Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training: Gregory Polanco Teasing Fans Once Again

Mar 6, 2021; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco (25) celebrates his home run in the bottom of the fifth inning during spring training at LECOM Park. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 6, 2021; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco (25) celebrates his home run in the bottom of the fifth inning during spring training at LECOM Park. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Throughout his MLB career Gregory Polanco has teased fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates with his sky high potential. So far this spring, he is doing that once again.

Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates know the rollercoaster ride of Gregory Polanco‘s career all too well. Entering the 2014 season Polanco was one of the top 10 prospects in all of baseball, which led to Pirate fans having sky high expectations for Polanco.

During the first month of Polanco’s career he was looking the part. In 132 plate appearances during his first month in the Majors, Polanco hit for a .281/.374/.377 slash line to go with a strong 12.9% walk rate, just a 17.4% strikeout rate and a 121 wRC+. This is where the Polanco rollercoaster with the Pittsburgh Pirates would begin.

Polance struggled the rest of the 2014 season and did not finish the season as a the starter in right field, including not playing the 2014 National League Wild Card Game. The following season Polanco was a slightly below league average hitter (92 wRC+) but was worth 2.2 fWAR due to his defense.

During the 2016 season, Polanco appeared to be turning a corner. Posting a career best 106 wRC+ with a career high 22 home runs. Then in 2017, Polanco regressed again with a wRC+ of just 81 while his slugging percentage fell from .463 to .391.

In the 2018 season the Polanco rollercoaster started to rise again as he hit for a .254/.340/.499, all career bests minus his batting average, to go with a career high 123 wRC+ and 23 home runs. Polanco also posted a career high 2.5 fWAR during the 2018 season. Unfortunately, his 2018 season was cut short due to a shoulder injury.

His shoulder injury lingered into 2019, that along with other issues limited him to just 42 games. Due to missing the start of the season with a positive COVID-19 test, Polanco was limited to 50 games in 2020. During these two seasons Polanco struggled to the tune of a .197/.257/.374 slash line, 33.4% strikeout rate and a wRC+ of 64.

Following Polanco’s struggles and injuries the past two seasons his future with the Pittsburgh Pirates appeared to be in doubt. With his future in doubt, this spring is the most important of Polanco’s career, and, thus far, he is once again teasing Pirate fans with his sky high potential.

Saturday afternoon Polanco hit a home run, collected a single and drove in a pair in a Pirate victory over the Yankees. This continued the red hot start to the spring for Polanco who is 5-for-11 with two home runs, a double and just three stikeouts thus far in Grapefruit League play.

Polanco has also been tattooing the ball, which is nothing new to him. Despite his struggles during the 2020 season Polanco’s exit velocity (92.9 MPH) ranked in the 95th percentile in baseball, his hard hit rate (51.6%) ranked in the 93rd percentile and barrel rate (12.6%) ranked in the 83rd percentile.

Quality of contact was not the issue for Polanco in 2020, strikeouts were. His 37.4% strikeout rate was in the bottom 2% of baseball. He had similar issues in 2019 when his exit velocity (89.5 MPH) and barrel rate (9.6%) were both above league average, but his 29.3% strikeout rate was 8% higher than league average.

While it’s in an incredbily small sample size, it is still promising to see Polanco’s strikeout rate down to 27%. While that is still higher than you want to see, it is a 10% improvement over last season. If Polanco can continue to maintain his exit velocity, hard hit and barrel rates, while getting his strikeout rate down around 25%, he can be a productive hitter who racks up plenty of extra base hits.

If Polanco is able to this it will be beneficial for the Pittsburgh Pirates in more ways than one. Not only does a team always want their hitters performing to the best of their ability, if Polanco can come out a produce this season the way he has in the past, he could become a good trade chip for the Pirates in July. Especially with the two option years remaining on his contract following this season.

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When the regular season begins next month Polanco in right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates. If he can maintain his contact rates from last season and thus far this spring, while keeping his strikeouts down, he can get back to the player he was in 2016 and 2018 when he was an above average player. He can also then become a good trade chip for the Pirates. Regardless of what shakes out this season, there’s a good shot fans will experience some more of the Polanco rollercoaster.