Is Gregory Polanco Finally On Track to Become a Star?

In the new age of social media and with the vast amounts of baseball coverage at fans’ disposal, it has become the norm for people to have high expectations for top prospects entering the Major Leagues. Often times, those expectations can be unreasonable.

The 2015 season has only heightened these expectations, with the debuts of a number of top prospects around baseball, and immediate success from top guys like Kris Bryant.

A year ago, Gregory Polanco was seen as the next big thing for the Pirates. He was a guy who could come up and eventually be a star. Polanco’s career has not gotten off to the start that fans dreamed of, the media had expected, and the Pirates had hoped for. But if you look around baseball, teams are littered with players — some of them All-Stars — who went through the same growing pains that Polanco is experiencing now.

Take the Kansas City Royals for example, who are currently one of the best teams in the Majors. First baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas were top 10 prospects in baseball when they entered the league in 2011, but both Hosmer and Moustakas had their struggles and growing pains throughout their first two seasons. Hosmer batted .232 with a .663 OPS in 2012, while Moustakas’ struggles actually carried over into his third and fourth seasons, earning him a brief demotion in Triple-A in 2014 after spending parts of four seasons in the majors.

Fast forwarding to the present: Hosmer and Moustakas anchored the lineup that led the Royals to the AL Pennant in 2014, and both made their first All-Star appearances in 2015.

There is a long list of top prospects that have gone through growing pains. Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox had a disappointing 2014. Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs had his struggles throughout his first couple of seasons, and was an easy out for left-handers during those seasons. Even wunderkind Kris Bryant is dealing with some growing pains – he’s currently hitting .147 in the second half and striking out in 35.6% of his at-bats.

We’ve seen top prospects quickly being promoted from the Triple-A level for different range of reasons, often times by contenders, and these prospects are not afforded the opportunity to accumulate a high volume of at-bats in the upper levels of the minor leagues. These contending teams hope that their young talent can come in and immediately contribute. The reality is, only a few players over the years have been able to perform at a high level consistently without much of a dip in their performance.

Polanco got off to a blistering start in his first two weeks in the Majors, but the league was able to make adjustments and began to expose his weaknesses. His struggles throughout his first calendar year in the Major Leagues have been well documented. He had an empty .234 batting average to go along with a .643 OPS, and he was not driving the ball with the authority that was seen from him in the minor leagues.

Polanco was hardly a finished product when he arrived in Pittsburgh, and was not afforded a customary number of at-bats in Triple-A to work through his inefficiencies. For comparison purposes, Polanco only accumulated 285 at-bats in Triple-A, compared to Andrew McCutchen, who collected 780 at-bats. Polanco has had to gain his experience in the Majors while under the microscope and in the middle of a pennant race.

Now that Polanco has had a year of experience under his belt, we are beginning to see the evolution of the hitter everyone has expected, and he continues to look more and more comfortable at the plate as time goes on. His .787 OPS in the month of July was the highest monthly output so far in his short career. The quality of his at-bats began to rise, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 19/14 in July, and he’s climbed into the top 15 in the National League in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.01).

Experience has indeed played a big role in his improvement, but he has also worked closely with hitting coach Jeff Branson to adjust his swing-path and hold his back-side in order to allow him to get the barrel of his bat on the ball more frequently. Polanco’s swing has a tendency to get long at times, which is something he’s had to work on with Branson. Polanco and Branson have utilized the high-velocity pitching machine in order to force him to shorten up his swing-path.

“It’s not a velocity where its an over-powering fastball, but what we do is, we move up,” Branson explained. “We close the distance between the batter and the pitching machine so he doesn’t have a choice but to stay short. He has to figure out how to get the bat-head to the ball with some velocity to it. The way you do that, you have to stay short. You figure out how to shorten your swing and be more direct to the ball.”

The adjustments have been working, as Polanco’s hard-contact percentage rose to 33.8% in the month of July, the highest monthly output of his career.

