Gregory Polanco has been one of the most talked-about Pirates prospects in recent years. Baseball America rated him #51 and #10 respectively in 2013 and 2014 rankings. Moreover, prior to the 2015 season, Jayson Stark wrote an article for ESPN entertaining the idea that the Pirates may have the best outfield in baseball with Gregory Polanco, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.
When Polanco came up in June of 2014, the budding 22-year-old looked like the future McCutchen. With a home run in his first at-bat and a strong slash line in his first month (.288/.374/.375), Polanco looked like the real deal. After a few weeks of success, his game leveled out. Most writers attributed his downfall in the latter half of the 2014 season to the fact that he had played 127 games in 2013, then went to Winter Ball, and followed that up with 158 games in 2014. And there may be some truth to that.
Fully rested, Polanco came into the 2015 season with high expectations. To this point, his fielding has been stellar: he is tied for 1st amongst all right fielders with Giancarlo Stanton in UZR at 3.6 and is in sole possession of 1st in DEF at 2.0.
He is definitely holding up on his defensive abilities, but to this point, his offense has been underwhelming. His OPS has dropped from .650 in 2014 to an abysmal .626 in 2015. Thus far, he has only hit one home run on the season and driven in just 12 runs. The gleam of light in his offensive game has been his work on the base paths. Stealing 40 bags in A-ball in 2012 and then a combined 38 from A+, AA, and AAA in 2013, Polanco was projected to be a speedster, but his decline from there seemed alarming. He stole only 14 bases in 19 attempts in 2014 for the Pirates, but is already close to eclipsing that mark. Polanco is 12 for 14 in steal attempts this year, and in most cases is doing so based on good reads and strong jumps rather than on speed alone.
Most casual fans appreciate the defense and see the potential as a real threat on the base paths, and simply hope that he shows more pop as he matures at the plate. But there are also other warning signs with Polanco. He was to work on his plate discipline this year, but his walk rate has actually lowered from 9.6% to 8.9% and his strikeout rate has risen from 18.9% to an unsightly 22.6%. Especially if he will not produce power numbers, these numbers are trending in the wrong direction.
I started thinking back to other Pirates who were young and showed promise only to become mediocre players, and then I found this.
Each through 131 Career Games:
Player A: .286/ .341/ .386 – 26 doubles; 7 home runs; 41 RBIs; 44 walks; 28 stolen bases
Player B: .235/ .306/ .336 – 19 doubles; 8 home runs; 45 RBIs; 45 walks; 26 stolen bases
Player B is obviously Gregory Polanco, and player A is Jose Tabata.
In no way am I saying that Polanco will fall in the footsteps of the powerless Tabata, but the numbers are eerily similar. With Tabata, writers and fans alike hoped for the same changes: better discipline at the plate, the stolen bases to continue to rise, and the power to follow.
The big difference between Polanco and Tabata is that Polanco is an elite fielder today. Through advanced metrics, it is easier to quantify the impact of guys like Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon, and perhaps that will be the same fate of Polanco. Since 2010, Heyward is ranked 19th and Gordon is ranked 13th in cumulative WAR according to FanGraphs. Defensive impact should not be overlooked.
Polanco is still young, and he has tremendous upside. Even if the power stroke never emerges, he can still be a great player. As the 2015 Pirates season continues, Polanco needs his strikeout rate to drop, his on-base percentage to rise, and to run on a more frequent basis.