Gregory Polanco: “The Walking Toolshed”

In order to get out of the Dominican Republic as a baseball player, the saying goes, “No one walks off the island.” In a country with so much baseball talent per capita, scouts want to see Dominican players hit. Showing a good eye at the plate would not be enough to project future success. Scouts have to have faith that they could handle the bat and “hit their way off the island.” It is impossible to walk off an island, right? Not necessarily.

Gregory Polanco has proved you can hit AND walk off the island. In the last two years, Polanco has walked 96 times and struck out 137 times, impressive numbers for a Dominican hitter and a 22-year-old still considered raw. That equates to an 0.7 BB/K ratio, which is good for current hitters. The Pirates’ prized outfield prospect has shown an advanced approach at the plate despite having lower numbers than his breakout season of 2012. Polanco played in three different levels in 2013. This shows the Pirates faith and confidence in his plate selection despite not getting the results of a higher batting average.

Polanco came off a banner year in 2012 with the Low-A West Virginia Power, where he hit for a .325/.388/.522 slash line for a .910 OPS with 40 stolen bases and 16 home runs. He followed that great year with a .285/.356/.434 slash with a .791 OPS combined in High-A, AA, and AAA. Polanco added 12 home runs and 38 stolen bases. His numbers across the board were down, but take into account the improved competition faced, especially in AA and AAA. The most impressive stat of them all was his 36:36 walk to strikeout ratio in 68 games with AA Altoona. Polanco has a career on-base percentage of .350.

“Walking Toolshed”

Gregory Polanco

Gregory Polanco is a true five tool talent.

It does not take long for a scout to fall in love with Polanco’s tools and upside. Everything he does on the baseball field is smooth, athletic, and natural. After just seeing him play one game, I called him a “walking toolshed.” Polanco has a legitimate five-tool package, with the ability to hit for average, projectable power, plus speed, and a great glove and arm from the outfield.

While Polanco has shown the jaw-dropping talent on the field, Altoona Curve manager Carlos Garcia believes his intangibles could be his best asset.

“No doubt about it, this is a guy who can’t miss, but the most important thing that he has is his heart,” Garcia said. “How he plays the game, he plays the game hard. He respects the game. A kid where at a young age with his maturity, the way he goes about his business. I mean that’s rare to see a kid that young go and play the game he loves.”

Garcia also believes he has the tool kit to beat you in various different ways on the diamond.

“Good strike zone discipline, a guy with great tools,” Garcia said. “A gifted guy who is humble, plays the game hard and can beat you in very different ways. He can beat you on the basepaths, he can beat you on the offensive side and also on the defensive side. A kid who got to play the game and get more experience and at some point will reach the highest level.”

A minor league scout liked what he saw from Polanco in an August homestand. He said Polanco has as good as tools as anyone in baseball, an 8 runner (elite) for his size (6’4”), and great pitch selection. He also mentioned his big, strong, loose, and agile body that has the ability to add more weight as he matures physically. His frame is similar to Starling Marte’s in that there is not much body fat and there is room to still fill out.

Five-tool players are hard to come by in baseball nowadays. Five-tool players with great plate discipline and the patience to take a walk if no pitches are in the zone are even rare. The Pirates proved this July that they believe Polanco is a rare commodity by holding onto him when his name was brought up in trade rumors. In the coming years, Pirates fans will be happy GM Neal Huntington bought into the axiom that “sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.”

“Patience is a virtue”

In the last few years, SABR-metricians have loved players with high on-base percentages. They believe it gives those hitters sustainability to stay out of pro-longed slumps. Plate discipline never goes in slumps. It is a skill players can bring with them as they age, as opposed to losing speed, bat speed, and fielding range as a player ages. It is like a muscle, it can get stronger as time goes on. Polanco has great plate discipline at the age of 22, expect that to help him grow into the hitter he will become in the future, giving him great “process” at the plate.

Pitches per plate appearance has become an en vogue stat among baseball executives in recent years. It measures the average amount of pitches a batter sees per plate appearance throughout the season. Executives use this to see how patient a hitter is. Seeing a lot of pitches can have a big impact on the rest of the team, elevating the opposing pitchers’ pitch count and getting into the bullpen quicker. Jayson Werth, Brett Gardner, Joey Votto, Adam Dunn, and Carlos Santana have routinely ranked near the top of this category the past couple years.

