Development in the minors
There is no doubt that Gregory Polanco is living up to the hype early in the 2014 season at Triple-A.
While most of the decision to start Polanco in Triple-A was undoubtedly about the Super Two situation and the future cost, there is some value in not throwing him to the wolves right away. He is gaining an enormous amount of confidence feeding on under-matched Triple-A pitching.
Most importantly, Polanco did not look at the demotion out of Spring Training as a detriment. He viewed it as an opportunity to go to Triple-A and refine his game before his eagerly awaited Major League debut. The main goal right now is to tune out all of the noise around him and focus on the job at hand – helping the Pittsburgh Pirates when his time comes.
“The main thing right now is knowing more about the game and how to play the game,” Polanco said. “I am learning about how they are pitching to me. I am learning how to play the game every day.”
Though the season can be a grind, Polanco views the growth that he is making in the minors as more mental than physical. As he progressed through the system last season, he saw that the adjustment goes much more rapidly in the higher levels. The pitchers get scouting information much quicker and those adjustments must be made from at-bat to at-bat, rather than weekly.
“The pitchers are smart,” he said. “They know how to pitch you. They know what you can hit and what you cannot hit. Right now, it is more of a mental thing. I know that I have talent and I can hit, but I am getting smarter every day.”
While Polanco only saw three games at Triple-A last season, he learned quite a bit after the jump from Altoona. The main lesson that he learned is the variety of pitches and the frequency that he sees them. He was also able to take this small sample size of experience into his off-season training.
“This year, I came in with ideas about how they would pitch me,” Polanco said. “It is hard in Triple-A. They throw a lot of breaking balls and a lot of off-speed.”
For hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo, the development aspect of Polanco being in Indianapolis is a value that is leading to the continuing development with the Pirates. He also credits Polanco for coming in with the right attitude when he arrived.
“He’s a good, classy kid,” Pagliarulo said. “He is mature for his age. We still need to get him ready, and that is not a process that should ever be rushed. We want to make sure, that when it is his opportunity, we want him well-rounded with his play in the outfield, base running, and at the plate because those are the resources that we need to play with in Pittsburgh. That is how we are going to win in Pittsburgh. We can’t be one-dimensional. When it is his turn to go up there, he’s going to be able to fit right in and it’s going to be valuable resources for Clint Hurdle.”
This is a plan that has been successful for the Pirates as they have made sure that players are fully developed before giving them their first opportunity at the show. This development plan of Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle has the full support of the ownership. The main task at hand at Indianapolis is protecting the large investment that the team has in Polanco.
Even with the success that Polanco has had early in the season, and the amount of pressure from the Pirates fan base, following a so-so start, I don’t see any way that they make any type of move with Polanco until June. The rewards of waiting greatly outweigh the short-term. However, Polanco will be in right field in Pittsburgh immediately when that clock expires.
Baseball is a year-round tradition for Polanco, who said that he only had couple weeks of rest during the off-season.
This off-season, Polanco earned honors as MVP of the Dominican Winter League, where he compiled numbers of .331/.428/.494. He credits the off-season experience as jump starting his hot start to the season.
“I came to Spring Training ready to play,” Polanco said. “My timing and hitting was good. I think that [the Winter League] was the biggest thing for me.”
Though the competition in the league may not be as intense as he would see during the season, it still served as a benefit to Polanco. It allowed him to get some much-needed plate appearances and keep him in the zone for Spring Training, when he got the opportunity to face some big leaguers. With this, Polanco posted an .804 OPS with three extra base hits in the spring.
Stats don’t lie
The term five-tool player gets thrown around pretty loosely these days. However, Polanco fits the mold perfectly.
In the last two seasons, of Polanco’s hits, 32-percent of them have been extra-base hits. This includes 26 and 30 doubles in 2012 and 2013, respectively. He also smacked 28 home runs in those campaigns combined. To go along with those power numbers, Polanco has added in the speed aspect that shows off the five-tool designation that many give him. He stole 40 and 38 bases in the last two years, while collecting eight triples over that span.
The opportunities to run have been down in Indianapolis this season, as he is entrenched into the third hole in the lineup, but they are tools that Polanco still possesses to be utilized when needed.
Polanco also rounds out the five tools with excellent range and a strong arm, with 21 outfield assists in the past two seasons.
Success against lefties
Glancing through the stats, Polanco has had plenty of opportunities to see left-handed pitching this year. He has 24 at bats against righties against 19 facing southpaws coming into Tuesday.
Though he has a small sample size this early in the season, Polanco has crushed each equally. In fact, his .556 average with a homer against lefties is just higher than his .417 with a home run against right-handed pitching.
In addition, it is not completely lesser names that Polanco is facing as left-handed arms. On Saturday, he faced Robbie Ray, Baseball America’s No. 4 prospect for the Tigers and had two hits against him.
As for his approach against southpaws, Polanco looks middle-away in every plate appearance. He said that he will let the ball get a little bit deeper against left-handers, to “not get in front of it.” With this approach, he looks to go the opposite way more often against them.
Responding to adversity
However there are some things that Pagliarulo looks to build on for the development of Polanco. The main thing that he is looking for from Polanco is how he responds to failure.
“I want to see him in some situations, where he is faced with some difficult challenges,” Pagliarulo said. “Whether it is a tough left-hander or a pressure situation, the more situations that he sees like that, the more he can deal with them, evaluate and we can help him get through those things. When you get them, you want to be able to handle them right. In baseball, you learn when you fail, so they are not really failures, but part of the development process. How he handles that and gets up is how he is going to grow.
Polanco actually received one of these opportunities in the bottom of the ninth with two outs in Sunday’s game, when he struck out looking against Columbus’ Nick Hagadone with the bases loaded. I guess that we will wait to see how he rebounds, but based on the small sample size track record this season, I would be willing to bet that he will be successful.