Friday Focus: The Curious Case of Gregory Polanco
Gary Morgan Jr.
When you think of Gregory Polanco, or El Coffee as many refer to him, it feels like he has been part of the Pittsburgh Pirates plans forever. However, Gregory is only 28 years of age and, more importantly, has only been in the major leagues since 2014. That’s six seasons on the Pirates roster, five if you take away an invisible, injury riddled 2019.
To really understand Polanco, you must go back to where he started, the Dominican Republic. In 2009 the lanky lefty was pitching in Dominican showcases and, because there weren’t enough players to field an entire squad, he was asked to rotate into the outfield.
Did you catch the year? 2009. That’s how long Gregory Polanco has been playing the outfield in an organized baseball environment. Being blunt, he’s looked like he was learning how to play the position from the first time he was called up to the Pirates in June 2014. Offensively he came up like a rocket after his callup setting the Pirates record with an 8-game hitting streak that covered his first hit, home run, stolen base, RBI, run scored and extra base hits. But the story of his journey to the Pirates would lead you to believe a start like this was never possible.
Gregory struggled to get his footing at almost every level before finally catching his stride in 2012 for West Virginia where he played 116 games with 485 plate appearances. He batted .325 that season with 16 home runs and 40 stolen bases, earning the mantle of South Atlantic League player of the year. The next season he was promoted to Bradenton and again played well in 57 games before moving up to Altoona.
2014 saw Polanco split time with Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, where, despite his start, Gregory struggled to find his way both offensively and defensively. Ideally here I’d start writing about the upward trajectory that El Coffee started to take and tell you what his top of the mountain looks like, but I can’t. I simply can’t pretend that he hasn’t disappointed. I can’t offer you a vision in which he becomes a 4 or 5 tool player who dominates the league for years to come.
What I can do is speak to the potential that once was and has flashed more than a few times in his career. The best examples of the good Gregory can offer came in 2016 and 2018 where he played 144, and 130 games respectively while producing 22 and 23 home runs. The end of 2018 saw Gregory take an awkward slide into second base resulting in shoulder surgery and ultimately destroying any chance he had of being productive in last year’s campaign.
On the other hand, 2018 might very well be the biggest cause for optimism, because somewhere in that season Polanco made a significant change. It was small and, to the off-center view most enjoy at home on TV, indistinguishable from any other at-bat he had taken for the Pirates. He moved in toward the plate about half a step. Pitchers, both righty and lefty had discovered a hole in his swing. Gregory could not cover any part of the outside of the plate, especially if the pitch was down and away. This tweak paid dividends big time, both in power and contact. Even during his injury shortened and admittedly not fully healed 2019 this approach paid off with six homeruns in 153 at bats.
When you’re that tall, and Polanco clocks in at 6’5”, there are a whole lot of moving parts and that means there is a whole lot more that can go wrong with your swing. So, making a change, finding it works and ultimately sticking with it to find a level of consistency is huge both for Gregory and the Pirates.
He is signed through the 2021 season with two club options for ’22 and ’23, its almost an identical deal to the one Marte signed but started a year later. Dismissing Polanco as a bust or career underachiever belies his age and raw talent that he is just starting to harness. If he comes back healthy for 2020, I fully expect him to contribute 20-25 homeruns to the cause.
Now ask yourself, If the Pirates signed an outfielder who has already hit 20+ homeruns a couple times, is 28 years old, left handed and has a ceiling we haven’t seen yet, named anything but Gregory Polanco, would you be excited? Would you want that player in the lineup hitting behind Josh Bell?
This one player can either help solve or create more problems than anyone in the lineup. Because, if he is healthy, the Pirates could go from an above average offense to a top ten offense. That is the importance of Mr. Polanco, and that is what’s riding on his surgically repaired shoulder.
If, by some chance, the Bucs don’t move Marte, an outfield with Reynolds and Polanco could absolutely set the pace in the National League, and Gregory would play no small role in doing so.
The Pirates really need to see improvement in their the power numbers this season, and I'd suggest the best recipe for that has plenty of El Coffee.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007