In the two games I covered with Polanco in the lineup for the Curve, he saw 36 pitches in eight plate appearances, an average of 4.5 pitches per plate appearance, which is elite. In his second at-bat on August 21 against a left-handed pitcher, Polanco took a 2-0 pitch for a strike. It was not the pitch and location Polanco was looking for and did not move his hands at all. This could mean he is locked in on a certain pitch in a certain location and if that pitch is not the one he is looking for in a certain spot, he won’t even budge his hands to the ball. You just do not see this very often from a young, Dominican hitter. They are usually hacking away on offensive counts (2-0, 3-1), while Polanco is looked in on one pitch and will not expand his zone in these counts.

The most impressive stat of all could be Polanco’s walk-to-strikeout rate in AA this summer. A 1:1 ratio is considered elite (example: Joey Votto) and that’s what Polanco accomplished in Altoona. In 286 plate appearances, Polanco walked 36 times and struck out 36 times. Talk about plate discipline and not expanding the zone very often. The AA level is usually a separator for prospects as they face pitchers with better command, stuff, and more off-speed pitches in offensive counts.

2013 PA BB SO BB% SO%
A+ 241 16 37 6.6 15.4
AA 286 36 36 12.6 12.6
AAA* 21 0 2 0 9.5
Year 548 52 75 9.5 13.7

*includes playoffs

Year Level PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS SB
2009 DSL 261 12.6 19.2 .267 .370 .357 .727 12
2010 GCL 200 4.5 20.5 .202 .245 .287 .532 19
2011 GCL/A-SS 213 11.3 16.4 .229 .322 .346 .669 18
2012 Low-A 485 9.1 13.2 .325 .388 .522 .910 40
2013 A+/AA/AAA 536 9.7 13.6 .285 .356 .434 .791 38
Career 1695 9.6 15.5 .277 .350 .419 .770 127

2013 does not include AAA playoffs

Stolen Base Threat

Though he is 6-foot-4, Polanco is a legitimate stolen base threat. Taller players are not known as base stealers, but Polanco dispels that myth with his quick-twitch lower half. Garcia believes that becoming a base stealer is more mental.

“Well he definitely is,” Garcia said about whether Polanco is a threat on the bases. “He wanted to be in that situation, he wanted to learn. You won’t see that kind of guy who is explosive from stationary to second base. He’s long legged to cover a lot of ground and he wants it. It’s a big difference you know, it’s not like you can’t. If you really want to get better at something, you work on your end and get better and that’s what he’s doing every day in every aspect of his game.”

Looking at Polanco’s track record in the minor leagues, he is a legitimate threat on the bases. He has a career 80.9% stolen base rate, the MLB average is 73%. Even while stealing a high volume of bases (78) in 2012 and 2013, Polanco has been successful 76.5% of the time. When opposing teams know you are a threat, they try pick-off moves, varying delivery times from the stretch, slide steps, and pitchouts to do their best to nab the runner trying to steal. That takes a lot out of the runner when he has to continually slide back into the base on a pickoff move. To still be able to succeed above the average stolen base rate is impressive at any level, especially when you are targeted on the bases. Scouts still think he needs refinement on the bases, but so does any young base stealer. That comes with experience and getting better reads on the pitcher’s move to the plate and his pickoff move.

Year SB SB att. SB rate
2009 12 16 80%
2010 19 21 90.5%
2011 18 18 100%
2012 40 53 75.5%
2013 38 49 77.6%
Career 127 157 80.9%

Strong Vs. Lefties

Gregory Polanco

Polanco has been strong against lefties early in his career.

To decide if a hitter is a platoon candidate, a good place to start is his minor league track record. Over the last three years (age 19-21 seasons), Polanco has proven he can handle left-handed pitching as a left-handed hitter. That can be due to his willingness to go the other way against southpaws. Also, his ability to lay off pitches that pitchers want him to chase but instead helps Polanco gets into hitter’s counts.

On August 20, Polanco faced lefty Ryan Demmin. In his second at-bat, he lined out to the left fielder on a 3-2 away fastball. His approach was to go the other way and he ended up squaring the ball up, but right to the left fielder. That’s good process and a very good approach that can play on any level of baseball.

As you can see in the table below, Polanco has not always enjoyed success against lefties. Remember that in 2009 and 2010, he was only 17 and 18 respectively. With more experience against southpaws, Polanco made the necessary adjustments to be able to do quite well against lefties.

