Thursday, July 17, 2014

Polanco and absurd expectations

Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

It's just not that easy. Gregory Polanco is learning as much. The rest of us should have known better.

There was palpable discontent when Polanco, with all of nine Triple-A at-bats on his resume, did not travel north with the Pirates out of spring training. That turned to simmering hostility when they did not call him up May 1 and to full-blown rage when June hit with still no sight of the man.

The common refrain at the time: How many more games would the Pirates have won with Polanco in the lineup?

We rolled our eyes when general manager Neal Huntington tried to temper expectations upon Polanco's June 10 arrival.

“There were still some things we were hoping to get accomplished at Triple-A,” Huntington said.

OK, Neal. Sure there were.

Wait, were there?

I ask because even if it seems Polanco has established himself as an immediate star and the Pirates' version of last year's Yasiel Puig, the reality is that he is not close on either front. Not yet.

The inconvenient truth is that Polanco is a slumping rookie hitting .260 through 127 at-bats, showing scant power and posing little threat against lefties.

It looked for a bit as if Polanco would shred major league pitching like it was Triple-A. He found out fast that major leaguers make adjustments. Major leaguers throw knee-buckling, 3-1 breaking balls for strikes. Major league lefties have a way of crippling even the best left-handed hitters.

The Puig comparison always was insane. Do you know what Puig was doing after his first 127 big league at-bats, after skipping Triple-A altogether? Try a .409 batting average, .677 slugging percentage, 1.114 OPS and eight home runs.

It's not crazy to think Polanco could rebound quickly, rake from here on out and be named National League Rookie of the Year. He has flashed that kind of talent. At the moment, though, there are significant challenges.

Against left-handers, Polanco is hitting .133 with one extra-base hit (a game-winning home run) and 11 strikeouts in 30 at-bats. He has a good-but-not-great on-base percentage of .352, tied with Ike Davis for third on the team and not much beyond Jose Tabata territory of last season. His slugging percentage of .346 is ninth on the team and 36 points below what Travis Ishakawa provided when he was here.

In terms of OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentages) — perhaps the best measurement of a hitter — Polanco is seventh on the team and just a point above Gaby Sanchez at .698.

Since June 27, Polanco is batting .169 (10 for 59) with eight singles, a double and a home run.

None of which is a criticism of Polanco. These are the struggles one should expect with a 22-year-old who had all of 257 Triple-A at-bats and has yet to fill out.

It's more of a statement on the rest of us, and I'll put myself at the front of the line. It might also be a teachable moment, as Pirates manager Clint Hurdle likes to say.

So how about we take an El Coffee break and reassess the Polanco odyssey?

It is possible the Pirates would have recalled Polanco earlier had he signed their long-term contract offer. I'm not naive to that. But it's also likely they would have kept him in the minors for several more days, if not weeks, had Neil Walker not suffered an appendix attack.

Can you imagine the outrage had Polanco spent, say, three more weeks at Triple-A? PNC Park might have been burned to the ground.

Looking back, the lesson could be this: It's never a bad thing for a prospect to rack up at-bats in the upper minors (Double-A and Triple-A). Andrew McCutchen had 1,304 of them. Polanco had just 500.

It's also never a bad thing to temper expectations on prospects, no matter the sport. You only get so many Sidney Crosbys and Yasiel Puigs, guys who step up to the highest level of their sport and immediately start dominating.

The Pirates' mission now is figuring out how to utilize Polanco best in the second half. Does he still bat leadoff? Does he start against left-handed pitchers such as Colorado's Jorge De La Rosa (slated to start Friday), who kills lefties, or does Josh Harrison get those at-bats?

Experience is the best teaching tool. If you're going to learn to hit lefties, you have to play against them. But at what price? Do the Pirates prioritize Polanco's development over winning games? Or is it a reasonable bet that he'll figure it out faster than most? Thirty at-bats, after all, is a tiny sampling.

Everything we've seen from Polanco is a tiny sampling, and a tantalizing one at that. But it's best to remember that his development, like that of most others, will take time.

It's just not that easy.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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