The Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have an obvious cleanup hitter, so Gregory Polanco has been thrust into the role. Is the Pirates’ leftfielder the right call for the No. 4 spot in the batting order?

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle refuses to budge.

Left fielder Gregory Polanco has batted cleanup in all six games this season, to debatable success. Polanco has seven hits over 26 at-bats for a .269 batting average. Four of those six hits came on Apr. 8 in a 4-4 showing.

There is a legitimate reason for the Pirates’ manager to bat Polanco cleanup. Along with Adam Frazier and John Jaso, Polanco is one of a handful of left-handed batters on the roster. Josh Bell and Allen Hanson are also options as they are both switch hitters.

Frazier, Polanco and Bell play most days, but neither Frazier nor Bell is a cleanup hitter. Frazier is better at the top of the order to get on base and while Bell could develop into a No. 4 hitter, the rookie only has three home runs and 19 RBI over 172 career at-bats.

Polanco only has 38 career home runs over his four-year career, but had his best season in 2016 with career-highs in average (.273), home runs (22) and runs batted in (86).

Historically, Polanco has struggled in the cleanup spot. After a combined one at-bat in the fourth spot of the lineup for his first two seasons, Polanco saw extensive work in the cleanup spot in 2016. The Dominican Republic-native spent 158 of his 527 at bats batting fourth but finished with a measly .203 batting average, .240 on-base percentage and .399 slugging percentage.

The best reasoning for batting Polanco fourth is to split up the lineup and get a good mix of left-handed and right-handed batters in the lineup and not too many from one side of the plate in a row.

Looking at the lineups

Take a look at the lineup that Hurdle penciled in for the Pirates’ home opener this past Friday against Atlanta Braves’ right-hander Mike Foltynewicz:

CF) Starling Marte
1B) Josh Bell
RF) Andrew McCutchen
LF) Gregory Polanco
3B) David Freese
C) Francisco Cervelli
2B) Josh Harrison
SS) Jordy Mercer
P) Ivan Nova

Polanco went 0-5, but this is an ideal situation to bat him fourth in. After Polanco, there are no other left-handed hitters in the lineup until Bell steps up to the plate again. Polanco provides McCutchen with protection and is a speed threat on the basepaths when he gets on, with 59 career stolen bases.

Not to forget, Polanco’s stats are noticeably higher against right-handed pitching. The career .253 hitter bats .267 against righties and has 29 of his 38 home runs against them. It only makes sense to keep using Polanco higher in the order against righties.

Fun With Charts

Let’s look at how Polanco did last season with some images to back up the stats. Below is a look at all of Polanco’s batted balls versus right-handed pithers. Notice, that among those 29 home runs, five of them were opposite field home runs. As well as he pulled the ball, Polanco also did a stellar job at going to the opposite field.

Image via FanGraphs

For as well as Polanco slashes versus right-handers, the same cannot be said about his splits versus left-handers. Polanco hits .203 against southpaws, including .199 vs lefties on the road. Polanco hits .202 vs left-handers at PNC Park, but only has two career home runs against them at home.

Now, let’s take a look at Polanco’s spray chart versus left-handers in 2016. Only four home runs vs southpaws and the majority of batted balls are ground outs.

 

Image via FanGraphs

Regardless of the stats, Hurdle continues to pencil Polanco in at the No. 4 spot in the lineup. Here’s Monday’s starting lineup against the Cincinnati Reds left-hander Brandon Finnegan:

SS) Jordy Mercer
CF) Starling Marte
RF) Andrew McCutchen
LF) Gregory Polanco
3B) David Freese
C) Francisco Cervelli
1B) Josh Bell
2B) Adam Frazier
P) Tyler Glasnow

Polanco did get a hit off Finnegan and is hitting .250 versus left-handers this season, albeit in only eight at-bats.

No obvious cleanup hitter

The Pittsburgh Pirates are stuck. They need to alternate left-handed and right-handed hitters throughout the lineup but do not have enough left-handers to evenly break up the lineup.  Even though Polanco’s average and on-base percentage have both increased with each season, he is not the best option for the cleanup spot.

The cleanup spot brings lots of pressure with it, as it’s often linked with many power hitters. Polanco has struck out in 21-percent of his at-bats in the cleanup spot and only has 10 doubles in it, his worst of any spot where he has at least 130 at bats.

If Polanco is going to keep hitting fourth, it should only be against right-handers. His history against southpaws should be enough for Hurdle to keep Polanco lower in the order in those situations.

Enter Jung Ho Kang

As long as Jung Ho Kang remains in South Korea, the Pittsburgh Pirates are without a true cleanup hitter. Kang is only a .245 hitter when batting fourth, but that is only over 245 at bats. In 588 at-bats against right-handed pitchers, the right-handed hitting Kang is a .286 hitter with 30 home runs. He provides McCutchen the proper security to make pitchers go at McCutchen instead of intentionally walking him.

If Kang were to return and bat fourth, Polanco would be best served to bat fifth or second. In either spot, he breaks up the lineup and is in a position that calls for him to just get on base.
Hurdle’s insistence on keeping Polanco fourth in the order no matter who the starter is is costing the Pirates runs. Polanco is not consistent enough as a hitter to warrant the No. 4 spot in the lineup.

Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.