No matter what happens, Gregory Polanco is going to be a very interesting case study for how nothing is guaranteed with prospects or young players, even as they are young players with a few years into their career.

Polanco broke out in 2012, and started becoming one of the top prospects in the game in the years to follow. He was dynamic, with tools that you could dream on, and star upside. He had lower risk than most prospects, with a good walk rate, a low strikeout rate, and some power, with more likely on the way due to his tall, lanky frame. He had speed, and the potential for strong defense, with one of the best outfield arms in the system.

He had it all.

So far in his major league career, Polanco has topped out at a 2.4 WAR player. You take that from a prospect every year, since there are many alternatives that are much worse. Polanco was slightly over a 2 WAR in his first two full seasons in the majors, and each year provided hope that there was more to come.

For example, he saw an increase in his power in 2016. That came after he showed up for the season in much better physical shape, with more muscle added to that big frame. A guy that was once described as looking like a sick giraffe was now looking like he could be on the verge of being a legit impact player. Things started out that way in 2016, but Polanco faded late in the season, likely due to the injuries he had at the end of the year.

The hope was that he would finally break out in 2017 and become that impact player everyone was waiting on. Unfortunately, the 2017 season was a more extreme version of what happened in 2016.

Polanco showed a lot of positive signs. He did start off slow in April, with a .671 OPS. However, he had a .900 OPS in May. He had a 1.035 OPS in July. But he was under .600 every other month. Let’s break that down further.

It’s hard to say if the struggles in April were due to a standard slow start, or an injury. It’s worth noting that Polanco had a sore right groin, which sidelined him for a few games in the middle of April.

He started heating up in May, but went down for a few weeks in the middle of the month with a left hamstring injury. When he returned, he continued hitting well, with two homers in his first three games back. However, the fourth game back saw him leave with an ankle injury.

Polanco missed a few days, but didn’t go on the disabled list with his ankle injury. When he returned, he started to slump at the start of June. He broke out of that a bit as the month went on, with a .742 OPS in the second half of June. That carried over to his huge month of July, which unfortunately was ended with another injury.

On July 22nd, Polanco went on the disabled list for the second time with a left hamstring issue. He was running the bases by August 1st, and activated on August 2nd. He struggled in his return, then went back on the disabled list on August 15th with the same issue, after leaving the game on August 12th.

This time his break was much longer. He didn’t run the bases until September 6th, and was activated from the DL on September 8th. He didn’t really hit well in September, up until the final week of the season when he had an .814 OPS.

There’s a lot of arbitrary endpoints here. A lot of injuries where we don’t know how much those injuries impacted performance. Hot streaks were we don’t know if that’s the real Polanco trying to shine through. Slumps where we don’t know if that’s also the real Polanco showing inconsistencies with no other factors.

I’m not trying to make a point here about his performance or say what version of Polanco you should expect. I am saying that, because of the constant injuries, we don’t really have an answer as to what we can expect from Polanco, or what type of player he can be going forward. The safest guess is to say he’ll continue to be inconsistent as long as these small, nagging injuries keep derailing him.

The Future

I’d hesitate to say that Polanco will be as bad as he was this year going forward. If this year was a product of the injuries hitting at the worst times, then I don’t expect that to continue. He played two years before this where he had 652 and 587 plate appearances, respectively. That’s kind of misleading, because he was playing through injuries in the final months of both of those years. But he had over a 2 WAR for the entire season each time.

I’m also hesitant to say that Polanco will go above that 2.1-2.4 WAR range that we saw the previous two years. That’s not a safe thing to say with his injury history.

At the same time, Polanco just turned 26 a month ago. We’re not in the age range where he still has loads of upside and can be chalked up to being a young player. But we’re also far from his decline, which means we might not have seen the best from him.

What I will say is that Polanco remains an enigma. He remains a guy where anything can happen, whether that’s a half a win player due to way too many injury issues, or an average player due to injuries or inconsistencies, or somehow he finds a way to reach his impact upside. He might be the most essential player to the Pirates going forward, since he has the potential to show more improvements than almost any other player on the roster.

The Pirates have him under control for the long-term. He’s signed through 2021, with options for 2022 and 2023. His highest contract value is $13.5 M as an option in 2023. By that point, 1 WAR might be worth $12-13 M on the open market, so the 2+ WAR upside we’ve seen from him so far would still be worth the deal.

For now, he’s extremely cheap for the production and the promise that he shows. He’s making $3.5 M in 2018, $5.5 in 219, and doesn’t top $10 M until 2021. A guy in his situation who comes with obvious risks, but still has a lot of upside, is a value at those prices. The Pirates can only hope the gamble pays off, or that he at least returns to 2015-16 levels of performance, since Polanco will be essential to them contending in the long-term.

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  1. A large part of his problem is that Gregory Polanco is just not a very smart baseball player with Marte not far behind.

  2. There’s room for 5 outfielders. Platoon partner for Polanco and someone to spell Marte and Cutch. One’s not juicing ( we hope) and the other’s getting older.

  3. Maybe it is time to talk about trades since the Marlins announced they will cut $25 million from payroll. Don’t think we can afford Stanton but there are several interesting players on the team that could help the Pirates. Is it infield help in the form of Dee Gordon or Martin Prado? What would it take to get Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna? All four have pros and cons.

    If Cutch is traded then the prospects they get in return could be used to get a proven young slugger like Yelich or Ozuna. It is time to combine prospects to get a legitimate Major League player. Maybe Gordon or Prado could help our infield situation. We can’t count on Kang returning. Yelich and Ozuna have friendly contracts.

