Scary Thought for NL Pitchers—Gregory Polanco is Just 25 Years Old and Still Improving

It’s the annual time of the year when MLB beat writers draft articles claiming “player X is in the best shape of their career!” Well, no quotes are needed here after the picture below surfaced on Twitter last weekend of a ripped Gregory Polanco.

If Polanco is not only in the “best shape of his life,” he appears to be filling out and bulking up in preparation for his fourth Major League season at the young age of just 25 years old. There’s been plenty of chatter about Polanco’s production tailing off in the second half of the 2016 season, and it’s true that El Coffee hit just .206/.249/.386 in August and September. But should we be concerned that he tailed off toward the end of his breakout season in the Majors? I actually think it’s reason to be encouraged that the best is yet to come.

So what kind of season can we expect from Polanco in 2017? The big news this offseason is that Polanco will be moving to left field as the Pirates adjust their outfield to get Starling Marte in center. We’ve talked plenty about that already, but I want to focus solely on his bat here. First, let’s take a look at his year-by-year progression. Last spring, what I wanted to see from Polanco was a positive step forward and he didn’t disappoint.

As you can see from the graphic via FanGraphs, Polanco’s average and OBP increased slightly each year, but it’s his slugging percentage that really took off over the past year going from .381 to .463. Obviously, his OPS accordingly increased each season of his career too—.650 to .701 to .786. Judging from these numbers and pictures where he looks to be bulking up, why wouldn’t you think Polanco’s game can take another step forward at age 25?

His age is another indication for me that I think a lot of fans and media gloss over too often. Polanco put together a season of 34 doubles, 22 home runs, 17 steals at the age of 24. That kind of season doesn’t happen all the time from that young of a player. Consider the last seven players in the National League to put up at least those numbers at the age of 24 or younger before Polanco—Justin Upton, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, Andruw Jones and Barry Bonds. That’s a superstar class that Polanco is in.

Player HR 2B SB Year
Gregory Polanco 22 34 17 2016 24 PIT 144 587 527 79 136 4 86 53 119 0 .258 .323 .463 .786
Justin Upton 31 39 21 2011 23 ARI 159 674 592 105 171 5 88 59 126 19 .289 .369 .529 .898
Andrew McCutchen 23 34 23 2011 24 PIT 158 678 572 87 148 5 89 89 126 9 .259 .364 .456 .820
Carlos Gonzalez 34 34 26 2010 24 COL 145 636 587 111 197 9 117 40 135 2 .336 .376 .598 .974
Hanley Ramirez 33 34 35 2008 24 FLA 153 693 589 125 177 4 67 92 122 8 .301 .400 .540 .940
David Wright 30 42 34 2007 24 NYM 160 711 604 113 196 1 107 94 115 6 .325 .416 .546 .963
Hanley Ramirez 29 48 51 2007 23 FLA 154 706 639 125 212 6 81 52 95 7 .332 .386 .562 .948
David Wright 26 40 20 2006 23 NYM 154 661 582 96 181 5 116 66 113 5 .311 .381 .531 .912
David Wright 27 42 17 2005 22 NYM 160 657 575 99 176 1 102 72 113 7 .306 .388 .523 .912
Andruw Jones 36 36 21 2000 23 ATL 161 729 656 122 199 6 104 59 100 9 .303 .366 .541 .907
Andruw Jones 26 35 24 1999 22 ATL 162 679 592 97 163 5 84 76 103 9 .275 .365 .483 .848
Barry Bonds 25 34 32 1987 22 PIT 150 611 551 99 144 9 59 54 88 3 .261 .329 .492 .821
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/22/2017.

Bonds and McCutchen both blew up after their 24-age season and really took off. Now, I don’t know if Polanco walks enough (9.0 BB%) to put up Cutch MVP type numbers, but expecting 30 HR and an .800 or higher OPS out of Polanco this season is not crazy talk. If you’ve noticed, Polanco had the lowest OPS of anyone on the list above but that gives me hope that there’s room for improvement overall. Also, this has to be taken into account as well…

Polanco doesn’t get enough credit for his eye at the plate, but his BB% did increase last year from 8.4% to 9.0% and then to have 21 at-bats taken away from you like Spaeder mentions above. It may not seem like much, but 21 strikeouts on pitches that were actually balls are significant.

Second, let’s take a look at Polanco’s decreased production in the second half last year.

On the morning of August 2 (ironically around the same time McCutchen turned it around), Polanco had a slash line of .287/.361/.506 and a wRC+ of 130. He was mashing through his first 92 games of the season. His last two months killed his overall line, plummeting his season average 30 points to .258 and his wRC+ trended downward to a career high of 108, but it should have been so much better.

I can’t tell you I know exactly what happened in his last two months where we all watched his production essentially disappear. He still hit six home runs in August, but then just one in September. Did he wear down with the dog days of summer? Did he lose concentration with the Pirates falling out of the wildcard race down the stretch? Did the league adjust to him? His K% stayed the same at 20% for both halves, so he didn’t just start swinging-and-missing more than normal. One significant change was his BABIP dropped from .328 in the first half of the season to a dismal .225 in his last two months, which was well below the league average of .302. You’d expect some regression from a .328 BABIP, but not more than 100 points so this played one part in his collapse.

I decided to break down his batted ball percentages for both parts of his season to find out what’s going on here. Was he just grounding out more in August/Sept? According to the numbers, no. His GB% actually decreased from 40% to 36% in August/Sept and his FB% improved from 34% to 42%. This debunks that theory, he was hitting more fly balls even while he struggled. That seems to suggest that since Polanco was hitting the ball in the air more, he was unlucky on the balls he put into play (.225 BABIP in August/Sept). Was his exit velocity down significantly as a result? First, his hard rate of contact percentage was basically the same all season at 35%. His soft contact increased four percent at the benefit of his medium contact.

So let’s take a look at his exit velocity below from and see where the difference is:

Polanco crushed offspeed pitching in July, but it leveled out for the rest of the year while his exit velocity off breaking balls barely decreased and fastballs tailed off a bit (93.5 to 90.2) in September. But even in August, a month where he hit .221, Polanco was hitting the ball with some speed off the bat and his .505 SLG reflected that. It wasn’t until September that the wheels completely fell off with a .191/.245/.266/.511 line, which included zero extra-base hits in his last 40 plate appearances to end the season. But his minimal decrease in exit velocity doesn’t tell the whole story to why his line was so awful in the final month.

The advanced numbers and exit velocity doesn’t show a massive drop off anywhere in the last two months. The fact that Polanco was hitting more balls in the air in August/Sept and only had a .225 BABIP tells me that he was a bit unlucky and the slight decrease in exit velocity seems to suggest he wore down in the final month. I’ll take his first 92 games and an .867 OPS as an example of what Polanco can be. It wouldn’t shock me to see a .270/.330/.480, .800+ OPS and 30 home run season from Polanco.

Considering his age, the company he joined with his 2016 season and his yearly progression, a stronger Polanco may be in line for another step forward and his best season yet in 2017.

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