When the Pirates decided to keep Austin Meadows on the Major League roster after Starling Marte returned from his oblique injury, the idea was that they would split time amongst their four outfield options.
“Austin Meadows isn’t here as a fourth outfielder,” general manager Neal Huntington said a week ago. “He’s here as part of a four-outfielder group.”
While that may be true, it’s been Meadows that’s gotten the short end of the playing time straw so far. In the six games since the Pirates began their rotation, Marte has had 22 at-bats, the most of the foursome, followed by Corey Dickerson with 18, Gregory Polanco with 16 and Meadows with 14.
While Meadows has an outfield-high 1.055 OPS in that span, one of the reasons for that he might be falling behind is playing time is that Polanco seems to have turned a corner in his return to the lineup after getting back-to-back days off.
Since then, he’s 4-for-11 with a .970 OPS over the last three games. Polanco said that he appreciated manager Clint Hurdle’s patience with him thus far and that he knew that when he got back into the lineup, he’d be able to take advantage of the opportunity.
“You just have to play the game, stay confident, trust myself and keep working hard,” Polanco said to Pirates Prospects right before the team left for St. Louis.
Polanco said that he’s had video coordinator Kevin Roach put together clips of his swing from early in the season, when he was mashing everything in sight, as well as some from his rookie season.
He feels that he’s gotten away from being himself at the plate and while just about anyone that’s been in touch with him over his slump had some advice to give, it was important to him to get back to being himself instead of taking a path farther away from what he considers to be his ideal swing.
“That’s the thing I’m doing right now, just doing a lot of working in the cage and doing drills to keep it simple,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. At this moment right now, a lot of people will give you advice. It’ll make you crazy. You start doing difference stuff that’s not even a part of your swing.”
Throughout his career, when Polanco has had problems with his swing, it’s usually because he gets too long from this load point to the strike zone. What’s happening is, instead of his bat taking the shortest distance from Point A to Point B, it’s taking a long, outside loop around. For starters, that makes his swing slower, so he has to start his swing earlier to catch up to velocity. The other thing it does is drop the barrel in the zone, so that when Polanco does make contact, he pops the ball up.
In each of Polanco’s first five MLB seasons, he had a wRC+ against fastballs of between 96 and 122. This year, it’s just 64, as he’s actually done better against breaking balls.
Here’s Polanco’s Statcast radial chart for this season and last, with a focus on the “hit under” section. Those are balls that have a high launch angle, meaning that the barrel is coming in below the baseball. He’s already “hit under” 49 balls this season, or 35 percent of his total contact.
In 2017, which wasn’t even his best statistical season, he hit under the 92 times — 28 percent of his total contact.
As you can see, those balls have an extremely low BABIP. This year, two of his 49 have gone for a hit (.040). Anything with much more than about a 45 degree launch angle is essentially a pop up and has even less of a change of going for a hit. The solution to that?
“Stay short to the ball,” Polanco repeated as a mantra, though that’s not exactly a new problem for him. I wrote last April about how Polanco desired to have a shorter swing.
Polanco thinks the answer might be to do less, not more, when it comes to pregame work. Instead of trying to reinvent himself as a hitter, which hasn’t been working, he just wants to get back to being the very best version of himself that he can be.
Hurdle agrees with that idea in principle, and actually told Polanco to use his two days off to step back from the game and clear his mind.
“I’ve just told him to unplug,” Hurdle said. “He knows how to swing. There’s video you can watch to go back and re-visit swing paths. He’s in tune with what he needs to do and he’s aware of the challenges that he’s gone through.”
It’s been a small sample, but since his break, Polanco is hitting the ball hard and seems to be hitting it more square and with fewer pop ups.
If he can keep up those changes, and get back to being the player that he’s capable of being, it might mean fewer and fewer opportunities for Meadows. But the Pirates are probably OK with that if it means getting one of their most talented hitters back on track.