those people shouldn’t use stats to back up things they aren’t seeing. If you say you aren’t doing that, then i’ll take you at your word. The only reason why I doubt it is because You haven’t given one hint of observational input regarding any single post you’ve ever made in response to mine, which had any relation to any game this year. So, all you need to do is stop throwing stats at me constantly, and actually discuss how something I saw in the game, you saw another way, provide examples, and we can have an actual debate in the future. Most of the stats you provide, don’t even reference whatever point i was trying to make in my original post, and quite frankly, its annoying.

                    • Stats can be annoying im sure. Imma keep using stats to back up an argument, mostly because they are more reliable than “i saw it, i know what i saw”.

                    • I have no problem with using it to back up observations or when having a debate. I use them for those same reasons, just not as the only supporting argument, because stats can be positioned to show anything

        • Very much agree.
          Two minor things: when seeking an extra base, he often grabs at his helmet to keep it from falling off. He loses a step and looks awkward; answer–smaller helmet or let it fall, you’re not playing fullback.
          Two, he seems to turn second awkwardly with not looking at his coach or spending too much time look at where the ball is hit.
          Those long legs which should do the job, don’t seem to bring him “Marte speed,” which is much smoother.

  • weltytowngang
    May 29, 2015 10:49 am

    I think developing is the key word. Be patient and it will all smooth out.

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