Photo: Jon Dawson
The Pirates offense sucked last year. They were 28th in runs scored, 29th in home runs, 27th in batting average, 21st in on-base percentage, 29th in slugging, and 28th in wRC+.
The Pirates did that without two of their best hitters last year. Kang was suspended before the season even started, and Marte didn’t make it out of April. Losing two of your best bats is difficult to overcome.
But another prominent player with piss poor performance was Polanco. He hit .251/.305/.391. Below average across the board.
The Polanco hype train has been rolling for quite a while now, and the start of last season was no different. Before the regular season started, he was a key player for the Dominican Republican in the World Baseball Classic. He had hit .579/.619/.842 over 19 AB and hadn’t struck out once. Sure, it was a small sample. But it doesn’t take much to get Pirates fans excited (well, before 2018, that is). Plus, take a look at one of his Instagram posts. He was jacked.
Then when the 2017 regular season began in Boston, Polanco had complained about a sore shoulder, and instead of going to the DL, he was listed as the teams DH on opening day. Polanco never landed on the DL for his shoulder, but it was obvious that it was bothering him. However, in May he did land on the DL with a hamstring strain. And then again in July. And then again in August. It turns out Polanco’s physique didn’t help, his World Baseball Classic performance was a mirage, and finally, the Polanco hype train had derailed.
Polanco used this past offseason to heal up and get in even better shape. As you can see in the picture above, Polanco was massive. He used this last offseason to trim down by losing body fat but also aimed to keep his muscle. The goal was to keep his body loose to decrease his chances of pulling a muscle during the season.
And he did just that, as you can see in from the picture above that was posted to Polanco’s Instagram in December.
A big change with Polanco has been his swing. Alex Stumpf wrote about the changes in his swing for The Point of Pittsburgh and pointed out that the placement of his hands is much higher this year. Bill Brink also wrote about Polanco’s swing is too long, and Jeff Branson working with Polanco on fixing his issues.
Along with the change in his swing has come a change in his launch angle. Launch angle has been a pretty hot topic around baseball over the last year, and I wrote about how I thought it would help Josh Harrison hit a career-high 16 HR last year. Despite having weak exit velocity, Josh Harrison still had a power surge.
Last year was obviously a down year for Polanco. He was hurt as often as he was healthy, and his numbers reflected that. His exit velocity last year was 86.5 mph, better than Harrison’s, but still below Polanco’s career average. Even though power numbers were up across the league last year, thanks to juiced balls, Polanco hit only 11 HR.
However, Polanco’s exit velocity is back around his career average of 88.6 mph. Gregory Polanco has an average exit velocity of 89.3 mph this year, which puts him in the top half of the league. Hitting the ball harder and in the air more will result in, you guessed it, more home runs.
To start the season, Polanco had 5 HR in his first 11 games (42 AB). Then he finished the rest of April hitting just 1 HR while also hitting .153/.254/.237. However, nothing changed in his underlying batted ball metrics. During his slump, he was still hitting the ball around 89 mph and was still hitting the ball in the air with a 19.4° launch angle. His ‘slump’ can be explained away by a simple cause: variance.
But it can also be explained away by another cause: the cold.
It’s no secret that the Pirates attendance this year has been lacking. Attendance is down across the entire league, though, and a big reason for that has been the awfully cold weather. It was very cold during April which likely was the main cause for poor attendance. But cold weather also has another impact: balls not traveling as far.
Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois, has found that an increase of 1° fahrenheit results in a baseball traveling 0.33 more feet. So, if Polanco had hit a ball 340 feet in 35° weather, you could expect that ball to travel about 352 feet in 70° degree weather. What may seem like a small difference is actually quite significant. Dr. Nathan found that for every 1°, the odds of hitting a HR changed by 1%.
The cause for Polanco’s brief slump can likely be explained away by both these issues. However, with the weather warming up, Polanco should be able to get more carry on the ball, resulting in even more power than he’s already shown. A 25 HR season doesn’t seem unlikely, and a 30 HR season could even be within reach.
Health has been an issue for Polanco in the past. He’s been healthy so far this year, but there’s always a concern that his hamstring or knee might give out. However, the issue that Alex Stumpf found in Polanco’s swing might result in an even bigger injury risk.
Polanco remains hitless on inside pitches.
This hole in his swing could be an exploit that pitchers try to attack. Polanco might struggle against pitchers that are able to locate well, but a lot of pitchers won’t be able to locate perfectly enough. When you throw inside and miss, you’ll end up throwing a pitch down the middle that Polanco can crush, or too far inside and end up hitting Polanco.
If pitchers do start to attack Polanco inside, he has a high risk of getting hit by a pitch. Getting hit by a pitch means you run the risk of getting hurt. Getting hurt means you run the risk of derailing yet another season. Hopefully Polanco is athletic enough to avoid getting hit because at this point it seems obvious that pitchers are going to start throwing inside more often. He’s going to need to avoid getting hit by a pitch, because the last thing he needs is to have a season derailed by injury, again.
This year could be the year Polanco puts it all together. Yes, he has been fairly inconsistent so far this year. But now that the cold weather is gone, Polanco might be ready to breakout in his age 26 season. As long as his launch angle remains around 20°, I expect him to be a volatile asset for the Pirates. If he does struggle, though, it looks like an outfield of Marte, Dickerson, and Meadows could be a strong outfield for 2019.