The Pirates dropped a close decision to the Braves on Saturday by the score of 2-1. Jeff Locke once again gave the Pirates a good chance to win a home game, but his efforts ended up bearing no fruit. The Pirates didn’t go out quietly, as they made a late comeback effort after Jordy Mercer‘s third hit of the game that closed the gap to one and put himself on second as the game’s tying run with two outs in the ninth. That brought the least popular Pittsburgh Pirate of the 2015 season to the plate, Gregory Polanco.
As you know, the game ended as most expected it to, with a swinging strike three. Polanco hung his head as he has done so often this year and his team fell another half game out of first place.
The six-foot-five inch right fielder from the Dominican Republic has not had a very successful time in his 160 big league games. His career slash line coming into Sunday’s game was .235/.304/.341 despite starting his time with the Pirates with a splash, hitting .338/.416/.441 in his first 16 games. Since then it’s been a big time struggle, which is even more disappointing considering the offensive hype that was put on him.
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Polanco hit .325/.385/.495 with seven homers in his 71 career games at AAA-Indianapolis. He looked comfortable in almost every at-bat and made batting look easy. Team that with his excellent defense and speed, and he was one of baseball’s mostly highly touted prospects. Now, let’s stop this post from turning into a ‘Gregory Polanco: the MLB bust’ post, because he’s been in the major leagues for one measly year and still has all the skills to develop into an all-star. However, in the short term, he’s hurting the Pirates’ playoff chances this year, which may be the most important thing.
The majority of Polanco’s at-bats are ending in groundouts (23%) and strikeouts (20%). He’s not squaring the ball up often, achieving a below league average 20.1% line drive rate. That’s dead last among Pirate regulars. He is virtually a sure out against left-handed pitchers, with just five hits in 36 at-bats this year (good for a .139 average), with all five of those hits being singles. For his career, he’s hit .161/.205/.212 with just two extra-base hits (both homers) against southpaws.
If you’re into advanced metrics, Gregory Polanco has a 0.2 wins above replacement mark this year. And the only reason the number is positive is because of his 17 stolen bases. You can’t steal bases if you don’t get on base, and Polanco is getting on base in just 30% of his plate appearances.
Proving the point that Gregory Polanco is not a very good major league baseball player right now isn’t a tough thing to do, and it’s also not very useful. Hitting a baseball thrown by a major league pitcher is a hard thing to do, especially when you’re new at it and haven’t worked out all the holes in your swing. This year, pitchers have been pounding Polanco low and away, which explains a lot of those weak groundouts to the right side of the infield. He’s not been good at going the other way, which is key to a guy like him being successful. Check out the pitches Polanco has seen this year:
Not the easiest graphs to pull anything from, but you can see the concentration in the low and away section of the zone. I’m no hitting coach, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
The question is now what do the Pirates do next? Their offense hasn’t been great this year and the division crown dream is becoming more and more faint (for more on that click here).
The team is in a slightly different boat than most teams that have found a way to make consecutive postseason appearances. We are quick to forget that the Pirates are still one of the smallest markets in the league and have significantly less to work with than other teams. Neal Huntington and company can’t exactly go throwing young talent under the bus. It’s harder for him to keep his team competitive, and he realizes better than anybody that the key to keeping the team successful and the fans happy is to develop and keep young talent as often as he can. Polanco is a prime example of a player that the Pirates cannot afford to give up on. Young players are easier to keep under team control for friendlier contracts, and if the Pirates are going to continue to be a playoff contender as we approach the next turn of the decade, Polanco might have to be a part of it.
So, does the front office put all their chips in the 2015 playoff run and demote Polanco, shifting a lesser defender in Josh Harrison to right field and officially giving full time playing time to Jung-ho Kang (consequently giving full time playing time to Jordy Mercer as well)? Or do they keep Polanco in the bigs, work with him behind the scenes and continue to get him at-bats, hoping he can make some changes and find the success everyone knows he’s capable of? You can certainly understand both points of view. Some people believe that demoting a big time prospect after he’s been in the league for a bit can have a real negative affect on the players psyche. I’m not sure if that happens or not, but it’s something to consider.
If you’re asking me (which nobody ever does), I would probably send Polanco back down to AAA, expect him to be a man about it, and let him get some every day at-bats and hope he can work some things out with the coaching staff down there. In the meantime, you have a competent enough right fielder in Harrison and a left side of the infield you can live with in Kang and Mercer (especially if Mercer’s recent hot streak is a sign of things to come like it was last year).
The bottom line is that Grgeory Polanco is a very talented player and his future potential should be always be strongly considered when making decisions about his role with the Pirates. If management feels that building his future is worth costing the major league team some offense right now, then they should do whatever they see fit to set him up for success, even if that success isn’t going to come in 2015.
Also, Gregory, if you’re reading this, I like you a lot and don’t mean anything by it. If you wanna grab a beer sometime you have my number… I’ve Twitter messaged it to you a bunch of times.