In 2012, Polanco’s numbers were ridiculous against lefties. He hit for a .396/.456/.631 slash line for a 1.087 OPS with 5 home runs and a really good 11-to-15 walk to strikeout rate.

Polanco’s numbers dipped in 2013 partly due to pitchers with better stuff and command at the higher levels. Four home runs off lefties is not a bad number. At times, Polanco can get pull happy and roll over on groundballs, another factor to take in consideration with the lower numbers in 2013.

Year PA AVG OBP SLG OPS 2B 3B HR BB% K%
2009 vs LHP 62 .240 .387 .320 .707 4 0 0 19.4 24.2
2009 vs RHP 199 .275 .364 .368 .733 4 6 0 10.6 17.6
2010 vs LHP 58 .167 .224 .185 .409 1 0 0 5.2 34.5
2010 vs RHP 142 .216 .254 .328 .582 4 1 3 4.2 14.8
2011 vs LHP 42 .278 .381 .278 .659 0 0 0 9.5 16.7
2011 vs RHP 171 .217 .308 .364 .671 4 4 3 11.7 16.4
2012 vs LHP 126 .396 .456 .631 1.087 7 2 5 8.7 11.9
2012 vs RHP 359 .301 .365 .485 .850 19 4 11 9.2 13.6
2013 vs LHP 193 .261 .318 .375 .693 8 0 4 7.3 16.1
2013 vs RHP 343 .299 .378 .469 .848 22 2 8 11.1 12.2

True Centerfielder

From all of the scouting reports and the “eye test”, Polanco profiles as an above-average center fielder at the major league level. He shows very good range along with a strong arm. Like any young outfielder, improving his jumps is an area to improve on. Polanco likes to play shallow in center field in order to take away singles from opposing hitters.

On August 20, Polanco (playing center field) made a good read on a ball hit off the end of the bat, one he had to charge in and make a running catch. He shows above average range to both his left and right. Polanco made another sparkling play that night on a sacrifice fly to left-center field. With the bases loaded, a fly ball was hit to medium range left-center field. Polanco ranged to his glove side, got behind the ball and threw a one-hop strike to third base. The ball beat the runner there, but the runner was called safe, despite replays showing otherwise.

On August 21, Polanco (playing right field) made another play that had scouts shaking their heads. The hitter flared a ball down the right field line where Polanco fielded the ball near the right field bullpen mound. Polanco threw a seed to second base that was high, but was on a line when the runner reached second base for a double. Polanco showcases a strong arm (comparable to Starling Marte’s arm strength), which helps project him to right field with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen supplanted in left and center field, respectively. With that future outfield, the Pirates would not have to worry about outfield defense too much having three true center fielders roaming PNC Park’s spacious outfield.

Looking at the defensive statistics, Polanco made nine errors in 2013 spread across three levels. In 2012, Polanco made just three errors. However, he had 21 outfield assists the last two years, a very strong number.

Future Outlook

Given Polanco’s rise the last two seasons, the Pirates project him as a future piece in the outfield. Polanco has shown he has the tools to carry him into the major leagues. Strong plate discipline, the ability to hit for a good average and decent power, ability to steal bases, strong defense and arm are all among his strengths, but from the people that have been around him his makeup may be his best quality. Having the ability is one thing, but to have the work ethic and drive to continually improve and work on your game is a great intangible to have and one you cannot measure with a stop watch.

All of these variables project Polanco as an above-average major league outfielder with even more upside and potential to realize in the near future. He has filled out his frame over the last year and there is more room for muscle mass as he matures physically. The sky is the limit for Polanco, making the $150,000 investment in 2009 worthwhile. Like Marte before him, it will be fun for Pirates fans to watch Polanco mature in front of their eyes as early as late-2014, the first glimpse of what could be an impact player for the Pirates in the foreseeable future. Yes, you can walk off an island.

Author: Jake Oswalt

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  • leadoff

    Polanco is a slow starter, will the Pirates give him a chance to get his feet wet? Hurdle is not big on waiting for kids to develop, I don’t know how much Huntington had to do with Marte starting the season in LF in 2013. Hurdle had Lambo and did not want to use him, he chose the singles hitter over the power hitter with little experience. Also IMO, Polanco needs a full year at AAA next year. I would like to see them sign Byrd for one year.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rothermund Ian Rothermund

      I’d really like to see a list of all these “talented” young players that Hurdle is holding back. There were a lot of younger guys in the line up and in the bullpen playing consistently this year. Once Marte was called up, he played almost right away, even while slumping. Cole got right in the rotation and stayed. Those are the players to compare Polanco to, not average-below average ceiling players like Mercer, Lambo, and Harrison.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

        Ian…I agree.

