2017 was to be another “step forward” for Pittsburgh Pirates OF Gregory Polanco
Pittsburgh Pirates OF Gregory Polanco find himself in the midst of a rather middling 2017.
In what was to be a season of great strides for Polanco, progress in fits and starts has become the norm. In the team’s win against the Chicago Cubs two days ago, Polanco keyed a fast start to the club’s run creation with a two-run home run in the first inning. The blast was the 25 year-old’s fourth home run of the year, and his first in June – a month which has seen his OPS drop from .766 to its current .679 clip.
Since returning from the DL on May 26th, Polanco has slashed .222/.273/.361. He has just four extra base hits in those 18 appearances. While he has still maintained an adequate amount of patience in that time-frame with a 19.4 percent strikeout rate, he has not provided much value with a WPA (win probability added) of -.0518 during that span.
When you take a closer look at Polanco’s season as whole, it becomes easy to see why he is not taking that desired step in development.
Polanco has 107 batted balls in play this season. Of those 107, a staggering 83.7 percent have been labelled as poor contact by Statcast’s “Barrels” caste system. A second data source – in this case, Fangraphs – confirms this by placing Polanco’s hard-hit rate at a very low 22.6 percent.
While Polanco is on a relative pace to at least match his 136 hits from last season — 44 hits as of this writing — they have amounted to below-average run creation, with a wRC+ (weighted runs created-plus) rate of just 81. With an accepted MLB-wide average wRC+ of 100, Polanco’s hits amount to much ado about nothing.
Polanco also carries an average exit velocity of 85.6, good for 27th-worst among major league hitters with at least 80 batted balls.
Why is Polanco struggling to make good contact?
The answers to that could be myriad, and we won’t cover each and every individual slice of data that tells us why. However, we will point to a 7.4 percent increase year-over-year in Polanco’s F-Strike percentage (percentage of plate appearances that start with a strike). After turning in a very good F-strike of 53.9 percent in 2016, that figure has rose to 60.9 percent. While that is not necessarily much higher than the current MLB-wide rate of 60.3 percent, the effects of starting off an at-bat with a strike are more profound on Polanco. It changes the look of the entire plate appearance, and caused Polanco to lapse into some bad habits.
It gets him one step closer to what is his true Achilles’ heel.
Lack of a two-strike approach
The hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball with any regularity.
That task gets infinitely harder when the pitcher — who already has an inherent advantage — gains further upper hand by getting a batter to a two strike count.
Some of the best hitters in baseball’s history are able to fight back into an at-bat after getting to a second strike. While the odds are still much in favor of the pitcher getting the batter out, a hitter who can prolong an at-bat seemingly destined to fail can be much more productive over the course of a 162-game season.
Polanco just does not have that ability yet, despite seeing 30.4 percent of his total pitches seen in two-strike counts.
However, a small tweak on certain pitches could lead to a few more plate appearances being more of a contest despite two strikes. First, here is a look at the type of pitches Polanco is seeing in these counts:
Polanco two strike overview.xlsx
|Pitch Type||% Seen||Fouls||In Play||Hits|
|FF||31.3%||24 (30.8%)||14 (17.9%)||8 (10.3%)|
|SL||21.7%||16 (29.6)||5 (9.3)||3 (5.6%)|
|CH||14.5%||2 (5.6%)||7 (19.4%)||1 (2.8%)|
|FT||9.6%||7 (29.2%)||5 (20.8%)||2 (8.3%)|
This chart shows us the top four pitches seen in two-strike counts by percentage, along with the total number and percentage of fouls, balls in play and hits from those corresponding pitches. I chose these three metrics as important markings of an ability to fight to stay in the at-bat.
It is pertinent to break these out further, as a quick look at the pitch types Polanco sees by count show that the slider and changeup represent wide areas of growth for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ RF.
The slider and changeup represent the bulk of the offerings Polanco sees in two-strike counts. While the four-seam fastball is still prevalent, it is the moving stuff and the pulled string where Polanco can use the most work.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates first brought Polanco up to the majors, many raised concern about his long, loopy swing. It was awkward to watch Polanco flail at pitches either well out of the zone or falling out of it. In the intervening years, Polanco worked hard to shorten that swing.
And for the most part, he was successful.
Even though his strikeout rate hovered around the 20 percent mark, he made much better contact at pitches that were in the zone and offering at them. There is no such thing as a “good strikeout,” but the Pittsburgh Pirates will surely live with more strikeous being well earned rather than seeing Polanco hack away.
But that devil swing has not gone away entirely.
This changeup from earlier in the year against Arizona shows how Polanco can be lured back into bad swings.
That pitch came on a 1-2 count. The pitch was indicative of where Polanco sees the most pitches on two strikes, regardless of pitch type:
It is easy for us as observers and analysts to say that a hitter needs better pitch recognition. It is equally as hard for a hitter to consistently make the adjustments needed to result in better pitch recognition.
With that being said, Polanco needs to work on better pitch recognition in two-strike counts. Perhaps one way he can get there is to work on tracking spin rate out of the pitcher’s hands.
If we take a look at the sliders that Polanco has been offered, for example, we see that on sliders with a spin rate of above 2200 give Polanco trouble. Of 107 sliders that Polanco has seen that have identifiable spin rates in Statcast, 80 of them carry above average spin. (MLB average spin on Sliders was 2,096 in 2016.)
Of those 80, Polanco carries a 29.1 percent strike rate (combined called strikes and whiffs). With sliders, the more spin, the more the pitch seems to just be a four-seam fastball with movement. If Polanco can see his way to better tracking spin out of the pitcher’s hand, it stands to reason that he can put better swings through the zone.
Again, easier said than done.
The path to better production for Gregory Polanco is a simple one, for all of the reasons outlined here.
Execution is another story altogether, and one that the Pittsburgh Pirates need to help their young outfielder write if he is to perform like the middle-of-the-order bat they wish him to be.