PITTSBURGH — When Gregory Polanco was first called up to Pittsburgh in June of 2014, the first thing he did was get a condo in the city.
This condo wasn’t located in downtown. Instead, it was on the North Shore.
Specifically, it was in PNC Park.
More specifically, it was in right field at PNC Park.
Polanco arrived in Pittsburgh, and right away went to work with outfield coach Rick Sofield on learning how to play balls off the Clemente Wall in right field. Sofield told him that right field was now his “new condo” and that he needed to know it better than anyone else, just in case he has “visitors.”
By “visitors”, Sofield could have been talking about the baseballs that are hit off the wall, which represents a unique playing surface with all of the fences, the scoreboard, the angles, and the cement at different locations.
“It’s not as predictable as you’d like it to be, but it’s sure more predictable to him than anybody else that plays over there,” Sofield said of the wall.
But maybe Sofield wasn’t talking specifically about the baseballs. Maybe the “visitors” were the ones who decided to hit a ball into right field, and use that opportunity to try and stretch a single into a double. Or maybe they’re the base runners who try and run home on Polanco. Or maybe they’re just slow pitchers who hit a line drive into right field, only to still be thrown out at first base.
In either case, Polanco hasn’t been a kind host. After last night, he has 13 outfield assists on the year. That ranks second in the National League. As for the guy in first, well, he’s got his own condo on the other side of the field.
Starling Marte leads the NL with 15 outfield assists. He doesn’t have the tricky wall that Polanco deals with, but he does have a large field to cover, with left field in PNC Park featuring a lot of angles and space, playing like center field in other parks.
The 28 combined outfield assists so far this season are more than any teammate combo since 2012, when Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon combined for 36 assists on the year with Kansas City.
What Leads to the Success?
Polanco and Marte are both very fast, and both have plus arms. The combination allows them to get to balls quickly, and then launch a rocket when they field the ball. But it’s not just raw talent that leads to these results. The outfielders work on this during every series before games.
“It’s a combination of both [talent and practice],” Clint Hurdle said of the outfield assists. “There’s not many plays that they make during a game that they haven’t worked on at some point in time early in the afternoon. Early in BP, throwing program, they throw. Polanco at the wall. Polanco loves going to the corner, so he can work on that aspect. Marte loves going to the corner as well. He’s done that so many times. You can count on more than one hand, times to the line, make that play, come up, fire.”
The corner work that Hurdle references is a big practice focus for the outfielders. At the start of each new road series, Sofield will go to each corner with about 7-8 baseballs, and will hit the balls off the corners in different ways, while the outfielders observe how the ball plays in a different park. This isn’t something that leads to mastering a new park, as we’ve seen with Polanco in recent weeks with a few bad plays where he misread a bounce or direction a ball was going to take. However, as we’ve seen with Polanco all year, this focus tends to lead to results more often than not.
“They’re both very cognizant of the fact that [the corners are] a potential hazard,” Sofield said.
The key is finding a perfect blend between their speed, positioning, and preparation. Both outfielders have the mindset that they can throw a runner out at any time, but they also need to focus on getting to the ball quickly, learning when to be aggressive, and making sure they’re reading the path of the ball correctly. Sometimes, the approach in the corners, or anywhere on the field, simply comes down to positioning.
“If we’re positioned closer to a corner, I think they believe there’s more chance for an out there,” Sofield said. “If they’re positioned away from the corner, I think they’re more prone to be conservative with what they do. More so with Polanco than Marte. I don’t think Marte is conservative with anything he does.”
About Being Conservative
It’s true that Marte is an all-out player in many ways. You see it at the plate, on the bases, and in the field. It leads to some flaws, such as strikeouts, base running errors, and some wild throws at times. At the same time, this approach is also what leads to his success all over the field.
But there have been times where Marte has been conservative, and a few times when he was conservative when he should have been aggressive.
Take the play that happened on May 19th against the Minnesota Twins. Joe Mauer hit a bases-loaded single into left field on a 3-2 pitch with two outs. The runners were moving on the pitch, and the ball ended up dropping in front of Marte. He ran slowly to the ball, and made a low-effort throw home, but it wasn’t enough to get Brian Dozier, who scored from first. With his speed and arm, no runner should ever score from first on such a play. You can check it out below.
