Pittsburgh Pirates: 2020 Make-Or-Break Year For Gregory Polanco
By Noah Wright
After battling injuries and inconsistency the past six seasons, the 2020 season could be a make-or-break one for Gregory Polanco with the Pittsburgh Pirates
Back in 2014, Gregory Polanco looked like one of the Pittsburgh Pirates best long term building blocks. He was a guy who flashed all five tools. He could steal bases, and was a pretty good fielder. Not only could he field and run, but he could hit for average, and showed a lot of potential in his power. However, six years later, his star has significantly dimmed. This upcoming season could be a real make-or-break season for the former top 10 prospect.
We’ll start in 2015. In 2015, Polanco’s first full MLB season, the youngster put up an overall mediocre .256/.320/.381 slash line with 9 home runs, a 92 OPS+ and wRC+, and 35 doubles in 652 plate appearances. But he was showing improvement from his 2014 rookie season, and was making a lot more hard contact. He also stole 27 bags and was worth 5.1 base running runs above average.
Defensively, Polanco showed some serious skill. All told, he had +11 DRS, +8.3 UZR, +6 range runs above average, and had a cannon of an arm. Not only did he throw out 5 base runners, but he also had 3.5 outfield arm runs above average. This put Polanco in the top five of DRS, UZR and arm runs among all right fielders.
After his pretty good 2015 season, the young outfielder earned himself an extension early on in April, 2016. It guaranteed the Pittsburgh Pirates control over Polanco through the 2021 season with two options for 2022 and 2023, and Polanco looked to finally be hitting that breakout stride. Through his first 344 plate appearances of the year, the big lefty was batting .287/.362/.500 with an 11% walk rate, a dozen home runs, and a 127 wRC+ going into the All-Star Break. Polanco’s big power potential finally was coming around, as he had a .213 isolated slugging percentage.
But things would quickly turn sour for Polanco as he fell into a second half slump. His final 243 plate appearances of 2016 saw him hit just .220/.267/.414. His walk rate dipped below 8% to 6.2%, and he hit for a 78 wRC+. A major drop off from his first half numbers.
Inconsistency plagued El Coffee yet again in 2017, but this time in the form of an injury.
Polanco only played 108 games and received 411 plate appearances. The second half slump seemed to carry over to the next year as he batted just .251/.305/.391 with a 83 OPS+, and 81 wRC+ for the season. Polanco was still quite the right field defender with +5 DRS, a +3.8 UZR and +.7 arm runs above average, but the Pittsburgh Pirates were originally experimenting with him in left field, former MVP, Andrew McCutchen in right, and Starling Marte in center.
Learning a new position might have hurt his chances to improve offensively, and consistently put up good production across an entire season. Polanco wasn’t moved out of left because he was a bad fielder, but Marte’s PED suspension forced the Pirates to move McCutchen back to center and Polanco to his natural position of right field. Still, Polanco was pretty much the Pirates’ primary option in left for the first month and a half of the season.
Now looking more and more like a busted prospect, Polanco got off to a poor start in 2018. Up through the middle of June, Polanco was batting just .200/.302/.400. He was once again walking at a strong 11.8% rate, but his power was not there like it had been before. Overall, he had an 88 wRC+. But Polanco once again, reignited the potential he had within him.
From June 17 to the end of the year, Polanco went on another surge, batting .301/.375/.585 with a 155 wRC+, and 15 more home runs. He was actually one of the hottest batters in baseball through this stretch as his wRC+ ranked 13th in all of baseball, and 7th in the National League. But despite his outstanding offense in 2018, Polanco saw a decline in defense.
After once being a potential right field Gold Glove candidate, his defensive numbers to a pretty big step down. He still had a really good arm with +1.5 outfield arm runs above average, but clocked in with a -3 DRS, -1 UZR and -2.8 range runs above average. So far those are his worst career numbers in a full season.
However, Polanco’s reign of terror over pitchers in 2018 ended when he went hard into a slide in the first week of September. This slide resulted in him needing both left knee and left shoulder surgery. Polanco would go on to miss most of 2019. Not only did he miss most of the first month of the season, still rehabbing from the two surgeries, but his 2019 season didn’t last long.
On June 22, Polanco was placed on the injured list and didn’t come off of it for the rest of the season. His left shoulder was really giving him problems, citing inflammation and discomfort. Polanco played just 42 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates and received 167 plate appearances, and posted a .736 OPS and 90 OPS+.
And here we are in 2020. Polanco is now entering his age 28 season. He’s no longer the youthful prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates once had in 2014. The tools that once made Polanco a long term piece are now large question marks.
While it was a small sample size where Polanco was likely injured for part of it, he had -2.3 arm runs above average. The cannon he once had on his shoulder might be gone after such a large procedure. Polanco has also seen his speed take a step back. In 2015, he averaged 28.5 feet per second and in 2018 he averaged 27.7 feet/second. Now with the leg surgery, only time will tell if he can ever regain it. Just last year, he averaged 26.8 feet/second. Just for reference 27 F/S is the league average. With his declining speed, and arm, along with poor defensive statistics the past two seasons, many have even questioned if he should be the team’s designated hitter over Josh Bell.
Not all hope is lost for Polanco, though. He still managed an 88.9 MPH exit velocity last year. In comparison the league average is 87.5 MPH. Harder hit balls = more hits. Baseball Savant compared his batter ball profile to notable 2018 seasons like Mark Canha, Gleyber Torres and Tyler White. All guys who posted very good numbers in 2018.
Polanco is only guaranteed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates up through 2021. After 2021, the Pirates can either opt to keep him around for 2022 for $13.5 million, or buy him out for $3 million. These next two seasons are very important for Polanco. If he can stay somewhat healthy, and put up numbers like he did in 2018, the Pirates will likely keep him around in 2022. But we know what Polanco’s injury history is like. These two last surgeries might seriously limit Polanco. It’s easy to see a situation where the Pittsburgh Pirates also buy Polanco out as well.