I wrote about Gregory Polanco a lot this season. Coming out of the gate, I said he was the most important Pirate for 2018. When the Pirates started lifting more fly balls, he led the charge. There were some holes in his swing, though, so I wrote about that a few weeks later. He plugged those holes soon after, so I put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper. And when the outfield caught fire in July, you better believe he was central to my post. He may not always be good, but dang it, he ?s always interesting.
Unfortunately for the Pirates (and more importantly, my writing schedule), his season is being cut short once again, this time due to a left knee and shoulder injury he sustained last Friday when he forgot how to slide and instead decided to his impression of jumping into a foxhole.
He really needs to learn how to slide.
Still, in just five months, Polanco set new career highs in a multitude of stats, including home runs (23), OBP (.340), slugging percentage (.499), walks (61), wRC+ (123) and fWAR (2.5). If you will permit the use of an old school stat, the Pirates went 38-13 in games where he drove in a run. He was the heart of the offense, but he was also streaky in a good, not great, year. The Pirates needed him to be good, and it ?s good that a good player played…well. It would be great if he was great, though.
He was great for an extended period of time. Let ?s go back to another post I wrote about Polanco on June 12. At the time, he had -0.4 fWAR: the fourth worst among qualified NL players. With Austin Meadows still in the mix, I wrote that it might be time to reduce Polanco ?s role so Meadows could be an everyday player. The eye test said he was struggling, and the numbers backed it up.
Coincidentally, that was the day I got ?foot in mouth ? disease because Big Greg caught fire. From the date that post went live to his final game, Polanco slashed .291/.365/.562 with 15 homers. He even was above average on the base paths (1.2 BsR) and in the field (+0.7 DEF, per Fangraphs). It was the best three months of his career, using all five tools to help the team win.
Polanco finished with 2.5 fWAR, meaning he averaged 1 win above replacement each month since that story ?s publication. 3 WAR in half a season is an All-Star pace. If you ?re looking for examples of outfielders who will finish with roughly 6 WAR this season, think Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and J.D. Martinez. That ?s the cream of the crop as far as outfielders go, sans Trout and Betts.
But we ?ve seen great half seasons from Polanco before, and baseball is littered with players who can perform like an All-Star for pockets of time but never sustain it for a whole year. A 6 WAR pace for half a season is not the same thing as having 6 WAR in a season, but it does install some faith going forward. There won ?t be any talk this offseason about 2019 being a make or break year for Polanco. The concern will be ?can he stay healthy ? rather than ?is he good enough But if he is going to take that next step, it ?s time.
There are signs that he is getting ready to make the jump. The most obvious is his ability to lift the ball. Polanco is fourth among qualified batters in fly ball percentage, and he ?s also been one of the top 20 in the game for pulling fly balls, which is essential for a lefty at PNC Park (and in general). He also cut down on his chases, going from offering at 34.4% of pitches outside the zone last year to 28.5% in 2018. The league average is 30.8%, so he ?s gone from poor to good.
By chasing less and getting the ball in the air more, he was able to best a demon for him: the slider. According to Fangraphs ? weighted pitch value, he was -13.2 weighted runs below average against the slider from 2015-2017. That was 214th out of 232 batters who qualified for a batting title in said stretch. This season, he is 8.8 weighted runs above average– the fifth best in the game. His batting average against sliders from lefties jumped from .107 in 2017 to an even .300 this season. That comes with some pop, too, slugging .533 on southpaw sliders. Being able to lift — or lay off — a pitch running away from him is a mark of maturity.
On the down side, his whiff rate on pitches in the zone spiked up. His zone-contact rate hovered above 91% in 2016 and 2017, but it dropped to to 86.1% this season. That ?s still a hair better than league average, but it directly tied in with his career worst strikeout rate. He obviously has the power and a decent enough walk rate to be a ?three true outcome ? player, but it would be nice if the lineup ?s premiere bat was more a more complete and consistent hitter.
And of course, we have to talk about his injuries. Before his failed slide, staying healthy is what really separated 2018 Polanco from years past. In previous seasons, it seemed he would struggle at points, try to work through it, and while in the process, pull a hammy. That didn ?t happen this year, which is a big reason why he was able to turn his season around in June. He was able to play and work through his problems rather than focus on rehabbing. It would have been a huge win if he could have finished the season healthy and played 150 games. Instead, he ?s going to hold onto the ?injury prone ? label for another year.
It seems every year people talk about Polanco ?s potential ceiling. He didn ?t reach it in 2018, but it looks like he finally took a giant step to getting there. He looks like a much more mature hitter than he did this time last year. If his rehab goes well, 2019 may finally be his year.