  4. Whatever happened to his arm? Is not that great, average at best? Casualty of his many injuries? I know this is a tool that we shouldn’t care much about, but just wondering?

  5. He has been a big disappointment so far. Maybe and hopefully he will turn around and break out this year and stay injury free.

  6. There are two paths to Polanco taking a step forward:

    1. Modifications to his conditioning regimen and/or his running mechanics to reduce the likelihood of injuries (though, due to his height, he will always be at risk of knee and back injuries, irrespective of what he does here).

    2. Adjustments to help him recover his timing when he returns from an injury. I suspect he comes out of injuries so slowly because of how long his swing is–even at its shortest–due to his long arms, and it takes time and reps to get that long swing back on time and close or cover the holes in it.

    Ideally, he’d do both, but he needs to do at least one, or else he’ll be mired in mediocrity his entire career.

    • Although there’s a good chance it’ll go over my head – can you explain the way someone like Polanco would modify his running mechanics?

      • Shorter strides would go a long way to saving his hamstrings, and he half-stomps each step, which can’t be great for his knees. Sprinters land with their lead foot right under them, and glide over it. Polanco’s feet land a bit out in front of him, as far as I can tell, and they come down hard. He probably was taught to take advantage of his long strides when he was younger, and he overdoes it a bit.

        I think the most interesting thing about watching sprinters in slow motion is that they start moving their lead foot backwards *before* it touches the ground. That reduces the force their joints need to absorb without costing them speed. In fact, it probably makes them even faster.

        I can’t find sufficiently slow video of him running, but the way the rest of his body seems to jolt with each step, I think his foot lands in front of him, then starts moving backward. He’s putting huge unnecessary stretch on his knees and hamstrings.

    • honestly… i kinda just think it’s time for him to give up trying to be fast, and just get huge this offseason.

      There’s no way his frame will stay skinny for much longer *anyway*. why fight it?

      • With all the hamstring issues and considering he bulked-up considerably over the past couple years, perhaps a different approach is in-order. Why not instead concentrate on a regimen similar to the Josh Bell 2016 off-season program focusing on yoga and flexibility?

  7. I sometimes wonder if this is to be Meadows’ fate, too. Lots of upside, but injuries limit his upside. Polanco can’t stay healthy…it is always something.

  8. FWIW, Polanco also started the season with a shoulder injury he suffered in the WBC. It wasn’t a given that he was going to avoid the DL to open the season.

      • Plate discipline seems to be his biggest problem. When he came up he seemed to have a shorter stroke and more idea of the strike zone. Not sure why that has digressed but it has.

          • I agree Tim. He had a longer stroke when he first came up. It was very noticeable. Outside of his offensive struggles I still cringe watching him play right field.

        • Beat me to it! I think this is a fantastic point.

          Gregory Polanco doesn’t have a contact problem. Gregory Polanco has a contact *quality* problem.

          Despite dropping strikeout rates, his chase rate and rate of swinging at pitches in the zone have both steadily increased. This correlation strongly implies that he’s making contact with a lot of “pitcher’s pitches”.

          He simply takes too many uncompetitive swings. Four years into his career, I’m not even exactly sure where Polanco’s sweet spot lies; hell, I’m not even sure *he* does.

          His zone profile has progressively shifted from highest swing percentage on inside pitches to outside pitches over his four seasons while his contact has trended towards pulled balls in play. This is not, um, ideal. Too many at bats seems to end in a grounder rolled over to the right side or a flair the opposite way. Not enough pitches are driven, at least not for a guy with his strength and bat speed.

          • you dug into where he tends to swing so i decided to dig in on exit velo and launch angle.

            His 2017 launch angle of 13.1 was in line with his 2016 number of 13.5.

            his 2017 exit velocity is by far the worst of his career.

            2017: 86.5

            2015,2016 : 89, 89.6

            gotta think that 2017 is a blip and not the real Polanco.

            There *has* to be an .800 OPS (vs righties), and neutral fielding RF in there *somewhere*.

            Get that man a healthy offseason and a platoon partner, and i gotta think RF will produce a lot more in 2018.

            • Health obviously will help, but the degradation of his plate discipline has nothing to do with that.

              Either way, going full platoon on a 26 yo with his talent is nuts, IMO. Way too young to give up on him being an everyday player.

              • .591 OPS vs lefties in his career. Granted, only 430 something PA.

                At this point it might be time to prepare the team such that he won’t suddenly start hitting lefties. If they want to be good.

                If they rebuild this year, then sure, who cares. Let him get reps vs lefties.

              • I disagree here NMR, respectfully. Plate discipline has a hell of a lot to do with health. When you are hurt, your reactions are slower, and so you make up your mind earlier in the pitch to swing or not swing. Personal comment- trying to come back from labrum surgery, but struggling to get my shoulder strength back, i was 0-17 at one point with 9 k’s…….and I didn’t hit a SINGLE ball hard. Keep in mind I struck out 5 times all year the season before…. I then got a cortisone shot which alleviated some of the pain and finished 5-9 with no k’s, against way better competition. The difference, I didn’t have to start my swing earlier due to lack of strength and pain. When you are injured, you tend to swing at NOTHING, or you swing too much. I lived it the last few months, looking for a perfect pitch, deciding earlier, and not able to adjust to an offspeed pitch.

  9. Assuming we keep Cutch… Polanco shouldn’t be handed RF. Approach the OF like we do the rotation. 4 starting OFs.

    • We don’t even have 4 people worthy of a rotation….we literally have 3 outfielders until Austin comes up. I’m not rotating an infielder with someone who can actually play outfield. No

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