Last week, I wrote about how the Pirates are putting the ball in the air more. I focused a good chunk of that story on Gregory Polanco since he was slumping but still hitting fly balls. I interpreted that as a string of bad luck rather than the sky falling.
Since publishing, he has hit seven balls with an exit velocity of over 105 MPH. That ?s good! But he only had five hits in 28 at-bats, dropping his season batting average to .192. That ?s bad.
This is because Polanco has a hole in his swing. Actually, he has a couple. Before we get started, I suppose I should warn you that there will be plenty of charts and videos in this post. Enter at your own risk.
Let ?s see if you can spot the first one. Here are the pitch locations of Polanco ?s 20 hits this year (keep in mind these charts are all from the catcher’s perspective):
He does not have a hit on a pitch on the inner third of the plate. He isn ?t even hitting inside pitches hard. The 33 batted balls he ?s hit with an exit velocity 95+ MPH are also either on the outer part of the plate or right down the middle.
Polanco has always had some trouble with inside pitches, as evidenced by the locations of his career hits:
Surprisingly, Polanco ?s slump doesn ?t seem to be stemming from teams pounding the inside part of the plate. On Apr. 12, Polanco was slashing .262/.385/.714 with five home runs. Here is how pitchers attacked him:
Since then, he is slashing .145/.243/.226, but the pitch zone profile is practically the same. If anything, there may be a slight shift away from Polanco.
Ok, let ?s give your eyes a break with just some text for awhile.
Polanco has another noticeable hole in his swing against sliders. By hole, I mean he ?s seen 76 snappers this year and doesn ?t have a hit against one yet. He hasn ?t even hit one with an exit velocity of 90 MPH yet.
Sliders caused Polanco problems earlier in his career, but he seemed to turn the corner against the pitch last year. His wOBA against sliders in 2017 was .271, which was just one point below league average. It ?s one month into this season and his wOBA against the pitch is .109.
Again, pitchers aren ?t throwing Polanco more sliders now than they were earlier in the year, but they are throwing it to him more with two strikes. Through Apr. 12, he saw seven two strike sliders. From Apr. 13-30, he saw 18. Of those 18, he ?s whiffed four times, looked at strike three twice and put two weakly hit balls into play.
I started this post off by saying Polanco has a couple of holes in his swing. It ?s a new swing. He raised his hands this year, now setting up roughly at eye level. The trend around baseball has been to lower the hands, but he found early success going against the grain. Here he is turning an inside changeup into a laser beam last year:
And here he is turning on a two-seamer this year with his new swing. This is the furthest inside pitch he has a hit on this year.
So is the new swing working? If you would have asked two weeks ago, the answer would have been a resounding yes. Now, it ?s questionable.
The pros of the new swing are apparent. Polanco is seeing a significant increase in his average exit velocity and is among the league leaders in fly ball percentage. Hitting the ball harder with more consistent launch should be the makings of a breakout campaign. For two weeks, it was.
But I believe raising his hands is creating a third hole in his swing — he can ?t get to the low pitch as well. Sure, a good chunk of his hits this year are around the knees, but he is making significantly less contact in the bottom third of the zone in 2018 than he did in 2017. He has also seen a dip in contact on belt-high pitches, but going lower has become the real problem.
The other two holes in his swing may actually stem from this problem. Sliders tend to be in the lower part of the zone, and if a right hander is throwing one to him, it would be cutting inside (and since he is being used as a semi-platoon, most of his at-bats will come against righties).
So should he lower his hands again? Well, he did just average hitting a ball over 105 MPH every game over the last week. Perhaps being more patient at the plate could help, or even being more aggressive to try to end at-bats before they get to two-strikes and sliders start to rear their ugly head.
There are no easy answers for Polanco right now. All we know for sure is there are some major flaws in this new swing that need ironed out.