The Pirates’ Gregory Polanco Problem


By Gabe Isaacson

Now nearly 600 plate appearances into the career of Gregory Polanco, it’s safe to say the Pirates are growing somewhat concerned. They surely understand he was considered one of the top prospects in baseball before the 2014 season. They surely understand that he is just 23 years old. The problem is that they also understand he has a sub-.300 OBP in 2015, and he wasn’t much better in limited work last year.

The Pirates are no longer the perennially glorified minor league club that they were in the early 2000s. This is a team competing for a playoff berth, if not a division title or pennant. They cannot afford to parade Polanco out there every day if his production will not improve. The fans, media, and front office alike recognize that the Pirates have three options for Polanco. They can continue to play him every day, they can play him only when the matchup is conducive or they can demote him to AAA.

There was an expectation that Polanco, as a left-handed batter, would struggle early in his career against left-handed pitching. This platoon disadvantage has potentially been understated, as Polanco has staggered his way to a .143/.167/.143 line against lefties in 2015. The Pirates have given him only one start against a left-handed starter and 36 plate appearances in total. It’s fair to say that Polanco’s speed and defense – two skills that are not dependent on the handedness of the opposing pitcher – are not enough to warrant giving him at-bats against any left-handed pitchers.

The more immediate problem is Polanco’s .252/.319/.376 line against right-handed pitching. That is the line one would expect from a right-handed hitter struggling through his own platoon disadvantage. The Pirates have shown willingness to play Josh Harrison in right field, Jung-Ho Kang at third base and Jordy Mercer at shortstop in an effort to get Polanco out of the lineup against lefties. The media are beginning to clamor for this to be an everyday alignment, but that creates another problem. Do you put your young prospect on the bench or simply option him to the minor leagues?

Optioning Polanco to the minor leagues has some merit. As we near the all-star break, he could try to work out some kinks, get some confidence back, and get some extra rest. The grind of a major league season is likely greater than anything Polanco has faced previously, and one could envision a scenario where some rest and confidence could do wonders for a young kid with undeniable talent. However, what if you send Polanco down and he struggles? The Pirates want Polanco to be a major league contributor, and they need to find an outcome where this is going to be best facilitated. Some time at AAA, a level that he absolutely dominated in 2014, may not be the cure.

My recommendation, and the path that I think the Pirates will pursue, is to start Polanco against every right-handed pitcher. I would allow him as few at-bats as possible against lefties, while using him as a pinch-runner or defense replacement on his off-days. Polanco has hit starting pitchers significantly better than relief pitchers, and he has improved each time through the lineup. This is relatively unsurprising, as starting pitchers do wear down and batters become more familiar with their arsenal. But with a young player like Polanco, these adjustments are meaningful. He has struggled against power pitchers, and that is likely a component of his struggles against relievers.

If Polanco is capable of making in-game adjustments, it stands to reason he is capable of making in-season adjustments as well. The Pirates are among the most statistically-inclined teams in baseball, and they have a well-respected coaching staff. There is no reason not to have faith in their ability to work with a smart hitter to approve his approach.

The best adjustments a hitter can make are in areas where both the scouting report and statistical evidence show a substantial need for improvement. For Polanco, this likely involves first pitch approach. Coming through the minors, Polanco had a strong reputation for taking the first pitch. It makes sense. Just as he feels more comfortable later times through the lineup, Polanco clearly likes to gauge each pitcher he faces. Polanco has swung at 17% of first pitches in his career, significantly below the MLB average of 27%.

This approach likely did not stand to hurt Polanco at lower levels, as he could compete with minor league quality pitching from behind in the count. In the majors, however, it’s been a different story. Polanco is batting .294/.400/.455 in at-bats where the first pitch is a ball, and he is batting .185/.222/.246 in at-bats where he sees a first pitch strike. At this stage, Polanco simply cannot afford to get behind in the count this consistently. Pitchers know the book on Polanco – he wants to take. He is getting to the 1-0 count in just over 40% of his career at-bats. It is both too likely and too severe a disadvantage for Polanco to consistently get behind in the count.

If he becomes even marginally more aggressive on first pitches, it stands to benefit him in two regards. Instead of going into an at-bat with an almost certain “take” mentality on the first pitch, Polanco can take advantage of pitchers who have suboptimal offering – who are simply trying to get ahead in the count. With Polanco’s speed, he figures to be a high BABIP guy. If he could reduce is 20.2% strikeout rate by putting even just a few more balls in play, Polanco could see substantial improvement. Similarly, if Polanco shows a more aggressive approach early in counts, pitchers will begin to shy away from the center of the plate. They now have little fear of Polanco taking advantage of a first offering. If Polanco began to threaten them early in the count, he could see pitchers chasing corners and get ahead in the count.

Major league pitching, especially in this current run-creation environment, is too good to have obvious tendencies or flaws. Just as hitters who pull the ball consistently see shifts, Polanco has a similarly clear proclivity. He is seeing the pitching equivalent of the shift – pitchers throwing first pitch strikes with little concern for the repercussions. Just as pull hitters show some ability to go to the opposite field or lay down a bunt, Polanco needs to at least show an ability to attack early-count opportunities. This is a league of adjustments. Polanco has shown an ability to consistently improve and adapt, and he will need to employ those skills soon if he wants to maintain a spot on the Pirates’ 25-man roster.

Whether you agree or disagree, Gabe Isaacson wants your feedback. You can find him on twitter @GabeIsaacson, join in the conversation @CTBPod,on our Facebook page or download the Fandings app and debate him today!

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