Tonight we begin to separate Gregory Polanco as mythological figure from Gregory Polanco as Major Leaguer.
There has been plenty to mythologize. Polanco rocketed from relative anonymity, a raw youngster struggling to hit in the Gulf Coast League, to prospect superstar status faster than it takes him to run 1st to 3rd. A blastoff season in 2012 (.325/.388/.522) for low-A West Virginia put him on the Big League track. And high expectations for each new level were met and surpassed — quickly.
“I didn’t know it was going to be that fast,” Polanco said after his arrival in Pittsburgh. “I worked hard, I played hard to be where I want to be.”
The 6-foot-4 athlete with five-tool potential sharpened into the 6-foot-4 dynamo with five tools, period. Prospect chatter turned into prospect hype. Now it seems Polanco would disappoint if he doesn’t hit 40 homers, steal 40 bases, gun down baserunners from the Allegheny and leap the U.S. Steel Tower in a single bound.
Even on this site, he has been described as the most talented Pirates prospect since modern baseball’s greatest offensive threat.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like that,” Polanco said of the excited reaction of Pirates fans to his call-up.
Fans can’t be blamed for placing oversized hopes on the 22-year-old outfielder. While Polanco torched Triple-A pitching for an International League-leading .347 average, 49 RBI and 134 total bases, plus a .405 OBP and .945 OPS, Pirates right fielders languished to a .319 OBP and .676 OPS, both in the bottom third of the National League.
The solution was simple, only made complicated by multi-million-dollar arbitration deadlines, declined contract offers, and at least partially the determination that Polanco needed more seasoning before placed into the Major League oven.
“They just said ‘keep playing hard and doing what you’re doing, and your time is gonna come,’” Polanco said.
The time has come. Polanco will bat second in the Pirates’ order (“It just looked right,” manager Clint Hurdle said.) He will stand beneath the Clemente Wall in PNC Park’s right field, with all the implications therein.
“I feel proud to play where someone like Clemente played,” Polanco said.
So what now? What’s a proper expectation for an outfielder who in the last few months has leaped even further, from elite prospect to top three in all of baseball?
The key will be patience, in two respects.
Contrary to the “you can’t walk off the island” stereotype of free-swinging Dominican players, Polanco derives value in plate patience — a 9.4% walk rate and 14.4% strikeout rate the last two season has put him on the bases often. It’s a skill that (in part) made the Pirates comfortable putting him on a fast track through the minors, and it’s a reason Hurdle cited for being comfortable with him as a No. 2 hitter.
But fans too should be patient. Polanco has exploded into all-world status rapidly, with good reason. But the Puig-level superstars who dominate immediately are rare indeed. Even Mike Trout hit .220 in his debut year.
The advice from a former hyped prospect, who debuted in the Pirates’ leadoff spot?
“Do what got you here,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “That’s the reason why you’re here, because of what you did… The hype changes. The game itself doesn’t.”
McCutchen said Polanco has the mental makeup to succeed in the Majors. And fan and media hype notwithstanding, Polanco will not be expected to carry a laggard offense — the Bucs are ranked in the middle of the NL pack in runs scored.
“He’s not carrying a country. He’s not carrying an organization,” Hurdle said. “He’s playing a game.”
So the myth has been written. Fans watched the tape-measure home run highlights, read the drooling scouting reports, re-tweeted the reports of RBI after RBI, anticipated the arrival.
Now he’s here. Now the scoreboard will read all zeroes on Gregory Polanco’s baseball career. Now’s the fun part.