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.
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 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|
Strong Vs. Lefties
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.
|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|
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.
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.