Young Bradenton Hitters Making Progress

The Bradenton Marauders’ offense has gone through some distinct phases this year, but right now the group seems to be rounding into good shape. Some evolution was bound to happen for the simple reason that the Marauders didn’t have some of their best hitters early in the season. Right now, their five best hitters are Enmanuel Terrero, Termarr Johnson, Shalin Polanco, Rodolfo Nolasco and Nick Cimillo.

At the start of the year, Johnson, Polanco and Nolasco were all hurt, and Cimillo for some reason was riding the bench. Bradenton got Johnson back, on a restricted schedule, on April 21 (every day starting May 2); Polanco on April 13; and Nolasco on April 25. Cimillo got into only eight games in April and ten in May. Despite leading the team in OPS, he only started playing semi-regularly on June 7.

As a group, the Marauders have some pronounced tendencies. They’re bordering on a three-true-outcomes team: They rank second in the ten-team FSL in home runs, first by a wide margin in walks, and first (i.e., most) in strikeouts. (Stats are current through June 21.) Observationally, the Bradenton hitters take a lot of pitches, which works well for drawing walks, but when the pitcher is throwing strikes, it gets them in bad counts, leading to strikeouts. This all adds up to fourth in the league in runs, fourth in OBP and fifth in slugging. And they’re next to last in batting average, which is what happens when you’re not putting the ball in play a lot.

For a lot of the team’s hitters, this approach seems to be working so far. Keep in mind here that the FSL strongly depresses hitting stats, especially power, and also that Polanco missed the first week, and Johnson and Nolasco the first several weeks. Polanco is tied for second in the FSL in home runs with 11, Nolasco tied for fifth (8), and Johnson tied for eighth (7). Terrero is third in batting average (.298). Johnson leads the league in OBP (.425) and Terrero is ninth (.400). Polanco is fourth in slugging (.490), Nolasco eighth (.467) and Johnson ninth (.462). Johnson is third in OPS (.887), Terrero ninth (.847), Polanco 11th (.832) and Nolasco 14th (.813). (Cimillo doesn’t have anywhere near enough plate appearances to rank among the leaders, although at .911 he’d be second in OPS.)

Maybe more importantly, these guys are rapidly making progress. Most of them are young for the level. The weighted average age for FSL hitters is 21.2 years; Bradenton has the third-youngest group of hitters at 20.6. Johnson and Polanco are still 19; Johnson won’t turn 20 for a few days short of a year, Polanco not until next February. Terrero will turn 21 at the end of the season. Nolasco is a bit older and will turn 22 just after that. Cimillo, who was drafted as a college senior, is 23.

Johnson, recovering from a hamstring problem, got into only five games in April. In May, his OPS was .788 and he struck out in a third of his plate appearances. He drew 16 walks and fanned 31 times. In June, his OPS is up to 1.087 and he’s walking more than he’s striking out, 19 to 18. He’s striking out in fewer than a quarter of his plate appearances. Johnson epitomizes the team’s overall approach, taking a lot of pitches while walking and striking out in 20.4% and 30.1%, respectively, of his plate appearances. So just over half the time he’s not putting the ball in play.

Polanco has been heating up just as much. His OPS has gone from .596 in April to .755 in May and 1.121 in June. His approach has shifted differently from Johnson’s. Not a patient hitter in his two rookie level seasons, Polanco this year was taking a lot of pitches early on. It led to a lot of walks, but he wasn’t hitting. His walk rate has steadily dropped as he’s hit better and better, in three months from 18.2% to 7.8% to 6.1%. His K rate, though, has plummeted, from 36.4% to 29.4% to 18.2%. In each of his three pro seasons, Polanco has started very slowly, then come around as the season wore on. What he seems to be establishing this year is that he’s just going to be an aggressive hitter, but he’s able to do that without striking out excessively.

Terrero’s had a different progression this year. Right from the start, he was noticeably looking to drive the ball more. In his two rookie level seasons, he had comfortably more walks than strikeouts. This year, the walks are down and the strikeouts way up. In his first two seasons combined he walked in 18.4% of his plate appearances. This year, 13.9%, which is still a very good rate. His K rate has gone from 13.5% to 24.5%. His power is up, although not sharply, from an ISO of .113 last year in the FCL to .149 this year. Terrero got off to a hot start in April (.950 OPS), cooled off in May (.686) and took off again in June (.968). His more aggressive approach was obvious from the start of the year, so his approach hasn’t evolved noticeably during the season, as Polanco’s has.

Nolasco’s situation is different from the others. His first DSL season was back in 2019, before the pandemic intervened. He had a big year in the FCL in 2021, then was getting hot in the FSL after a bad start in 2022 only to have most of his second half wiped out by an injury. So now he’s back at the level. In 2021-22, he fit the classic mold of a big-swinging slugger, with a good walk rate but very high K rate, always around a third of his PAs. This year is no different. His season has roughly mirrored Terrero’s; his OPS from April to June has been .850, .756 and .886. In the end, he’s probably going to live and die via the longball.

At this point, the trend lines for Bradenton’s key young hitters are positive. They’re getting better acclimated and, in some cases, adjusting their approaches. It’ll be interesting to see where they go from here.

Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.

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