Every Tuesday, Baseball America will take a look at a prospect who is either just arriving to the majors or on the cusp of the majors to give a look at what can be expected from them both as a player and for fantasy purposes.
When Hanson, a shortstop, was putting together a breakout season in low Class A West Virginia in 2012, Polanco was stringing together hit-after-hit himself. But at the end of April, Polanco’s .838 OPS didn’t come close to matching Hanson’s 1.137 OPS. Hanson outhit Polanco again in May and June. The pair were two of the biggest breakouts in the South Atlantic League that summer, but for much of the year, Hanson looked like Polanco’s equal as a prospect.
Hanson is still a very solid prospect in his own right, but Polanco has grown into one of the best prospects in the game. He shows flashes of his power by putting on shows in batting practice and occasionally hitting a monster home run. He’s presently showing his speed and hitting ability. He had 40 steals in 2012 and 37 in 2013. The No. 10 prospect on the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list coming into the season, he should be joining the Pittsburgh outfield before long.
There simply aren’t many hitters in the game who can hit a towering home run and turn in a sub-4.0-second time to first on an infield grounder in the same game. Polanco can do both of those things. The power doesn’t seem all that surprising when you consider his size and strength, but his speed continues to catch teams by surprise.
But it might be that neither of those attributes are Polanco’s best. With long arms, a feel for controlling the bat head and an excellent understanding of what pitchers are trying to do, Polanco likes to grind out at-bats. He generally takes the first pitch and has no problem getting behind in the count if a pitcher is painting the corners, because he’s confident that he can spoil pitches until he finds something to hit.
This season, Polanco has seen 170 pitches coming into Tuesday night’s game. He’s swung and missed only six times (3.5 percent of his swings). One of those swings came on a stolen base where he was trying to help protect the runner. With the caveat that the difference between Triple-A and the big leagues are significant and we’re only one-tenth of the way through this season, only four big league hitters posted similar or better swinging-strike percentages last season. All four (Marco Scutaro, Martin Prado, Denard Span and Norichika Aoki) are contact hitters with little power, unlike Polanco.
Polanco sorts through pitches until he finds something he likes. He’s averaging 3.6 pitches per plate appearance this year, and he’s taking strikes on 21.7 percent of all pitches he’s faced. Now part of that is his seemingly intentional decision to look at the first pitch (he’s swung at the first pitch four times in 48 plate appearances this season). But it also comes from his decision to let quality pitchers’ pitches go by even if they are strikes, unless he’s in a two-strike count.
A perusal of almost all of Polanco’s at-bats from the 2014 season shows how engaged he is in out-thinking the pitcher. On this double against Toledo righthander Jose Ortega, watch how Polanco, steps out and practices speeding up his hands to get them through quickly in preparation for an inside pitch. As soon as he steps back into the box, he gets what he was looking for and turns on a 94 mph inside fastball for a double.
With such long arms, Polanco has to prove repeatedly that he can get the bat head out quickly enough to turn on inside pitches. He has done so early this year. That’s bad news for pitchers, as they already know that when he can extend his arms on pitches outside or low in the zone, he can get to his power. When he does, it’s hard not to see a little bit of Darryl Strawberry’s swing in Polanco’s bat.
As you might expect for a batter hitting .465/511/.744, Polanco has had some good fortune early this season. Even when he gets on top of balls and makes weak contact, he’s getting some singles on balls that find holes. Three of his outs are on weak choppers/swinging bunts back to the pitcher. But Polanco already has three infield hits because of his speed, including a bunt single. His speed will give him extra hits that most power hitters won’t get.
Polanco is currently an all-fields hitter with power potential. He’s hit more balls to center field (9) than right field (6) and has shown he can line the ball the other way as well.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Polanco is a unique player. Six-foot-4 or taller hitters with on-base skills and power almost never come with speed. A Play Index search of integration-era lefthanded hitters, 6-foot-4 and taller who posted a career isolated power of .160 or better with a .360 on-base-percentage or better is a list of slow sluggers such as Adam Dunn, Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Kent Hrbek, Willie McCovey and John Olerud. No one on the list stole more than 150 bases in their career.
Dropping the on-base percentage to .350 brings in Darryl Strawberry, Jason Heyward , Cliff Floyd, Shawn Green and Josh Hamilton, all of whom come closer to the power-speed combination that Polanco brings. Those five are or were excellent players, but they do illustrate some of the risks that come with Polanco’s size. Heyward showed an excellent batter’s eye in his rookie season in 2010. But back injuries and struggles with his swing have kept him from producing similar batting average and on-base percentages since then, even as his power blossomed. Strawberry also produced average, on-base percentage and power early in his career before turning into a low-average slugger.
Polanco should be a very valuable fantasy addition as soon as he arrives, likely in May or June. Long term, he has a chance to be one of the better fantasy players in the game. His speed will likely start to slip away quickly because of his size, but it will be replaced by more power.