Polanco is also seeing improvements against left-handed pitching, something that was becoming a concern earlier in the season. In the middle of July, Polanco was batting only .143 in 54 plate appearances against lefties, and was striking out in 31% of his at-bats. He often looked over-matched, and was becoming a liability when the Pirates faced left-handers.

However, to the Pirates’ credit, they continued to throw Polanco into the fire and forced him to face left-handers. Polanco is rewarding their confidence in him.

Last week in Minnesota, Polanco laced a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double off of the right-field wall against Twins’ lefty Brian Duensing late in the game. In the Pirates’ recent victory over the Cubs, it was Polanco’s RBI single that gave them a 5-4 lead against Cubs’ lefty Travis Wood.

Polanco credits his success against left-handed pitching to gaining more repetitions and experience, and Branson agreed with that sentiment. However, Branson also credits Polanco’s improvements against left-handers to his recent approach. Polanco’s focus has been to drive the ball to the opposite-field gap, which has allowed him to lay off of the tough breaking balls from left-handers he had struggled to identify in the past. His approach allowed him to recognize Duensing’s breaking ball and was able stay with the pitch and get his barrel to the ball. Against Wood, Polanco showed off a good short stroke, and lined the ball into right field.

“That’s how you back the ball up in the zone. You’re able to see, your vision increases and you are able to see the ball longer through the zone,” Branson said.

Neal Huntington has often said he wished he could have kept Polanco in Triple-A Indianapolis to gain the experience he needed to fine-tune his game, but injuries last year did not allow that to happen. The 500 at-bats that Huntington may have wanted Polanco to see in Triple-A have now been seen at the Major League level, and Polanco could now be heading in the direction of the future All-Star that the Pirates expected he would become. It’s a credit to Huntington and Hurdle for sticking with Polanco through the growing pains, and not putting any added pressure onto him to produce. They believed that he would continue to make improvements and believed he would continue to adjust to the pitching.

“Clint does a really good job with that, with the young guys coming up – not putting any added pressure on them,” Branson said. “This team doesn’t go only where Polanco goes. That’s what he relates to the guys. This team doesn’t revolve around one guy. It doesn’t revolve around Polanco, it doesn’t revolve around McCutchen, it doesn’t revolve around Walker. This is a team thing. You do your individual job and everything else will fall into place.”

The talk before the season of the Pirates having the best outfield in baseball may have been a bit premature, but the steady improvement of Polanco over the last month is making that statement closer to reality.

  • Barry Bonds’ first year with the Pirates was unimpressive as well.

  • Very good article, I’ve been watching for signs of Polanco improvement all season.

    I disagree a bit with the concept that Polanco’s swing is long, when I hear long swing I think trouble getting around on the ball due to the hands casting out. Pitchers aren’t pounding Polanco with fastballs on the inner half, his swing problem seem to have been too much loft, (if that is what is meant by long, what I just wrote is moot and ignore the rest of this post). So he ends up hitting lazy fly balls on fastballs on the outer half and pounding breaking pitches into the ground. Bat head seems to be taking a more direct line to the ball now.

    I hope he continue to perform at the plate, Domonic Brown had a great six weeks in 2013 and it was declared a breakout, progress isn’t always linear.

    • He swings ” under ” the ball quite often, which is common with many young players. It looks like you have noticed though he is doing that less often recently.

      • Pretty much. My only real point was I don’t think it is correct to describe his swing as long.

  • I’ve been saying for awhile now that when his lower half and upper half got on the same page he would be just fine, looks like his parts are almost in sync. Watch out baseball hot coffee comin’ through.

  • I have no problem with Smizik, he is extremely opinionated, but knows his stuff well…Dejan on the other hand, has some obsessive agenda and it clouds his judgement…

    • Smizik knows plenty, but doesn’t like to be told he is wrong…..which he is often enough. His defense of local guys like Jack Z.,GM of the Mariners for example, was laughable. The other person you mention has a very high opinion of his own work along with the agenda you mention.

