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Examining Gregory Polanco’s Struggles

David Slusser

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Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco got off to a blazing start early in the season, as Pirates fans had hoped he would be finally turning a corner and live up to his expectations.  However, the 26-year-old outfielder has sense cooled off.

Back in 2016, Gregory Polanco started the season by carrying a Pirates offense, but soon cooled off and his second half swoon helped contribute to a Pirates team entering September 2.5 games out of a wild card spot and sitting at 67-64 ending the year 8.5 games out behind the second wild card and a record of 78-83.

In the first half of that season, Polanco produced a wRC+ of 126, showing both power (.213 ISO) and ability to walk (11.0 percent).  In the second half, however, he plummeted to a wRC+ of 78, and a September of .191/.245/.266 and a 37 wRC+.

Since that first half, Polanco has struggled, and he failed to stay healthy in 2017.  But this year, Polanco started the year hot and has tapered off, though he provided a nice stretch in May for the Pirates.  Here’s his 15 game rolling wOBA  this year:

Polanco tweaked back up, but his valley’s this season have been low, and entering Thursday he’s hit .210/.314/.421 with a 98 wRC+.  He’s also seen himself drop in the batting order and be part of an outfield rotation system with the rookie Austin Meadows.

This has been the story of Polanco’s career, periods of hot and cold to the extremes, with the colds seemingly lasting longer, though that’s more anecdotal than anything, his overall numbers are just a 94 wRC+, and 2016 is his only season in which he finished above average (98 wRC+).

Part of the reason for these struggles is his surprising lack of power.  Since Polanco entered the league, the league non pitcher slugging percentage is .416 with an ISO of .159.  Polanco for his career has a .403 slugging and a .155 IS).

Given Polanco stands at 6’5″ and 235 pounds, it seems there should be power in there.  Given how PNC is left-handed hitter friendly, as Nate Werner showed it’s been the sixth easiest park for a lefty to homer in, the lack of power is surprising.

To split how Polanco does against when putting the ball in play to pull side and to the opposite field, I downloaded the data from Fangraphs splits leaderboard using players with 100 plate appearances hitting the pull side and to the opposite field in the 2002-17 seasons.  After splitting the two by left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters, I combined the pull side and opposite field side to create one table in which only player seasons with both 100 batted balls pull side and hit the opposite are in the set.

After computing the average, slugging, and isolated power individually through summing the events, I calculated the standard deviations of each of the metrics using the player pool (squaring the differences in the players metric minus the league number, summing those differences, dividing by the number of observations, and taking the square root).  Of the 1005 seasons of right-handed hitters and 681 seasons of left-handed hitters with 100+ plate appearances both to the pull side and opposite field, the following results occurred:

When pulling the ball, left-handed hitters have slugged .612 with a .277 ISO, showing power to their side, making sense intuitively.  The problem for Polanco is, he’s slugging .575 with a .261 ISO to his pull side.  Here’s his career breakdown using the data from Fangraphs:

Interestingly enough, his only two seasons in which he’s been above the average are 2014 (he played 89 games), 2016, and this season.  A limited season, his best season, and a season in which he’s hit eight home runs, five of which are pull side.

Looking at how many standard deviations Polanco has been away from the league mark using the information above, provides this table:

While Polanco is below the 2002-17 league mark in terms of average pull side, he’s about a full standard deviation pull side in ISO, showing he has provided power when pulling the ball this year.  However, for his career Polanco is below the mark in all three categories.  On the flip side, Polanco has been extremely bad this season going to the opposite field, being at the tail end in batting average and slugging percentage.  Outside of his one above average season in 2016, Polanco has been consistently bad when going the other way.

Part of the problem for why he’s been below average in terms of power and utilizing the short porch in PNC is the way he hits the ball.  Instead of getting under the ball and lofting it out, Polanco has consistently pulled the ball on the ground, with only one season under 50 percent, coming this year.

On the flip side, Polanco has hit nothing but fly balls the other way.  Given PNC’s carnivorous left field, it’s tough for a left-handed bat to go that way with any power by hitting fly balls.  Here’s his career rates on ground balls and fly balls pull side and the other way:

Polanco’s best season of 2016 is when he started to see his groundball rate pull side drop and he saw his pull rate increase to 49.2 percent and his other way rate drop to 22.7 percent.  This year, he’s pulling the ball 45.8 percent of the time and going the other way a career low 17.4 percent.

Given his inconsistencies and inability to live up to expectations so far, and his 8.8 percent walk rate being just marginally better than the 8.2 percent non pitcher rate since 2014, Polanco’s best interest might be to just split the field in half and embracing the Joey Gallo.

Gallo, for reference has a career 48.4 percent pull rate, and when he pulls the ball he has a 32.1 percent flyball rate.  While Polanco won’t have a .595 ISO pull side like Gallo, the approach could play.  After 2,192 plate appearances of inconsistent play, an all out pull the ball for homer approach would be more of the same.  The difference could be an increase in power, as overall Polanco’s average and on-base aren’t great to begin with.

Perhaps Polanco has already started that transition and that’s led to his inconsistencies this year, or perhaps Polanco is just doing what he’s always done – having high peaks that give hope just for long stretches of despair.  Maybe embracing the Gallo isn’t for him, but trying to get him to utilize the right field wall and get the power approach could increase Polanco’s overall value.

For now, Polanco has failed to live up to the expectations that came with being the number 10 prospect entering the season created.  Coupling his inconstancies have been the groundballs that he’s hit pull side despite the right field wall being 320 feet from home.  He’s shown the ability to carry an offense for extended periods of time, but has really failed to end the year as an average hitter.  Despite a swing and miss increasing, perhaps the best way to maximize his offensive ability in the future is to let him embrace the Gallo experience (note: this is not a sound strategy for every hitter, but for some it could play).  And maybe, just maybe, Polanco’s peaks will allow him to be an average to above average hitter at year’s end, as the team is once again lacking the long ball.

*Numbers from Fangraphs as of games before June 7th

Currently a student at Kent State University studying economics and computer information systems. Incorporating the game with video while using numbers in a traditional and analytical mix.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

Parsing GM speak, living with Gregory Polanco and more

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On the latest episode of Locked on Pirates, host Jason Rollison explains how to parse GM Speak, how to live with Gregory Polanco and wonders out loud if the Washington Nationals just opened the floodgates.

All that and more on the latest episode of Locked on Pirates, live for your listening pleasure:

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Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

Off Day Mailbag with 93.7 The Fan’s Josh Taylor

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On this episode of Locked on Pirates, host Jason Rollison brings in Josh Taylor of 93.7 The Fan to help answer your burning Pittsburgh Pirates questions and more.

The latest episode of Locked on Pirates is available for your listening pleasure. Each off day, we open up our mailbag to your various gripes, salient points and even more gripes (understandable) to help us get through the off day.

Josh is always a great guest, and together we talk Jung Ho Kang, Gregory Polanco and so much more. It’s an engaging bout of Pirates talk without the BS. We hope you enjoy, and if you do please consider subscribing at the links below!

NOTE: Had some audio issues a the beginning which level out at around the 1:00 minute mark. 

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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MiLB

The Locked on Interview – Adam McInturff from 2080 Baseball

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In the return of Locked on Pirates and the Locked on Pirates interview, Alex Stumpf talks the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates draft with 2080 Baseball’s Adam McInturff. Together the duo go through the 2018 Pirates draft and talk about some of the lesser-known prospects for the West Virginia Power.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Beginning with Opening Day, Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the buttons below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

 

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