      • emjayinTN

        Ian: Don’t forget the Pirates taking Jeff Locke right out of ST and keeping him in the Rotation all year. Or the fact that Clint Barmes was HIS guy, and he did not hesitate to give Jordy Mercer the opportunity to win that starting position when Barmes was slumping. Hurdle and the Pirates cannot hold Gregory Polanco in the minors – he has already locked himself into the lineup for June 2014.

        Correction – Gregory Polanco signed for $75,000 in 2009; Alen Rery Hanson, our 20 year old switchhitting SS Prospect signed the same year for $150,000.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          Actually, I made the correction to the signing bonuses. When I first received the bonus information, they were switched, with Polanco shown as $75 K and Hanson shown as $150 K. Polanco was $150 K. Hanson was actually $90 K, so I don’t know why I got the $75 K figure.

  • bjointbucs

    Where do you think he will hit in the lineup once he gets to the bigs?

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

      It might depend on who will be playing 1B. Just in general, I could see him slotting at 6 when he comes up and moving to the 2 spot (contact-oriented lefty with speed) by Opening Day ’15.

      • jaygray007

        Let’s say they sign Loney. I’d REALLY like to see the 1B of the day bat 2nd until Polanco is ready to be productive.

        Loney Vs Platoon Side OBP…………………..2013 .352 , career .351
        Gaby Sanchez Vs Platoon Side OBP……..2013 .448 ( ! ) , career .399

        even though they could potentially hamper cutch’s SB total a little bit, i think that could be a potent formula.

        Neil Walker didn’t cut it this year in the 2 hole. Jordy was fine there though when lefties pitched.

        Then, the theoretical Polanco of the .280/.350/450 triple slash line against both righties and lefties can take over for the next 6 years once ready.

        • stickyweb

          Not sure why Neil Walker didn’t cut it in the 2 hole when his OBP vs. RHP was .350 in 2013 and .346 in his career, just about identical to Loney. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. That said, he definitely shouldn’t be hitting 2nd against any LHP.

  • CalipariFan506

    Hurdle used Qualls and Takahashi over Wilson and Morris last year. Since then I think NH has learned his lesson and not given him that option.

    • BostonsCommon

      +1… Very funny… Very true.

    • IC Bob

      That may be true but who signed Takahashi and who traded for Qualls? I am pretty sure Hurdle wasn’t lobbying for Sanchez to be in the rotation at the start of the year either. Neal deserves the GM of the year award hands down but he is not perfect and Hurdle is not the bumbling fool you seem to think he is either.

      • Andrew

        Excellent point, I love the illogic of this false dichotomy.

      • CalipariFan506

        We don’t know how it went. For all we know Hurdle demanded veteran help and NH found it. When it flopped NH maybe learned his lesson.

        Even with Buck this year. Hurdle put Buck right in the lineup over Tony Sanchez. It flopped miserably. Buck was IMO a salary dump by the Mets.

        • stickyweb

          Both NH and CH damn well better have been begging for a veteran catcher once McHenry went down. Did you really want to be one hard slide into home from having a rookie with about 20 ABs (that had the yips a month earlier in the minors) be your only catcher in a pennant chase? And I’m just spitballing here, but once said veteran catcher was on the team, maybe he should actually catch each pitcher once in the last month of the season, no?

          Sure Buck was a salary dump for the Mets. They were going nowhere and giving a heralded rookie some experience. But that doesn’t mean Buck didn’t have a lot of value to the Bucs.

  • IC Bob

    If Polanco is everything we believe him to be. Would it not benefit the Bucs to put him in LF and move Marte to RF? Marte may have the strongest arm in the game. This could really help the Bucs to utilize that. I do have to say I am looking forward to an outfield of Cutch, Marte and Polanco. Could be an exciting group for many years (or until Meadows forces his way in)

  • Andrew

    Outstanding piece, does anyone have an educated estimate on the time table, as early as late 2014 is vague. I realize that prospect promotion involves multiple factors but I keep seeing/reading Polanco and July cited like its a diktat. He only has 300 PAs against AA/AAA, pitching. If this will be discussed in a future off season post, I can wait.

