Mike Trout ruined it for everybody else.
It was nothing that Mike Trout did wrong. It seems as if there’s nothing Trout can do wrong, but that’s what happens when you’ve accrued 33.5 WAR through just your first 3+ seasons in the Majors. After an unremarkable cup of coffee as a 19-year old (!!), Trout put up 10.3 WAR as a 20-year old in 2012. He really hasn’t slowed down since.
Now everyone thinks that every highly ranked outfield prospect is going to come up and dominate at a young age. But not all prospects are created equal, especially compared to a generational talent such as Trout. Even though both are in their age-23 seasons and both were Baseball America Top 10 prospects (Trout #1, Gregory Polanco #10), the talent gulf between the two is immense.
In 2014, Gregory Polanco came up and got a taste test of the big leagues. In his 312 plate appearances, Polanco struggled to a .235 AVG/.307 OBP/.343 SLG, with 7 HR and 14 SB, good for an 87 wRC+ (13% below league average). It was widely assumed that Polanco would come in 2015 struggle-free and complete the troika of talented Pirate outfielders. To date, that hasn’t happened, as Polanco hasn’t even incrementally improved, let along exponentially.
Young players used to be able to come up and struggle. Not in today’s immediate gratification society, though. And certainly not when that player is the starting RF and leadoff hitter on a playoff contending club. Polanco’s triple slash line is not good (.235 AVG/.301 OBP/.339 SLG, .104 Isolated Slugging, 77 wRC+), but he has provided 17 shiny stolen bases at a 73.9% success rate. His peripherals are pretty good, as well, with an 8.7% BB rate and 19.9% K rate.
To me it seems as Polanco is still adjusting to his body of 6′-5″/230 lb after being gangly for most of his young life. At times he looks awkward with his arms and legs flying all over the place. And no, not just at times like this:
Polanco’s early career resembles Brett Gardner‘s of the Yankees. In 2009, as a 25-year old, Gardner played in 108 games and laid down a line of .270 AVG/.345 OBP/.379 SLG (.109 Isolated Slugging, 91 wRC+) with 26 stolen bases. In Gardner’s first full season of 2010, as a 26-year old compared to Polanco’s age-23 season this year, Gardner continued to be a low-power/high-steals player. His line that year was .277/.383/.379 with 5 HR and 47 SB. Thanks to his high walk rate of 13.9%, Gardner’s wRC+ was 12% better than average at 112.
The difference between Gardner and Polanco is that Brett Gardner’s defense was excellent and provided approximately 3-4 wins of his 6.1 WAR that 2010 season. Polanco’s defense is average at best, erratic at worst. His route running and initial reads off the bat greatly need improved.
But as Gardner has physically matured, his bat has grown stronger as his legs have slightly slowed down. Last year, Gardner hit 17 HR and “only” stole 21 SB’s. Although his isolated slugging percentage jumped up to .166, his wRC+ remained at just 110.
Polanco may struggle through the 2015 season, which is again only his first full season, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll incrementally improve a little each season until his theoretical peak years of age-27 and 28. His development could spike mid-season (like this one) or continue to meander along for a few seasons until everything clicks at the start of a season.
It would be great if every player ascended upwards at a linear, uniform rate. But that’s not how it works all the time. Sometimes a player refuses to change his habits until it is nearly too late (see: Jose of House Bautista) or sometimes a player is a late bloomer (see: Josh of House Donaldson).
The important thing to remember is that Polanco is only 23. Everyone looks at how Mike Trout and Bryce Harper came up as teenagers and 20-year olds and started to thrive, but prospect development takes time. Polanco has too many tools and physical capabilities for me to doubt his ability to succeed in the Majors. But that also doesn’t preclude the Pirates from going out to find a fill-in RF, if necessary, to carry the team into the playoffs.
This team in its current state can not afford to spend time developing young players, like in years past during the 20 year wandering through the desert period. There are other goals that take priority, like raising a World Series pennant and letting that flag fly forever.
Polanco is an important component of this team’s future, but it also can’t sacrifice its present to wait for him.