Heading into July, many Pirates fans saw a need to improve productivity in right field at the trade deadline. While Pedro Alvarez was public enemy number one by the middle of June, many fans including myself felt the Bucs should prioritize it over first base. The reasons were fairly simple. Despite playing better defense, Polanco provided considerably less offense that Alvarez, roughly .100 OPS points for most of the season. There were also more options to acquire for right field that would have been a significant upgrade. In the end, many would have had the Pirates use resources just to be done with Alvarez by making a lateral move at first. They appeared content to accept considerably less offensive production in right field when that looked the area where the team could take steps and likely on the cheap.
Then Polanco started winning games. He’d hit the key double to tie in the eighth or extend an inning with a walk so the team could go ahead. He was coming through in high leverage situations and suddenly people didn’t talk about right field anymore, not even for a platoon. As July rolled along, public opinion seemed to suggest Polanco was getting better at the plate and right field became even less of a priority. With the month completed and the trade deadline past, did he actually get better hit or were they just bigger hits?
It’s fair to say the answer to the first part is ‘yes’. Polanco had his best month to date in the majors OPS’ing .787 for the month. He carried a walk rate of 12.4% that he paired with a K rate under 17%. While the power wasn’t extraordinary, he managed a .152 ISO, also a monthly career high. Without question Polanco had his best month in the majors, but it probably shouldn’t have been good enough to alleviate the perceived need.
Granted, we live in a “what have you done for me lately” culture, but Polanco still has a .677 season OPS and it’s a offensive oriented position. His base running-inflated 0.9 WAR is good for 17th at the position, but his OPS is good for second worst among qualified right fielders. Even generalizing his July OPS to a full season, Polanco barely slots into the top half.
It’s also worth noting that .787 over an entire month isn’t exactly something to celebrate. Of the Pirates’ regulars, only Josh Harrison and Polanco have failed to post months with an .OPS of .800 or better. Sean Rodriguez and Chris Stewart have done so, as well. For Polanco, July has been a step in the right direction, but in terms of real numbers, it’s hardly the breakout people are perceiving.
Of course, he has been clutch. Of his twenty-seven July hits, five either tied or provided the go-ahead run after the fifth inning. That’s the most on the Pirates. Four of those five hits were go-ahead and all but one ultimately proved to be the game winner. That’s as many as numbers two and three combined (Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker each with two).
I can measure the total number of important hits. I can even post the win share his hits generated on Fangraphs, but the driving force behind Polanco’s improved perception is the immeasurable “magic” factor of the moment or situation.
July 7, 2015 vs Padres – Eighth Inning – Game Winning Triple
This got the party started on a month of magic for Mr. Polanco and really made you feel like the Pirates were on a roll. It also came at a time when you expected nothing from Polanco and simply hoped he’d walk and someone else might get a chance.
July 8, 2015 vs Padres – Eighth Inning – Go Ahead Hit Off the Clemente Wall
If you were in San Diego and didn’t dislike Polanco after back-to-back go-ahead hits, you were probably a displaced yinzer or just enjoying the beautiful weather to the point where you didn’t care. Here’s the crazy thing about the way magic works. This hit started the conversation about Polanco hitting better. Besides back-to-back go-ahead hits, there was very little to go on to support the argument, but clutch heals all wounds.
July 12, 2015 vs Cardinals – Tenth Inning – Polanco Walks it Off
I’d have preferred Greg Brown’s call here, as doctors thought be may never speak again following back-to-back walk-offs to the Cardinals. Thankfully, he recovered during the All Star break, but the magic lingered. Pirate fans got to watch and re-watch this nationally televised video in their heads for four whole days without the chance of either the Royals, Brewers, or Reds ruining it for them.
July 24, 2015 vs Nationals – Fifth Inning – Polanco Wins The Battle
“Maybe the at bat of the season?”
Sure why not Mr. Blass. There is something to be said when you can take a pitcher, who was a grazed elbow with two outs in the ninth away from a perfect game the last time he faced your team, eleven throws deep into an at-bat before finishing it off with a homer on the twelfth pitch. In real game action this may have been the least splashy of Polanco’s big hits, but it had plenty of magic.
July 28, 2015 @ Twins – Eighth Inning – 3 – Run Double
This didn’t end up being the seminal moment of the contest but it should have been. Up three only to add another run, and with the normally sure-armed Pirates bullpen, one would have thought this double would have been enough. It wasn’t, but Jung-ho Kang bailed the Bucs out.
If you went through and watched each of the videos, you might feel the magic again. Enjoy it! It’s a great feeling and it’s why a lot of us watch sports.
But it’s time for me to spoil it. Magic is not improvement even if it makes you feel good. Truth is looking at the entire body of work by Polanco and seeing he has fallen short of what you’d ideally want from a right fielder. Don’t get me wrong, a .787 OPS is a fine number for the position, but it can’t be for one month and it can’t be accompanied by the .540 June that came before it.
The good news for Polanco is that he’s still young and promising enough that no one is giving up on him. The front office is so supportive that they didn’t even acquire a platoon partner for him. Polanco will get by on magic for the rest of this season and he might get by on his stature as an elite prospect for another ten to twelve months. Between now and then though, he’s going to need real, sustained improvement to carry him forward and keep him in the lineup. July 2015 was a nice step in the right direction for him, but the Pirates need more from him more often. If he’s going to have a long career, this can’t be his most productive month. If they don’t get it fairly soon, magic won’t keep the front office from finding a replacement in 2016 or 2017.