The Pittsburgh Pirates have already forgotten last season and their offseason. Despite trading away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen to prepare for a rebuild, the Pirates remain the only team in the majors that could go 162-0. And despite having one of his worst seasons in 2017, outfielder Gregory Polanco has already shown a few signs that he might have his best season in 2018.
Gregory Polanco, through four games, has played fantastically. He has produced a 0.5 WAR in the first four games, tied for fifth among all position players in the majors. He needed 162 games to produce a 0.5 WAR last season. All his value has come from his production at the plate. He has recorded a .385/.579/.846 slash line with a .564 wOBA and a 253 wRC+. If he kept on producing at the same level for the entire season, even Mike Trout would look somewhat human. But since these numbers come from only four games and 20 plate appearances, and his .500 BABIP immensely boosts his numbers, they are about as predictive as the first five pages in a thousand page story. But, in all of this noise, Polanco has actually made solid contact, meaning his early season success has a higher chance of sustaining itself, even after some regression to the mean.
Last season's slump
Gregory Polanco struggled to hit the ball hard last season. Here is his average exit velocity during each season, according to Statcast at Baseball Savant:
|Year||Average Exit Velocity (mph)|
Since MLB Statcast’s average exit velocity data is only available from 2015, and Polanco entered the majors in 2014, let’s also look at his hard-hit rate from FanGraphs:
|Year||Hard Hit Rate|
Polanco had a noticeable dip in power last season. He had an average exit velocity that matched Jedd Gyorko, Bradley Zimmer, Ozzie Albies, Chase Utley, and Adam Eaton. Polanco looks out of place on that list. Zimmer, Albies, and Eaton are outright speedsters who ranked in the top 30 in sprint speed across all of MLB last season. Utley is well past his prime and only has value because he walks a lot. For his hard-hit rate, he compares closely to Ezequiel Carrera, Dustin Pedroia, Joe Panik, and Jacoby Ellsbury. That list includes a career journeyman, another old second baseman who walks and provides more value defensively, a younger second baseman who also provides more value defensively, and another old guy who, as RealSport's own Josh Benjamin pointed out, is now completely useless. Polanco, now 26, belongs on a list with other potent outfield power bats because he provides more value there and does not belong with the sprinters, glove masters, and veterans.
This season's rebound
But during this young season, Polanco has turned it around. In his first 20 plate appearances, he has average exit velocity of 92.3 miles per hour and a hard hit rate of 33.3%. If the season ended today, those numbers would be his career best and second best. Those numbers might have only come from 20 plate appearances, but players cannot fake hitting the ball hard. And even though he has played against the rebuilding Detroit Tigers in three of the four games, he has hit some legitimate MLB talent. His home run came off Alex Wilson, who has pitched at a decent level for several years. Polanco did not just poke it over the fence; he smashed it with a 110.8 mph exit velocity over the right-center field wall. He also recorded a double off of Michael Fulmer, who probably will not pitch for the Tigers at the end of the season if he pitches well, and he recorded an exit velocity of 112.9 mph with that contact.
Polanco has started hitting the ball hard again, and he might be hitting it the hardest he has ever. He might have gotten exceptionally lucky that he hit four balls in play with an exit velocity above 90 mph. But hitting a baseball hard is difficult and if Gregory Polanco keeps hitting as hard as he has in his first four games, he could have his best season yet.