MIAMI – I wondered in this space earlier this month if Gregory Polanco could be Yasiel Puig.
No, he’s not going to be a demonstrative, serial bat-flipper like Puig, but could Polanco be the rare type of impact rookie that helps turn around a season? Impact rookies are unusual but after observing Polanco’s first week we might just be witnessing the rare type of player who is above average – and maybe great – from his first days in the show. If you had any doubts, Polanco should have erased them. He’s special.
Polanco’s game-winning home run Friday was special. It was the highlight of week. The laser shot that landed over the 392 ft. marker in right-center at Marlins Park left his bat at 107.2 mph. He demonstrated his batspeed and power with the swing. He also displayed his speed as the long-strider somehow had rounded first before the ball touched down. (He also had three infield singles in his first week).
I’m a numbers guy. I appreciated objective data as much as the next nerd. But with small sample sizes I always feel it is important to trust subjective notions over raw data, though 12 hits in his first six games isn’t bad.
For example, as impressive as Polanco’s home run was perhaps more so was his approach on Friday.
Marlins lefty Mike Dunn, in showing an ultimate sign of respect to a rookie, came at Polanco with six straight sliders in the 13th inning. Polanco took a couple sliders out of the zone for balls, he fouled away a couple sharp breaking balls. He worked a 2-2 count when the sixth straight slider hung over the plate … the rest is a cool moment in Pirates’ history.
The home run was a loud byproduct of a great approach. Consider the approach from a 22-year-old in his fourth major league game: he didn’t try to do too much, he didn’t try to jump and ambush a fastball. He wasn’t guessing, trying to predict when Dunn would throw a fastball. Said Polanco: “I just kept fighting and fighting.”
He let the natural batspeed and leverage takeover when Dunn made a mistake. Polanco was actually looking opposite field, he said.
There’s also this: Polanco covered everything from an 88 mph slider in the 13th inning, and an 86 mph slider from Nathan Eovaldi in the fifth – also ripping it to right for a single – to a 98 mph Eovaldi fastball that Polanco laced into left field for a single in the first inning Friday. Polanco demonstrated he can barrel up a variety of pitches and velocity. He demonstrated he will stay within himself even in key moments.
Then there’s the loud tools. We saw the power on Friday – he also launched a batting practice shot into the second deck in right field. And on Sunday we saw the speed as he scored from first on a Starling Marte double to left and made routine infield groundballs must-see television. I understand now why Rene Gayo said Polanco is a like a Jim Thome … that can run. If he was raised in the states, he’d be an NFL wide receiver. Again, a truly unique talent. Basically he’s come as advertised.
Yeah, but about those outfield routes …
While Polanco arrived technically on Tuesday with the call-up he might have really arrived on Friday night – as a player who can impact the rest of the season.
STARTING NINE THOUGHTS …
9. Returning to .500 – at least for a day – has never felt so good for the Pirates. There was a different atmosphere in the clubhouse after the club reached the break-even point for the first time Saturday since April 17. There’s been a different energy with Polanco around. Polanco has offered both hype and hope.
Amazing how quickly the perception of a team can change and Polanco has a lot to do with that, adding an immediate impact while lengthening the lineup.
This week's power rankings: 1. Oakland 2. San Francisco 3. Milwaukee 4. Angels 5. Toronto 6. KC 7. Detroit 8. STL 9. LAD 10. PIT. Fire away.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) June 15, 2014
9a. It is the offensive surge that has allowed the Pirate to climb out of an eight-games-below .500 hole since May 1, going 24-17 with the NL’s best OBP in that span (.351) and second best batting average (.279).
The offensive surge is surprising in the context that it was pitching and defense that carried the club to their first winning season in two decades last year. But the Pirates’ pitching staff entered Saturday last in baseball in Wins Above Replacement. The Pirates’ defensive efficiency — the number of batted balls converted to outs — has fallen from an elite level last season to 25th in the game.
Now can the Pirates get that pitching and defense back?
8. Perhaps somewhat lost in Polanco-palooza is that Andrew McCutchen is looking like a back-to-back MVP contender. He’s been incredible this month. In June, he’s leading baseball in extra-base hits and total bases. The three-run bomb on Saturday? Man, those are lightning quick hands glued to a quick-twitch core. Special. The running catch? Just stop it.
7. That’s an MLB-worst 13 blown saves by the bullpen and an MLB-worst 15 errors by Pedro Alvarez. Both issues have become chronic.
6. Dream outfield, indeed. (And it’s under club control through 2018. Very special situation).
5. Really encouraging news regarding Gerrit Cole. He’s passed the stress tests, he’s thrown a partial and full bullpen without issue. If he completes a sim game on Wednesday he could be back in the rotation for the next road trip. That means Vance Worley, Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke could be fighting for two rotation spots until Francisco Liriano returns.
4. Speaking of Russell Martin what is a contract extension going to take?
If you average out the Brian McCann/Carlos Ruiz/Yadier Molina deals you get an AAV of 13.6 million. Martin will want multiple years. The Pirates won’t go beyond three. So 3y/$39 million? I think that might get it done. And I think the Pirates really need to keep Martin.
3. Josh Harrison was back in the lineup Saturday and made a play to the left of second while shifting a right-handed hitter. Can he consistently make plays on the left side of the infield?
2. Two straight quality starts from Charlie Morton who had a 9-to-2 groundball-to-flyball ratio on Saturday. That’s more like electric stuff.
1. Let’s talk about Vanimal.
Couple things about Vance Worley. He got the nickname “Vanimal” from his college strength as a testament to his unusual work ethic. He wears the athletic glasses because he’s unable to wear contact lenses. And he absolutely shredded both sides of the plate in throwing seven shutout innings on Sunday.
Earlier last week I raised concerns about the Pirates’ pitching depth but Locke and Worley offered encouraging signs in Miami.
Worley now has a 48-to-4 strike-to-walk ratio in 53 profession innings. More magic from Jim Benedict? Keep in mind Worley is only 26 and was 17-12 with a 3.60 ERA for the Phillies from 2011-12.
STAT OF THE WEEK: .990
McCutchen’s OPS after Saturday’s game, which would be a career best — and a third straight season of .900+ OPS. Don’t take this for granted, Pittsburgh
STAT OF THE WEEK II: 1,002
Career games caught by Martin. I still think there is gas in the tank.
HE SAID IT
“It was my best game ever.”
– Polanco on his 5-for-7 night with a game-winning home run. You know what? He’s probably not kidding. He could play 20 years and not have another game like that.
HE SAID IT II:
“That could be a coming out party for him”
Hurdle on Polanco’s Friday. Indeed.
NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK
If you’re ever in Fort Lauderdale, Coconuts has a great New England Lobster Boil and it’s right on the inter-coastal. If in Miami, the state park on Key Biscayne, just south of downtown, is worth the trip and $4 admission.