There’s something about the Futures Game that leads to a top Pirates prospect giving a bad first impression that doesn’t represent his skills at all. On Sunday, Gregory Polanco started in center field for the World team. Polanco went 0-for-1 with a walk, but the thing that stood out was his bad route on a ball hit over his head to straightaway center field.
You can see the route in the video at the top of this article. Polanco turned and started running to his left. He turned around, realized the ball was heading to his right, quickly turned, but had no chance on the ball. He probably wouldn’t have caught the ball if he ran straight back, but it looked awkward. The same video shows him fielding a ball hit to shallow center, which was pretty uneventful.
Polanco isn’t a bad fielder, but the route he took represents one area of his game that needs to be polished. It’s almost like how Gerrit Cole was hit hard in his Futures Game appearance a few years ago, showing his tendency to leave the ball up in the zone. It was a bad first impression, but not a long-term issue. I’ll get to Polanco’s fielding in a minute, but I wanted to highlight some of the reactions on Polanco’s performance this weekend.
**Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus has a glowing report on Polanco. In the article intro he says “Gregory Polanco’s swing sounds like unicorns mating”, which is a line worth the price of a BP subscription by itself. He did note the routes in center weren’t the best, but talked about how it is easy to dream on Polanco’s projection.
**Keith Law brought up Polanco getting spun around on a deep fly ball to center, noting that it probably wasn’t catchable. Law notes that Polanco is a very good defender in center field, and made an unfortunate error in judgment when everyone could see it.
**Ben Badler of Baseball America said that Polanco had the best batting practice session, and could have a Domonic Brown-like power breakout in his future.
About Those Routes
I saw a lot of Polanco this year in Bradenton. I wish I could say I never saw him take a bad route on a ball straight back, but I have. Polanco is a great fielder, but one weakness with his game is judging balls that are hit directly to center field. For balls hit over his head, he tends to get turned around. He doesn’t have those problems with balls hit deep and to the gaps, using his speed to go directly to those and cut them off. Polanco also tends to freeze up and take a second or two to recognize a ball hit straight towards him. That’s not uncommon, but it seems like Polanco takes an extra second compared to most center fielders, kind of looking like a deer in the headlights at times.
One of the final things Polanco was working on before his promotion to Altoona was his fielding in center. Specifically, he was working on ranging straight back. Marauders manager Frank Kremblas forced Polanco to play in shallow center field, which would force him to gain some trust in ranging backwards. By playing shallow, Polanco was forced to use his speed to hustle back to balls hit deep.
The placement resulted in two things. One is that by playing shallow, Polanco could prevent guys from taking an extra base on a single to center. He also had enough speed to get back to the wall, even when he was playing shallow. He ended up making some plays that he wouldn’t have made if he started deeper in center field, just because he was more aggressive with his speed.
The biggest benefit that playing shallow can provide is that it can give Polanco more experience ranging backwards. He doesn’t have issues ranging to the gaps, and he has the speed and range to cover a ton of ground in center. He just needs to improve his ability to judge balls hit to straightaway center. By playing shallow, he’s going to see more in-game opportunities to judge balls off the bat, and run routes straight back. He may not play center field in the majors, but he’s still going to need the ability to run good routes on balls hit over his head.
Every prospect has things to work on. Fortunately this is one of the few things Polanco has to work on, outside of adjusting to new levels and eventually tapping into his raw power. As far as development goes, this is preferred over something more serious like a plate patience issue or the lack of a tool. This is an issue that can be improved with experience, which is something Polanco can still get in the next year before his expected arrival in the majors.