PITTSBURGH — Gregory Polanco is 6-foot-5. This season, he would like to be a little bit shorter.
Polanco, of course, is not talking about his physical height. He seems just okay with that, even if it does involve an occasional duck when boarding the team’s airplane. When Polanco says he’d like to be shorter, what he’s talking about is his swing.
A short swing is a direct swing, one where the path the bat travels from its resting position to the place where the barrel makes contact with the ball is in a straight line, instead of a long, looping motion. For a tall player that already has long arms, a long swing can open up some pretty big holes for pitchers to put fastballs through. A shorter swing should result in fewer swings and misses and fewer strikeouts.
There’s also another advantage. Because it takes less time for a player’s bat to travel the distance to the ball, it means that a player can take longer to decided whether or not to swing at any given pitch. Polanco first mentioned the subject after he went 4-for-4 against Atlanta Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey earlier this week. He said then that letting the knuckleball travel further gave him a better chance to predict its last movement and make contact. It doesn’t just help with knuckleballs, either.
“That’s something that I want to do more consistently and in more situations,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve been working on.”
That work has mostly been mental. If you ask Polanco to show you a short swing, he’ll gladly deliver. But in the moment of the game, with everything else going through his head like the pitcher’s tendencies, the baserunners and the situation of the game, it can be difficult to keep a laser focus on keeping his swing from falling into some old habits.
“It’s all in the mind,” he said. “If I’m thinking about that, I actually do it. But if I forget, sometimes in hindsight, I’ll say, ‘Oh no, that was slow,’ if I roll it over or something like that.”
Hurdle said that it’s not uncommon for young hitters to change their focus from area to area and sometimes be inconsistent with all of those details as the year goes on.
“It’s funny, if you talk to him now about what’s important and you talk to him again in August, sometimes the verbiage changes,” Hurdle said. “However, you watch the video and he’s showing you what he’s doing. … I think it’s the ebb and flow of a hitter’s mentality and a certain type of pitcher they’re facing, but short to the ball is never bad.”
Polanco also feels like a shorter swing to the ball will help against tough left-handers. The main advantage same-handed pitchers have over hitters is that their body hides the ball for longer, making it harder to decide to swing or not to swing. Letting the ball travel deeper helps negate that advantage.
“A tough lefty like Chris Sale or something like that, I have to be really short and compact to the ball,” Polanco said.
With the Pirates taking a small-ball approach this season, a shorter swing can also help with hit-and-runs and other plays where Polanco will be asked to make contact.
While Hurdle said a shorter swing is never bad, it does have some drawbacks, most notably, a decrease in power when compared to a longer swing. So far, the numbers bear that out. Polanco’s batting average is .241, down from his career average of .252 but still in the same ballpark. But his slugging percentage is .276, down from his career average of .402 and a .463 mark last season.
With the Pirates’ power-starved offense, Polanco will have to make sure in his quest for shortness, he doesn’t swing too far the other direction.