Gregory Polanco makes up one-third of arguable the most electrifying outfield in Major League Baseball. At times his swing looks too natural to be real. His arm in right field has likely saved more than a few runs from opposing teams. From the jump of the 2015 season, he has served – along with Starling Marte – as the chief base stealing threat in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ everyday lineup.
All of those accolades are well-deserved. The fact that those tools are all on display with such force in only his first full big league season is a tantalizing glimpse at what Polanco may provide the team going forward.
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All of those accolades may disguise a hard fact that Pirates fans may soon have to face.
Gregory Polanco is not a lock to start the National League Wild Card game against Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs.
Seems odd, doesn’t it? How can Polanco, who along with Marte has played the second-most games for the team behind Andrew McCutchen, not start in this game? It all begins and ends with Arrieta. We all know the story – total dominance not seen on this humble planet Earth and likely never seen again until humanity transcends our mortal coils etc etc etc – so I won’t bore you with it here yet again.
What I will tell you is that when facing a pitcher as dominant as Arrieta, every single detail – no matter how minute – must be considered. Polanco, like many left-handed batters, struggles against Arrieta. Opposing left-handers scuffle to the tune of a .161 batting average against over 2015, accompanied by sharp drops in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Polanco is no different with a 3-for-16 slate against Arrieta. Sure, he broke up Arrieta’s perfect-game bid and also had a hit the previous time he faced Arrieta. Still, that is an ugly historical number.
All of those accolades are well-deserved. The fact that those tools are all on display with such force in only his first full big league season is a tantalizing glimpse at what Polanco may provide the team going forward
For all of the spectacular throws and unexpected double plays that Polanco provides, his youth rears its ugly head. Polanco is tied with Matt Kemp for the most errors by a right fielder with eight. While this may not seem to be that large of a number, runs will be a premium against Arrieta. That fact works both ways. By virtue of Pirates runs being hard to come by, each Cubs run thus becomes magnified. If Polanco’s occasional lapses in right field lead to a run for the Cubs, that is simply one game too many in a one-and-done wild card game scenario.
Polanco’s 27 stolen bases represent the second-highest total on the team to Marte’s 30. While he has terrorized opposing teams with his base running, sometimes he also terrorizes the Pirates. At the risk of repeating myself, runs will be at a premium against Arrieta. Unfortunately, base runners also figure to be few and far between. The Pirates cannot afford to nullify a potential run via baserunning mistakes. Polanco is not alone in this regard, but he is a huge culprit.
So if you’re Clint Hurdle, what do you do? Do you breakup the top third of the lineup that has served your team well for most of the season? How much offense will you sacrifice if Gregory Polanco sits? I would not want to be tasked with this decision, but it is an important one. While no one should be afraid of Arrieta, to gloss over the fact that he is on a historic tear is asinine. The Pirates don’t have to play a perfect game to beat Arrieta, but they must avoid any self-destructive mistakes.
Even if that means leaving one of the best young talents in the dugout.