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.