After the game, Hurdle had a closed door meeting with Marte. He ended up keeping him in the lineup the next day, and didn’t really go into detail at the time what they discussed. Last weekend in Chicago, Hurdle revealed a big part of that conversation when I asked about the subject.
Hurdle said that Marte was starting to think that there would be a point in time when people would stop running on him due to his success. In this case, he didn’t expect Dozier to run, and wasn’t prepared for it. Hurdle gave him the comparison of pitchers throwing fastballs to good hitters. Even though a good hitter will crush a lot of fastballs, there are going to be MLB pitchers who still throw fastballs, thinking that theirs is special and can’t be hit. It’s the same concept with base runners trying to advance on good fielders.
“There’s going to be a guy who’s going to say ‘No, you can’t throw me out.’ So, never take for granted,” Hurdle said.
I talked with Sofield about the same play to get a little more insight, and Sofield noted a change right after that.
“It caught him by surprise I think, and he wound up making an average throw, and the guy wound up being safe,” Sofield said. “I think it rubbed him the wrong way.”
Marte hasn’t exactly been flawless in this area since that game in May. In the middle of August, in a road trip to Miami, he played a ball in the corner, came up, and gave a throw that looked very low effort. Due to his arm strength, it was still enough to easily nail the runner trying to advance to third. But once again, there was a concern about his effort level, and this was a case where he appeared to be surprised that the batter was trying to stretch a double into a triple right in front of him.
“He wants to be a Gold Glove. He wants to be an All-Star. He wants to be the [MVP] of the World Series,” Sofield said. “He’s got a lot of high expectations for himself, which he can reach. But part of it is preparation and the mindset, and I think that’s what he’s learning more than anything right now.”
Not a Problem For Polanco
While he’s made some mistakes on the field the last few weeks, Polanco doesn’t have the same issues with his preparation and mindset that Marte has. That was on display Friday night against the Reds, when Polanco threw out pitcher Keyvius Sampson at first base on a line drive to right field. It was the second time he threw out a pitcher at first base this month.
— MLB (@MLB) October 2, 2015
This is a play that is pre-planned, and not just a spur of the moment thing. When a pitcher comes up, Polanco will play shallow, and will let Pedro Alvarez (or whoever is at first base) know to expect a throw. As you can see in the image above, Alvarez broke immediately to the bag, despite the ball going to the outfield.
“I know when the pitcher is hitting, they’re kind of slow,” Polanco said. “They let me play in, so I know I’ve got a chance to throw to first base.”
Just like the work in the corners, this all comes down to positioning, speed of getting to the ball, and then using the arm strength. Polanco has shown that he’s not perfect with this combination just yet, and part of that is to be expected for a guy that mostly played center field in the minors, and is still adjusting to a corner spot. Overall, Polanco’s work has been encouraging.
There’s one other impressive thing about Polanco’s throws, and that’s the fact that his throws have a fade to them. You’d think this would make it difficult to have accurate throws, but Polanco actually plays the fade, and can deliver accurate throws without initially aiming directly at the target.
“I know that my ball moves a little bit. I [try to put it] a little bit to the left of the [target],” Polanco said. You can get a great view of this in action in the second half of the video below, from last month in Miami.
Not Finished Products…Yet
The scary thing here — at least for opposing base runners — is that we probably haven’t seen the best out of these two. Marte still needs to improve his consistency. Or, to let him describe his main goal.
“Just get ready,” Marte said about what he’s learned from situations like the Dozier play. “Because sometimes you think they won’t run, but he’s going.”
As for Polanco, the last few weeks have been a reminder that he’s not perfect yet in always anticipating where a ball will end up, but he is still good enough to anticipate that most of the time, and make some very impressive assists in the process.
“When the ball is hit, you’ve got to be aware of where it’s going to go,” Polanco said about his biggest focus in pre-game work.
The Pirates have a lot of throwing talent at the corner spots, and it shows on the field and in the stat sheets. That’s due to talent and tools, but it’s not all about skill. It also comes down to practice and preparation, and as Marte and Polanco continue this work, they can only hope to get better over their already league-leading results.
Who knows? Maybe one day people will actually stop running on Marte and Polanco. But I’m sure the Pirates don’t want that day to ever arrive.