BRADENTON, Fla. – After seeing a breakout campaign in West Virginia the first two months of the season, the Pirates decided to promote outfielder Tito Polo to Bradenton for the second half of the season. Polo entered the 2015 season with a lot of promise, due to his five tool upside. However, he struggled with a .641 OPS at West Virginia on the year. This time around, he saw big improvements, putting up a .919 OPS in 225 at-bats with West Virginia before the promotion.
“[He’s a] difference maker on the bases,” Bradenton Manager Michael Ryan said. “I think he had 20-something bags already.  homers. So a combination of power and speed. Try to get him to utilize that each night. Very good defensive center fielder.”
Polo finished his first half with West Virginia by putting up 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases in those 225 at-bats. He also had 14 doubles and three triples. And now he will get a chance to show what he can do in Bradenton.
“I was excited, because I worked hard everyday,” Polo said of the promotion.
The biggest changes this year are his work on recognizing and hitting the curveball. He didn’t have a bad strikeout rate last year, at 18.6%, which was almost identical to his 18.7% rate this year. But he was making better contact on breaking stuff this time around, resulting in a big increase in power.
“Now it’s better,” Polo said on his approach against a breaking pitch. “I feel good now. I see more, I just stay back a lot. That’s the big change from last year to this year.”
There are still some things to work on. Ryan said that Polo needs work on cleaning up his decisions when to run, when not to run, where to throw the ball from the outfield, and still needs continued work on his breaking ball recognition. He’s going to see better quality breaking stuff at the new level, which should pose a new challenge.
So far, Polo has struggled at the new level, although it’s only been 18 plate appearances, and the tools still show up on the field. He will be a guy to watch the rest of the season, as he’s a five tool player who could reach the big leagues as a starter. He’s also Rule 5 eligible this off-season, so the Pirates will have to see a lot in the second half in order to make a decision on his future.
Brubaker Still Dealing With Command Issues
JT Brubaker was also promoted to Bradenton last month, and has made three starts so far, with some early struggles at the new level. The right-handed starter has given up 11 runs on 17 hits in 15.1 innings, with 11 strikeouts and 6 walks. I got a chance to see his best outing at the level, where he threw six innings, giving up just two runs, and walking two batters. However, even in that outing, he ran into some command issues.
“Hitters are a little different here than Low-A,” Brubaker said. “A little bit more of an approach. Pitch selection and what you’ve got to throw in situations might be a little bit different.”
When his command was off, Brubaker said he was getting out in front of the ball, and leaving it up a bit, due to his arm falling behind. This puts his fastball command off, which affects his secondary stuff.
This was a problem for Brubaker in West Virginia. He was giving up a lot of walks, and was getting hit pretty hard at times — more than a guy should who is pitching 90-93 MPH, with a strikeout slider and the ability to throw a changeup. He settled down his last three outings, giving up two runs in 18 innings, with a 27:4 K/BB ratio.
“I was just making sure I was getting the ball down in the zone, which allowed the off-speed to play on it,” Brubaker said of that late success. “When you’re throwing the ball up, and then trying to throw off-speed down in the zone, it’s easy takes for the hitters. You’ve got to be able to get ahead with the fastball, and then let the off-speed play. If you get behind early, it’s easy takes for the off-speed, and you get in hitter’s counts, and you have to make certain pitches. That leads to walks and hits and big innings.”
So far, the problems shown by Brubaker in his early starts in Bradenton are a repeat of his problems earlier in West Virginia. If he does get his fastball command down again, then he’s got some good secondary stuff that can work off that primary pitch.
“The slider has always been there,” Brubaker said. “It’s just making sure I get ahead. I think that was the big thing. Changeup, I still have trust in it, but it can always get better. It always goes back to getting ahead early in counts, and not being in hitter counts.”
Brubaker is a tall, projectable pitcher at 6′ 4″, 175 pounds, and already sits comfortably in the low 90s. He’s got the potential for a nice three pitch mix. However, he will need to keep the fastball down in the zone more often in order to realize his upside as a potential starter in the big leagues.