By Tyler Kepner
June 26, 2014
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The latest Pittsburgh Pirates phenom is 6 feet 4 inches, strong but rangy, with a left arm that could throw baseballs 87 miles an hour at age 17. He looks more like a pitcher than a speedy outfielder with power and uncanny plate discipline, which is what he is and what Rene Gayo thought he could be.
He is Gregory Polanco, and he was pitching when Gayo first saw him in the Dominican Republic in 2009. Polanco had pitched for only a year, he said, and he did not especially care for it. Most teams were underwhelmed; his largest bonus offer was $70,000 when Gayo, the Pirates’ director of Latin American scouting, offered $150,000 — if Polanco would sign as a hitter.
Gayo got his answer when Polanco hugged him. When some of his own scouts mocked him for the decision, Gayo said, he fired them all.
I’ve made a career out of doing what I thought was right when everybody else was saying something else,” said Gayo, who has scouted for 25 years. “It’s worked out pretty good.”
Polanco burst into the majors this month by reaching base in his first 14 games, quickly establishing himself as the Pirates’ leadoff hitter and right fielder, part of a dynamic outfield with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen. Polanco, 22, raised his average to .338 on Thursday by going 2 for 3 with a walk and a three-run homer in the opener of a four-game series against the Mets, a 5-2 Pirates victory in Pittsburgh.
“If you ask him, he knows he can be better than what he’s doing now,” McCutchen said before the game. “If you ask anybody else, he’s doing plenty. But not in his eyes.”
Polanco led off Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays by taking five pitches in a row, drawing a walk. He stole second, took third on an overthrow and scored on a groundout by McCutchen. The Pirates won by a run.
The Pirates have won 10 of 16 games since Polanco’s promotion on June 10, climbing above .500 after a dismal start. Manager Clint Hurdle said the revival had not been all about Polanco — the pitching has improved, too — but his energy has been infectious for the veterans.
“It kind of hits them with a reignite button,” Hurdle said.
The Pirates won a wild-card playoff spot last year after decades of losing, and as they elbow into another race, Polanco’s readiness raises a fascinating question. If the Pirates had promoted him earlier, and risked making him eligible for salary arbitration sooner, would their record be better than it is? Or does his immediate success validate the Pirates’ belief that Polanco, who started last season in Class A, needed more seasoning to be ready?
“I’m glad that we’re asking questions that way as opposed to ‘man, he’s really struggling; you moved too quickly,’ ” said Frank Coonelly, the Pirates’ president. “I’d much rather err on the side of ‘maybe we could have been a little quicker’ if it means that he’s locked in when he gets up here and he’s feeling comfortable.”
This much seems clear: Polanco is in the big leagues to stay. He hit .347 with seven homers and 15 steals in Class AAA this season, after hitting .285 with 12 homers and 38 steals at three levels in 2013.
His breakout came the year before, when the Pirates assigned him to their low-Class A affiliate in Charleston, W.Va., with little fanfare. Polanco had hit .218 in two seasons in the Gulf Coast League, but his West Virginia manager, Rick Sofield, saw something.
Sofield, now the Pirates’ first-base coach, said Polanco had a body out of the movie “Avatar” and deceptive speed for someone his size. Players with long, loping strides rarely have the burst that Polanco does. Fewer still, Sofield said, have the athleticism and baseball intellect to apply mechanical adjustments at the plate.
“A lot of guys will try it but not trust it,” Sofield said. “Polanco has the ability to filter through what it means and put it into play. He just grabbed all the information and ran with it and wound up as the best player in that league.”
Gayo had known about the maturity. Polanco came from a structured home, he said, with parents in law enforcement. Gayo also knew about the body control and the quick, compact swing. The raw speed is a bit of a surprise — “It’s insane; it’s like Jim Thome running like Kenny Lofton,” Gayo said — but Polanco’s patience at the plate is not.
He rarely swings at pitches outside the strike zone, averaging 4.03 pitches per plate appearance through Tuesday. (The major league average is 3.84.) Some organizations, like the Mets, work hard to drill a more disciplined hitting philosophy into their hitters’ mind-sets. With Polanco, it came naturally.
“We have guys nowadays who are what I call manufactured pitch-takers,” Gayo said. “This guy’s in hit mode until the last second, and then it might be — ‘No.’ He sees a lot of pitches but not because he’s trying to do that. It’s who he is. He’s just got a great baseball I.Q.”
Polanco said that he had always been able to recognize pitches well and that the approach had helped so far. He had never seen a major league game until he played in one and was moved by the fans’ enthusiasm for him at PNC Park.
“I feel very happy, how they see me there,” he said. “That’s something that makes me proud.”
For Pirates fans, the midseason promotion of an impact player has become an annual event: Marte in 2012, starter Gerrit Cole last June and now Polanco. They wanted to see him sooner, but now that he is here, they should have him for a long time.
Polanco will be in right field, where he belongs.
“Michelangelo, when he looked at the Sistine Chapel, must have thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do better than this,’ ” Gayo said. “That’s kind of how I see him — I don’t know if I can do better than that.”