  • This article is a reproduction of one about Starling Marte from a couple years ago.

    You’d think by now fans would have patience with young, obviously talented, players.

    • We’ll see if they can practice some patience next year with the group due to make the jump

    • Marte never had the struggles Polanco had….

      • Maybe not so much, but in his first 25 games (arbitrary endpoints, of course) he had a .678 OPS and was striking out in 25% of his PAs. Of course, as I often say, anything can happen in 100 PAs, so it was overblown then as well.

      • I agree with this, Marte’s issue was and will always be making enough contact, Polanco’s, who appears to be much more selective in when to swing, issue was quality of contact.

        • I see two habits that if he fully corrected he will improve, though in saying this I have to note that he has shown considerable improvement on these over the summer. One: his hands need to start from the same place when the pitcher releases the ball. Early in the season his start position was jumping up and down six inches or more between pitches. It isn’t rock solid like Cutch’s now, but its more steady. Two: he needs a consistently more level swing path through the zone. GP has a bad habit of flicking the bat in a downward plane on outside pitches when he is intending to make contact to hit the ball to left field. That leads to alot of weak contact. When he swings level and catches the sweet spot on the bat the ball just jumps off his bat. He’ll get to a great place over a couple of seasons of development. We just need to be patient.

      • Scott Kliesen
        August 8, 2015 8:08 am

        His struggles may have been different, but he had his struggles, too. My point being, fans have high expectations for prospects to come up and immediately play at All-Star level and are dismayed when they don’t.

  • Red Sox have place Mike Napoli, Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley Jr., Brock Holt, Hanley Ramirez, Justin Masterson and Craig Breslow on waivers….Padres have place Matt Kemp and Jamie Shields on waivers

  • One of my favorite articles. Not many people recognize what Polanco has done he last month or so. His 2nd half numbers resemble what would have been considered a very solid season for GP . Last 30 Games .270/.359/.426. He is also starting to look like an above average defender in RF. His defense since July started is like night and day compared to the first 3 months. I was a supporter of him going to AAA for a few weeks to get back into a groove and now I’m happy they didn’t send him down.

  • I’ve been disappointed with the power, but it’s often the last thing to come. I can’t think of any prettier swing out there, when he’s making contact. One thing that’s been clear over the last month, the plate discipline is miles ahead of where it was this time last year, when Lunchbox was stealing his ABs…think he’ll be allright. Just want to see the XBH arrow pointed up.

    • Its not so much the discipline, I’ve noticed he is taking LESS good pitches to hit, so he isn’t getting behind as often, thus making it easier to lay off garbage. His two strike battling ability also shows that he has learned how to fight up there and foul off crap he can’t hit and eventually there might be a mistake. He is starting to have a plan up there, you can see it in his at bats sometimes…..this time last year he was going to the plate with a blank slate, just trying to hit whatever came his way

  • Dude, I was defending his against some guy in Smizikstan yesterday. He called Polanco a turd. I busted out a bunch of fangraphs stats showing that the underlying stats tell a difference story and the moment he starts hitting with more authority and increases his BABIP he’s going to explode. He’s very close to a big breakout.

    • I appreciate you sticking up for Polanco. But why are you even arguing with someone who refers to Polanco as a turd? There’s plenty of more educated people on this site that you can argue with.

      • No doubt. I don’t know why. I’m uncontrollable drawn to Smizik’s posts. His posts on the Pirates are actually pretty interesting. The comments sections get out of control. I wasn’t the only one arguing with him either. Sometimes you feel it necessary to try to make the idiot realize he’s an idiot. Excellent article Pete. If Polanco explodes and Glasnow, Taillon, Bell, and Hanson are all legit, the harmonic convergence is going to be beautiful and the Bucs are gonna have an all star lineup from top to bottom.

