It’s hard living in the shadow of the destroyer of worlds that is Josh Bell, but that’s what Gregory Polanco is doing in 2019. And that’s probably been a huge relief off his broad shoulders, especially the left one.
Polanco was once The Prince Who Was Promised, a level of connotation attached when Baseball America makes you the #10 prospect in all of baseball for the organization ranked #1 in minor league talent. He was deemed a five-tool talent that would hit for average and power, blend in gazelle-like speed, and be a force in the outfield with a strong arm.
To date, that hasn’t been delivered. In both the early stages of his career and TPOP, I wrote about how development for players is not always linear. Just because you hit ‘x’ home runs and bat ‘y’, doesn’t automatically mean next year you’ll hit ‘x+10’ homers and ‘y+ 30 points’ of batting average. Sometimes players regress and sometimes, like with Polanco, injuries get in the way.
Last season, Polanco was in the midst of a mini-breakout. In 130 games, he had hit a career-high 23 homers, while achieving the highest walk rate of his career to date (11.9%). His wRC+ was also the highest of his career, by far, at 123 and his fWAR was a career-high 2.5. In what was his age-26 season, it looked like he was going to be a solid complementary piece moving forward, if not the star level he was predicted.
And then came The Slide. It looked like he was jumping into the trench in World War I to fight the Krauts. That cost him the remainder of September and forced surgery on his labrum. Amazingly, he came back in late April 2019 to the Pirates. His arm has been…not good. And his zero steals indicate that the training staff is telling him not to chance his shoulder this year by sliding again. But he’s been a hitter.
Although not at Khris ‘.247’ Davis’s level of consistency, Polanco’s batting average in his first four ‘full’ seasons has been in a tight range of .251 to .258. This year, he’s poked it up to .266. But yes, batting average is silly to judge players, Kevin. You’re right, other Kevin. His five homers are part of his .234 isolated slugging percentage, itself right in line with last year’s career-high .245. That shows me no ill effects from the surgery on the hitting side. His overall 2019 triple slash line of .266/.330/.500 with a 120 wRC+ are near career-highs at this point.
Statcast says this is no fluke, either. His exit velocity of 89.4 mph is the highest of his career. What is strange to me is how he’s achieving it versus different pitch types. Up until now, there hasn’t been a huge chasm between how Polanco has handled various pitches. But in 2019, he’s feasting on fastballs more than Joey Chestnut at a hot dog eating contest. To date, Polanco is hitting .333 with an average exit velocity of 90.9 mph. Here’s the one that left the yard:
He’s hit the majority of his homers (3) against the classification of ‘offspeed’ pitches (primarily changeups, but also splitters, forkballs, screwballs). This one on Thursday against the Rockies was an 83 mph changeup:
Polanco is tapping into this power by having by far the highest pull% of his career at 52.1% right now, compared to 42.7% just last year. Polanco has zeroed in on a certain sector and letting it rip with impunity.
Just like when I wrote that expectations for Marte should be tempered, I urge the same for Polanco. He’s not the next McCutchen as we were sold and hoped him to become. But like Marte, he’s very good at what he can provide to this team. Like Marte, he’s a strong complementary piece that the Pirates still control at below-market rates through potentially 2023.
Even if Polanco can nudge his wRC+ up into the 140 range, he’s probably not going to be into the low 3 fWAR range, as his poor defense (thanks to a weakened arm) is going to hold him back this year. But reaching the 3 fWAR ‘impact level’ in terms of his bat is a big deal in the development of Polanco. He and Josh Bell can pair up in the middle of the lineup for a few more years and create a critical mass of power that the Pirates have sorely lacked over recent years.