Why is Gregory Polanco Struggling from the Plate?

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Analysis: The young Pirates Outfielder has had a rough start to 2017. How concerned should Pirates’ fans be with Gregory Polanco struggling with a bat?

Gregory Polanco is now in his fourth season with the Pirates but is still young at only 25 years old. It’s been encouraging to watch his year to year progress since he made his Major League debut in June 2014. However, it hasn’t been encouraging to watch Gregory Polanco struggling at the plate so far in 2017.

Plate AppearancesBatting AverageOBPSlugging %wOBAwRC+

In all likelihood, given Polanco’s age and this progression, he has not reached his full potential yet. Personally, I was expecting El Coffee to have breakout All-Star caliber year this season. Through a little more than a month of the season though, we not only haven’t seen Polanco play at this capability but even at last season’s level.

Plate AppearancesBatting AverageOBPSlugging %wOBAwRC+

Coming into this year, if the Pirates were going to contend, they likely needed Polanco to continue to follow the general upward trajectory that his career has taken going into this season. With Marte suspended until July and Kang stuck in South Korea for the foreseeable future, it is even more imperative that Polanco gets back on track.

What’s the Problem?

So what’s Polanco’s issue through the first 5+ weeks of 2017? As you can see from the above figures, his average is not actually that far below what he posted each of the past two seasons. Additionally, if his OBP were to hold through the rest of the season, it would prove to be a career high.

The OBP figure shows that the issue likely has nothing to do with a sudden decrease in plate discipline. In fact, his K% (15.0%) and BB% (11.5%) are both improved over his career averages (19.0% and 9.1% respectively) which likely explains his improved OBP. Also, his BABIP of .309 is just over what is generally considered to be around league average. It’s also actually even higher than his career .295. All of this indicates that he hasn’t just simply been unlucky.

So Polanco hasn’t had terrible plate discipline and he hasn’t been unlucky. No, the obvious answer to the question posed above is that he isn’t hitting for enough power. The other figures mentioned earlier show this to be the case. His Slugging percentage of .357 is substantially lower than the .463 mark he posted in 2016. Also, his wOBA, which is a statistic that attempts to rate each type of hit properly scaled to OBP, is a relatively miserable .313. Finally, his wRC+, which is similar to wOBA but is scaled so that the league average is 100, currently stands at 93. Both of these are significantly worse than his 2016 marks (.331 and 108 respectively).

Looking simply at the raw stats, Polanco has not hit a Home Run or a Triple yet this season. Last year at this point he had 4 Home Runs and 1 Triple and he would finish with 22 and 4 respectively. To be fair 10 of his 24 hits this season are doubles, but his lack of power is troubling through this first part of the season. Looking at Polanco’s ISO is the most succinct way of showing that his power has dropped. Last year Polanco had a .205 ISO and he has a .148 through his still brief career. So far in 2017 Polanco’s ISO sits at .102. This would be the lowest mark in his career if it held for a whole season.

Source of the Power Outage

So why isn’t Polanco hitting more Home Runs and extra base hits? The answer is simple and twofold. He isn’t hitting the ball hard enough and he isn’t hitting it in the air. For his career, Polanco’s batted ball profile looks like this: Groundball % (GB%): 44.4%, Line Drive % (LD%): 21.3%, Fly Ball % (FB%): 34.2%. While these are all considered league average and different hitters are successful with all types of batted ball profiles, Polanco should be hitting more fly balls and line drives given that he is supposed to develop into an elite batter.

The good new going into this season was that his LD% and FB% have increased each season since his rookie campaign. Last season he had a profile of GB%: 38.8%, LD%: 24.0%, FB%: 37.1%, with the LD% and FB% at career highs and his GB% at a career low. This profile is closer to that of an elite power bat that many were dreaming the Pirates would eventually get with Polanco. As I mentioned above, I expected this general upward trend to continue in 2017. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Right now Polanco’s batted ball profile for the 2017 season stands at this: GB%: 53.1%, LD%: 22.2%, FB%: 24.7%. His GB% has skyrocketed while his FB% has cratered. He is hitting groundballs 14.3% more often than he did last year while hitting fly balls 12.4% less often. This profile looks more like that of a contact hitter, which is reflected in his slash line. To emphasize the point, his groundball to fly ball ratio (GB/FB) is currently 2.15, indicating that he is hitting more than twice as many grounders as fly balls. For comparison, he posted a 1.05 GB/FB in 2016.

