Perhaps no Pittsburgh Pirates regular can benefit more from a strong finish to 2017 than Gregory Polanco.
Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco missed nearly a month of the 2017 season, though an argument could be made that he was practically invisible prior to his latest hamstring injury.
It has been a season full of contradictions for Polanco. Through 93 games, he is slashing .258/.313/.409 — an underwhelming performance to be sure — but yet has lowered his strikeout rate considerably, down to 14.2 percent from 20.3 percent last season. He was able to do that despite an uptick in both swing percentage — up to 49.8 percent from 46.2 in 2016 — and O-Swing (percentage of total swings at pitches outside of the zone), which rose 3.1 percentage points to 34.4 percent in 2017.
With his swinging strike percentage staying consistent at 8.9 percent, just 0.4 percentage points above his career rate, the Pittsburgh Pirates may be left searching for answers as to where Polanco’s burgeoning power stroke disappeared to.
Though he’s slugged 20 doubles, not a far cry away from his 34 double-baggers in 2016, Polanco’s hard-hit rate has fallen nearly 10 percentage points year-over-year. Striking the ball hard just 25.4 perecnt of the time shows that his .278 BABIP in 2017 has been well earned, and it hearkens back to his rookie season. In that year, Polanco looked absolutely overmatched after a hot start to his career.
It gets uglier when considering that the 25 year-old outfielder has an average exit velocity nearly three mph lighter than in 2016 (86.6 as opposed to last year’s 89.9 mark). A three mph difference may not seem significant on the surface, yet it takes on more significance when one realizes that the amount of lightly hit balls that would be needed to bring that average figure down.
Could Polanco have simply regressed over the course of four pro seasons? Or is there something tangible at play that he can work on in the season’s final weeks?
The hunt for red-hot fastballs
One of the biggest changes in Polanco’s approach in 2017 has been shown at 0-0.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ right fielder had a 9.5 percentage point increase in First-Strike percentage, all the way up to 63 percent in 2017. That is a lofty number, and puts Polanco behind the eight-ball to start his at-bat too often.
A closer look shows that pitchers are not afraid to challenge Polanco. 55 percent of the pitches Polanco sees to begin his plate appearance are four-seam or two-seam fastballs. 2016 saw a 48.2 percent distribution of fastballs on first pitch.
Adding to the contradictory nature of his 2017 season, Polanco has done less with more in this regard, though even those results are puzzling:
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We can see that despite a near seven-percent increase in “hittable pitches,” Polanco sees middling results. Though many would live with a 1.6 percentage point increase in whiffs to go along with a slightly decreased called strike rate, the bottom-line result is that Polanco is striking the ball nearly four miles per hour weaker on average.
The answer as to why that is happening is beyond my capabilities as a humble baseball writer. However, to the naked eye, one could almost start to see a timing issue start to occur.
Take a look at a very hittable pitch from left-hander Brett Cecil earlier this year:
This pitch was a center-cut fastball in the low-to-mid 90s.
A hitter’s dream, in other words. Polanco took that gift and tried to re-gift it to the Cardinals by offering a pop-up with a 56.7 exit velocity.
But Polanco’s timing looked anything but comfortable there when contrasted against a very similar pitch back in 2016:
Perfect timing on this pitch led to a perfectly struck ball.
Admittedly, these are cherry-picked examples of a larger point: Polanco is simply not adjusting to how pitchers are approaching him. Whether it is truly a timing issue, some other seemingly insignificant mechanical issue or simply his approach, Polanco needs to recognize that pitchers feel more than comfortable attacking him early.
What this means for the rest of 2017
For the remainder of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates might get better results out of Gregory Polanco if the right-fielder walks up to the plate with a better understanding of what he is likely to see, and counter-attack accordingly.
Though he ended his day with a 3-for-4 performance, yetsterday’s game was a prime example of everything we have illustrated to this point. Two of his four trips to the plate began with two-seam fastballs, including two out of three appearances against Carlos Martinez, the opposing starter. Three of those first pitches were taken for called strikes overall, including both of Martinez’s offerings.
Yesterday, Polanco was able to get back into at-bats and ended with a solid night despite starting three of his four trips to the plate at 0-1.
Imagine what he can accomplish over 2017’s waning days if he comes to the plate ready to pounce.
Doing that consistently would give him and the Pittsburgh Pirates some good footing to go into the offseason.
Photo Credit – Flickr Creative Commons