The key to Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder Gregory Polanco’s success at the plate lies within his Batted Ball metrics.
Polanco has been a key piece to the Pirates 4-0 start in 2018. Up front, he’s 5-for-13 with three doubles, a home run, and six runs batted in. However, it’s not the basic baseball card stats that paints the whole picture to his success. Yes, he’s having better at-bats, evidenced by his six walks thus far. What you don’t realize is that he’s also pulling the baseball more and generating hard contact.
In his 13 registered at-bats so far, he is pulling the ball at a 55.6 percent clip with 33.3 percent being registered as hard contact. Early hot takes from fans say this should be a career year for the 26-year old. Luckily we have resources like Baseball Reference and Fangraphs that provide us lifetime stats and advanced metrics that can help dig deeper in pinpointing where his success comes from.
This was Polanco’s first full season in the bigs. This year was the best Pirates team the city has seen in a considerable amount of time; some even said the 2015 Pirates were the best team in baseball. A big part of that was the young outfielder who hit .256 and tallied 50 extra base hits (XBH), including nine home runs. When he made contact, he pulled the ball almost 40 percent of the time, while making hard contact at just a 30 percent clip.
Despite playing in nine fewer games, Polanco tallied 60 XBH, 10 more than the year before; however, he went on to club 22 long balls. The metrics give a good indicator of what happened. He pulled the ball almost 10 percent more than the previous season, up to 49.2 percent. In turn, his hard contact spiked as well, jumping up to over 35 percent. This was far and away his best pro season.
The campaign didn’t go as planned. Polanco struggled through a left hamstring injury that sent him to the disabled list several times throughout the year. An overall down year for the team, it wasn’t much different for the right fielder even when he was healthy. In 108 games, he only registered 31 XBH, including 11 home runs. In turn, his pull rate dropped five percent and his hard contact rate plummeted almost 10 percent, in fact his soft contact rate was 22 percent, the highest in his career.
The metrics actually show that he began to change his approach, going to the opposite field at a 25.3 percent rate, the highest of his career. Due to the weak hamstring, he could have made an adjustment in his swing to go to opposite field more, thus putting less pressure on the left leg in his naturally long, pull swing.
It’s pretty clear that the diminished stat line in 2017 correlates with not being able to make hard contact to the pull side. So far in the very small sample size we have for 2018, he seems to be healthy and back to doing what he does best, hitting the ball to the right side and with power.
I would guess if he can stay healthy, the rest will fall into place.