MIAMI — At the start of the 2015 season, there was a debate as to who had the best young outfield in baseball. The debate mostly revolved around two teams — the Pirates and the Marlins — with the Marlins getting a slight edge in most opinions due to the 2014 success from Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. When paired with Giancarlo Stanton, those two help give the Marlins a very promising outfield, and you could see why they were considered number one heading into the year.
The Pirates had a good young outfield as well. Andrew McCutchen is an MVP, and has been one of the best players in baseball for a few years. Starling Marte has quietly been one of the best in the game the last two years, ranking 23rd in WAR out of 119 qualified position players. The big thing that held the Pirates behind the Marlins coming into the year was the lack of production from Gregory Polanco, who had yet to make the successful jump to the majors.
Polanco struggled a bit last year, to the point where he was sent down and eventually lost starting time to Travis Snider. The Pirates went with him as their starter this year, but he continued to struggle for the first half of the season. That has changed recently, with Polanco being one of the best position players in baseball in the second half. This month he ranks 15th in the majors in position player WAR (1.2), 28th in wOBA (.404) and 29th in wRC+ (163).
If you want to know what changed for Polanco, you need to read Pete Ellis’ article from a few weeks ago, noting the work he did with Jeff Branson to stay on his backside longer, giving him a bit more time to hit the ball hard to all fields. That was on display tonight, as Polanco hit two doubles — one to left field and one to right field. He was hitting the ball hard tonight, with a few exit velocity readings over 100 MPH. Clint Hurdle noted that this has been going on since the series against New York last weekend.
“I would take us right back there, because he had a really good series over the weekend, moving the ball all around the park,” Hurdle said. “Right-handed, left-handed pitching. Hitting with a lot of confidence. Playing with a lot of confidence.”
It might be too soon to say that Polanco has finally figured it out, and that this is the way he will perform going forward. That said, this is what he was expected to do, so it’s not far-fetched to think he can continue this production going forward. Keith Law had an article today naming Polanco as one of nine players having a sustainable breakthrough season.
With Polanco’s production, the Pirates finally have that Dream Outfield© working for them. Andrew McCutchen isn’t having his best season, but will easily top a 5.0 WAR for the fifth year in a row. Since 2011, only Mike Trout (36.4 WAR) has been more valuable than McCutchen (32.4). The next closest is Miguel Cabrera (29.8).
Then there’s Starling Marte, who once again is quietly having a good season. He’s not having as good of a year as 2013 or 2014, but he’s already a 3.0 WAR player, and still finds himself as one of the top players in the game since the start of the 2013 season.
Polanco is what sets the group off, and that was apparent last night in the third inning. With two outs, Polanco came up and ripped a single past the second baseman. He moved to third base on a line drive single by Marte to right field. Both runners scored when McCutchen hit his 30th double of the year. With two outs and no one on base, the run expectancy this year is 0.0957. Polanco, Marte, and McCutchen were able to combine for two runs, using speed by Polanco and Marte, and great hitting by all three.
When you’ve got that type of production at the top of your lineup, you’re going to have a good offense. The fact that the Pirates can back this up with strong offensive production from shortstop (Jung-ho Kang) and catcher (Francisco Cervelli) makes things that much better. It’s no wonder why the Pirates offense has the best wOBA and the best wRC+ in the NL in the second half.
The best part about this is that the Pirates still have at least three more years of this Dream Outfield© beyond the 2016 season. Polanco is just heating up, we might not have seen the best from Marte, and McCutchen remains one of the best in the game. The Pirates are currently on pace for 99 wins, which is an unreal pace. But if they ever get McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco at their best at the same time, they might end up with a team good enough that even the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals wouldn’t be able to keep up.