Batted ball type isn’t the only culprit of Polanco’s power outage though. He isn’t making quality contact either. Much like batted ball, we can look at Polanco’s quality of contact profile. This is the respective percentage of balls hit Hard, Medium, or Soft. It may seem common sense, but a player will undoubtedly perform better the more balls he hits with hard contact.

A league average quality of contact profile generally looks something like this: Soft%: 20%, Medium%: 50%, Hard%: 30%. Much like with batted ball type, Polanco is very close to this league average for his career with a profile of: Soft%: 19.0%, Medium%: 50.5%, Hard %: 21.0%. He has also seen his Hard% go up every season since coming into the league. In 2016 he posted a profile that looked like this: Soft%: 25.9%, Medium%: 53.1%, Hard%: 21.0%.

These numbers are extremely troubling. Polanco has all of a sudden started making hard contact on nearly 15% (14.7%) fewer batted balls compared with last season. There has also been a corresponding rise in soft contact of 7.6% more frequently versus 2016. This twofold decrease in fly balls and hard contact has proven to be the source of Polanco’s power outage. This could be very bad news for the Pirates not just in 2017 but well into the future.

How Panicked Should We Be?

Polanco’s struggles to date this season have actually flown relatively under the radar. This is due to all the problems that have cropped up for the Pirates. With David Freese and Adam Frazier heading to the DL, Jung Ho Kang’s continued legal troubles, Starling Marte’s PED suspension, and Jameson Taillon’s testicular cancer diagnosis, Polanco struggling seems relatively minor. Given his career trajectory to this point, one is likely tempted to say that this is just a blip.

In fact, recent numbers suggest that Polanco has turned it around. Since April 23, Polanco has a .298/.400/.447 slash line with a .367 wOBA and 127 wRC+. However, in that same period, his batted ball profile looked like this: GB%: 51.2%, LD%: 26.8%, FB%: 22.0% and he only had hard contact on 17.1% of his batted balls. This combined with a .341 BABIP suggests that he has been the beneficiary of good luck lately. Because of this, Polanco will likely not continue to hit close to .300.

One may be tempted to say that this is still a small sample size and that Polanco will surely start to hit the ball harder and in the air more often. While this could still be the case we are approaching the limit of being able to say this. Ground ball and fly ball rates tend to stabilize within one to two months according to Fangraphs. However, the line drive rate still can see major fluctuations. Additionally, Fangraphs even admits that we don’t actually know how long it takes quality of contact rates to stabilize.

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Despite the fact that these metrics have limited predictive power, they are still concerning to me. This is mostly because they fly in the face of the general upward trend in performance we’ve seen in Polanco year to year so far. These numbers are substantially worse than what we have seen from Polanco. A likely explanation is that Polanco is still a young player and his performance can still be erratic.

Perhaps pitchers are approaching Polanco differently and he just has yet to adjust. There is some evidence of this, as pitchers seem to be more aggressive with him. He’s seen a first pitch strike 60.2% of the time this season. This is compared to 53.5% of the time last year. They also seem to be throwing more off-speed stuff to him with the number of fastballs he’s seen dropping to 50.5% from a 56.9% mark for his career.

The explanation could also be injury-related. Gregory Polanco already battled knee and shoulder issues in 2016. Shoulder issues in August could likely have led to a late-season slump he experienced last year. Polanco apparently came into spring training healthy and there hasn’t been any reliable sign of anything nagging him right now. However, given his past injury issues, something hidden could be an explanation and it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Next: How to Replace Jameson Taillon

Needless to say, Gregory Polanco either needs to figure this out or get healthy. The Pirates have invested a lot of money in Polanco. He is also supposed to be a centerpiece of the Pirates for years to come. It would be a huge blow to them if his career were to take a McCutchen-esque turn before he really even came into his prime. Overall, it’s not the time to hit the panic button given his youth. However, it’s certainly worth keeping a closer eye on him throughout this season.

*Stats courtesy of Fangraphs

*Click the following links for more information on Batted Ball Statistics and Quality of Contact

*Polanco’s 2017 stats are as of 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, May 9th