        • How’s Daquino doing these days? If you want to talk turds…

          I admit, I was on board the bus to trade GP. But only for someone producing now and controllable for at least 3 years, so I have that going for me 🙂

          • I don’t pay that much attention to the commenters. I normally get exhausted after a little while. I’m the same way with Bucs Dugout. They hate Smizik over there by way. After about 50 comments I check out. Occasionally, I’ll see someone post something really ignorant and I’ll feel the incessant need to post the facts even though it really doesn’t matter. I was kinda okay with trading GP too. If it got us controllable pitcher like Ross or Hamels. I’m glad NH didn’t though.

            • I’ve never been high on Hamels, he just doesn’t ever post a high win total, even when he was #3 in phili with that ridiculous pitching staff, he has never rose to the top on a winning team to be a leader and a real ace. He just doesn’t have it in him, reminds me of Barry Zito somewhat, except Zito did have that one 20 game season

          • The immortal Bazzini !

        • Pretty sure Travis Snider will be a pallbearer when they put Smizik in the ground.

        • ” Sometimes you feel it necessary to try to make the idiot realize he’s an idiot” – i have that need often here as well

          • Probably with me from time to time. I’m good at not fully thinking through what I want to say and not making my point very well.

            • No, not you……there are a few people out there whom know who they are without me pointing them out

        • I know I shouldn’t do this, but…
          Bob Smizik has forgotten more baseball then most there know. He has strong opinions, but so do people here. I aways respect his opinions, even if I don’t agree with them.

      • Funny you say that…I just simplified my daily discussion down to this site alone and can’t tell you how much better I feel. Didn’t have the self control to ignore the mouth breathers, so I don’t even bother any more. Yinz are stuck with me. 😉

        • I have never knocked Polanco. I have said repeatedly he is a diamond in the rough. His smiling personality is a super plus for this young man. Never knock Pirate ‘commentators’.especially calling them expletive names.
          These are young men with dreams to play baseball.

        • I don’t always buy what you’re selling NMR but I do respect your posts. Glad to have you here.

          • I’d think less of you if you did buy all of it, Brian. 😉 Thanks.

          • I think alot of us just kinda throw ideas out there to see what sticks. I constantly talk up calling up Glasnow now even though I know it’s ridiculous partly because I’m impatient and want him in the Burgh now and partly just because I’m interested in the responses. I think as baseball fan, it’s good to have your head in the clouds sometimes. Like he said in Moneyball, “It’s easy to romanticize about baseball”.

            • I actually believe Glasnow would be amazing even right now like Strasburg was when he first came up, but…..since I know it won’t happen and agree that he will be better later, i can be more patient

        • I like having you here NMR. Whats the world without thoughtful and sometimes agitated contrarians? Everything gets stuck to the bottom if you never stir the pot

      • It’s semantics, but isn’t it spelled “terd?”

    • I have been talking a Polanco breakout for awhile but really I think he is in the begining to middle of it already. I think if he was healthier with his knee he would be using his better OBP to steal a lot more (he has basically stopped) and turn a few of all of these doubles into triples. But you are right, it just feels like an explosion could happen.

    • Do yourself the same favor I did for myself. Stay out of Smizik ( or Robrossii ) stan ! They are bad for one’s mental health.

      • See, I always find what Smizik has to say interesting. He’s a big Huntington supporter and he backs up Nutting from time to time. It’s his readers that are the big issue. I actually like Rossi better than Cook and Collier. I think my favorite writer of the 2 big Pittsburgh papers is Starkey and even he writes a fluff piece from time to time. I used to love reading DK when he was with the Post Gazette but I hear he’s really gone downhill.

  • Fantastic article. I was one who was bashing him 6 weeks ago and am ready for my serving of crow. His approach against lefties is much improved and he is no longer a liability against LHP, which bodes well for the eventual matchup with MadBum/Lester/Kershaw/Greinke