The high expectations for Gregory Polanco may trace their roots to comments Tim wrote on this very site more than four years ago, in advance of his breakout 2012 season at West Virginia. Since that time, Polanco has shown the flashes of superstar potential that excite both fans and scouts, but has yet to realize much of that potential at the major league level.

It’s worth noting that at 23 years old, Polanco delivered an essentially league-average season, with a .256/.320/.381 (94 wRC+) line that was a mild improvement from his 2014 numbers. Those upgrades were mostly due to increases in BABIP (.272 to .308) and isolated power (.108 to .125), rather than improved on base skills, since his walk rate actually declined from 9.6% in 2014 to 8.4% last season.

It was not, by any measure, a bad season for his first full year in the majors. But a new season brings new opportunities, and entering Wednesday’s game, Polanco was leading NL regulars in walks (10) and walk rate (27.8%). This led ESPN prospect expert Keith Law to quip the following during Tuesday’s game:

But wait, there’s more. The additional walks aren’t hurting Polanco when he decides to put the ball in play either, given his strong .281/.455/.438 line and 31.0% hard contact rate (career 28.5%).

By the eye test, this improvement in the young season seems to build upon some things we knew Polanco was working on with Jeff Branson last year, refining his approach in order to — and this should not surprise anyone who follows the Pirates — drive the ball to the opposite field gap.

That opposite-gap approach has been mentioned frequently by Pirates coaches, and it does fit with how pitchers have attacked Polanco in his young career: staying on the outer half of the plate and beyond, taking advantage of the larger strike zone for left-handed hitters. You can see the consistency of approach in these heat maps (from the catcher’s POV):

Polanco Heatmap 2014

And here’s 2015:

Polanco Heatmap 2015

The changes to Polanco’s process did lead to some improvements in the second half of last season. In July and August, Polanco had his best months for OBP (.363 & .380) and ISO (.152 & .170), and his second half contact profile had decidedly more hard contact than the earlier months of the season (32.9% vs. 27.7%). His outcomes on balls in play were not quite as strong in September as they were in July and August, but the quality of contact was broadly consistent with his previous success.

What seems to have changed at least somewhat for Polanco is what pitches he decides to swing at. Consider his swing chart from 2014:

Polanco Swing Rate 2014

As you can see from the chart, Polanco was definitely aggressive on the inner third of the plate. I would not say he was offering too much at pitches out of the zone, but there were certainly areas—particularly up and in—where he found himself tempted.

Now take a look at the first half of last season:

Polanco Swing Rate First Half 2015

Here we start to see things shift a little bit. He is still susceptible to pitches up and in, but you can see that he’s swinging at a lot more at pitches on the outer third, and less on pitches down and in.

These adjustments continue into the second half of last season:

Polanco Swing Rate 2nd Half 2015

Now you can see that he’s being even more aggressive in the middle and on the outer third of the plate, while more selective on the inner third. This allowed for less pulled contact in the second half of the season vs. the first half (37.1% vs. 41.6%), and more contact to the middle of the field (38% vs. 33.2%), with roughly the same opposite field contact (24.9% vs. 25.2%).

From what we know from his nine games in 2016, Polanco is following an approach consistent with the changes he implemented last season, while also demonstrating — so far — a slightly more refined knowledge of the strike zone.

Polanco Zone 2016

As you can see from the chart, Polanco hasn’t seen as many strikes this season (35.8% vs. 41.8% career), which can explain at least some of the increase in his walk rate. To his credit, he has been stubborn with not expanding the zone, having decreased swing rates over last year both outside the zone and overall (27.0% vs. 31% outside and 40.5% vs. 44.4%, overall).

He’s staying aggressive on quality pitches, slightly increasing his zone swing rate (64.5% vs 62.5% career) while keeping his contact rate mostly consistent with his career numbers. These are reasonably good signs that Polanco has learned from his experience, along with advice from the coaching staff, about how to look for quality pitches he is more likely to hit well.

A bolder analyst might say that with this greater selectivity and better contact profile, truly impressive results may be on the way. But these initial numbers are obviously based on tiny samples, and come with the usual caveat that things can change very quickly.

One need look no farther than Starling Marte’s production in 2013 (122 wRC+, 4.8 fWAR) as a tantalizing example of what a player can do in his age-24 season. It does seem that this calculated aggressiveness, which we know has been a work in progress for some time, has the potential to pay those kind of dividends for Gregory Polanco this season.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. If they’re preaching opposite field, the players aren’t listening. The Brewers shifted on just about everyone last night and it worked.

  2. “taking advantage of the larger strike zone for left-handed hitters”

    I never realized the strike zone was larger for left-handed hitters. Have I missed something my entire life?

    • Umpires give a lot more strikes off the plate away against lefties than they do against righties. If you look at called strike zones, you can see a definite difference between the two handednesses. Against lefties, the zone is slightly wider and shifted outside.

      The difference in size is about 1.5 inches in width, not enormous but not nothing. The bigger impact is that the left-handed strike zone is shifted way outside. (This, incidentally, may be the reason Anthony Rizzo likes to crowd the plate. The inside fastball isn’t called a strike on lefties, and it improves his reach to the outer edge of the zone.)

      http://www.lookoutlanding.com/2012/10/29/3561060/the-strike-zone

  3. Just one problem he doesn’t hit any home runs and lots of ground balls with RISP. Not at all impressed so far hopefully that changes soon.

    • Major SSS warning, but so far this season, Polanco has a 37.7% GB rate, and his RISP GB rate is 37.5%. His FB% is actually higher with RISP.

      We’re only talking about 8 at bats, so we can’t draw any conclusion at all, but if we were to force ourselves into a conclusion, it would not be that he “hits a lot of ground balls with RISP,” since there’s no evidence to support that.

      For reference, by the way, a cursory examination of battle ball numbers for qualified hitters puts the average ground ball rate somewhere around just a bit over 40% so far this season, so Polanco, so far, has hit fewer ground balls than league average.

    • “Not at all impressed at far”

      I mean, even looking only at that line of stats and ignoring SSS, thats excessive.

  4. For someone as lanky as Polanco, focusing on the outer half makes a lot of sense. But man, those O-Swing% numbers look awfully good. It would have been the 35th best among qualified hitters in MLB last year. And coupling that sort of selectivity with his pretty good contact skill should lead to a lot of hits.

    Of course, as Ed mentioned it’s early. These numbers could change. For example, I don’t expect Francisco Cervelli to continue chasing only 10.5% of the time (which isn’t even the best mark in baseball so far this season, with both Holt (9.4%) and Utley (8.1% what?) ahead of him.

    • Also, while I was researching this, I found that John Jaso has yet to whiff on a pitch he swung at in the strike zone (and he’s chasing under 20% of the time).

      Also, the Pirates have the sixth lowest team O-Swing% and Swing%, the ninth highest Z-Contact%, and the fourth lowest SwStrk%. I consider those good signs for the offense, though I’d like to see this sustained over the course of the season.

      The Rays, on the other hand, whiff on almost 15% of their swings. Oof.

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