    • stickyweb

      The reason you see July seemingly written in stone is to avoid Super Two status. It seems like most of these “elite” prospects don’t need a whole season in AAA. Tim often says the jump to AA is the big test for hitters and I’ve seen others say if they can hit in AA, they can hit in the majors.

      Of course it depends on Polanco doing at least OK in Indy up to July. If he’s hitting .200 with no power and striking out 30% of the time, rest assured he won’t get the call. But none of us expect that.

      • Andrew

        Super Two explains that oft cited July timeline, I was overlooking that. I have read some analysts who criticize the Rays for keeping Wil Myers down until late June, maybe costing them a win or two thus crippling their chances of post season success. So there is that to consider, if the criticism is true.

  • Jake Oswalt

    He still needs at-bats in AAA. Expect to see the same timeline as Marte in 2011 when they called him up in July. I like him in the 2 spot when he gets called up and maybe moved back in the lineup as he matures physically and becomes a legit run producer and develops more power. Would be a perfect 2 hole hitter with his on-base percentage to get on for Cutch behind him.

    • Andrew

      Thanks

    • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

      Maybe Cutch is part of the problem. Recognizing that RBI and “clutch” are flawed stats, the numbers for 2013 clearly show Cutch fell considerably as an RBI producer.
      2011
      OBP of 1 + 2 batters (combined) vs. Cutch RBI
      2011: .359 + .288 (.320) / 89
      2012: .291 + .304 (.294) / 94
      2013: .332 + .332 (.332) / 84

      While significantly increasing OBP for top of the order in 2013, Cutch had 11% fewer RBI. It’s not about protection, either. Cutch’s September RBI, protected by Morneau & Byrd, was his lowest month for 2013 (10). Meantime he leads the club in OBP.

      Perhaps once Polanco arrives and gets his feet wet he should slide into 3 and move Cutch up in the order. Heresy you say?

  • CalipariFan506

    I like him leading off.

  • leadoff

    I am sure the Pirates would rather sign Byrd for one year and leave Polanco AAA all year.

    • mak_dc

      I enjoyed the maroon Byrd era, short as it was. But I truly believe that there is about zero chance of him signing a one-year deal with anyone. Some team is going to overpay him in both money and years. I hope it isn’t Pittsburgh.

      • mak_dc

        Marlon….thanks a lot auto-correct

        • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

          I thought you were channeling your inner Bugs Bunny….lol.

          That gave me a smile this morn….:)

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    Keith Law in his most recent chat says he loves Polanco. Calls him a future All Star.

    I’m starting to wonder if we might be best served to just take Polanco north with us in April 2014.

    He appears to have the physical gifts, but most importantly, the mental gifts.

    I don’t think he’d be overwhelmed.

    What do you guys think?

    Foo

    • emjayinTN

      foo: The kid is a player – Starling Marte from the left side of the plate with much better plate discipline. That is one of the reasons I give Lambo no chance of getting a chance in RF in 2014, unless it will be for April, May, and half of June. That is when Gregory Polanco will become a fixture in the Pirate OF. That said, it would be foolish to give away the freebie year allowed by the current rules. If he stays in the minors until June, 2014 he will play all of 2014 without getting credit for a year of MLB service. If he stays in the minors until July, we can eliminate the possibility of a Super Two status, which would not bother me one bit. When the Pirates hit that 1st home stand around mid-June, that is when I would want him in Pittsburgh regardless of Super Two considerations.

      • John Dreker

        If they are just worried about the year of MLB service time, he only needs to stay a couple weeks in the minors before that isn’t a problem. He could be up by mid-April. I think he needs the time in at AAA and his arrival will likely coincide with when he would avoid super-two status, but with him at least, it doesn’t look like they would be holding him back. He legitimately needs the experience in the upper levels, but with his skill set, he should be ready by July.

  • buster09

    emjay & John : I couldn’t agree with both of you more. I saw him play all of his home games in Altoona,and when I commented much the same as yopu both,I took a fair amount of criticism in several familair blogs. My reply was : ” I can tell you haven’t seen the kid play in person “. Also,I obviously saw the games Jake mentioned,( 8/20 is my birthday ! ) and the throw to third he cited had to be seen to be believed. When the umpire called the guy safe I laughed.