Gregory Polanco's new home in left field presents a challenge
April 2, 2017 12:00 AM
To compensate for deeper, more spacious left field, Gregory Polanco will position himself more toward left-center per a tip from a man who should know — Starling Marte.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For the past three years, Gregory Polanco’s office was in front of the 21-foot Clemente Wall in right field at PNC Park. On the first day of his new job as Pirates left fielder, Polanco, if healthy, will play with Fenway Park’s 37-foot Green Monster at his back.
As a kid, Polanco’s favorite baseball player was the Boston Red Sox’s Manny Ramirez — like him, a left fielder from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Polanco idolized Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz too. He’s been looking forward to playing at Fenway Park for a long, long time.
“It’s going to be something I’ll never forget,” Polanco said recently.
When the Pirates shuffled their outfield alignment this offseason, attention centered on Starling Marte, a two-time defending Gold Glove left fielder, taking over in center field and bumping Andrew McCutchen, once a Gold Glove center fielder, to right. The player perhaps most affected by the move, and most overlooked in the aftermath, was Polanco.
What’s the biggest challenge about being the Pirates’ everyday left fielder?
Seated at his locker at LECOM Park, Polanco grinned at the question. He pointed his left thumb back behind him, over his left shoulder, and said, “Going that way, to the 410. It’s far.”
The 410. The nook. The notch.
In left field at PNC Park, the 6-foot wall isn’t an issue, especially for the 6-foot-5 Polanco. The problem is the deepest part of the park is right up the left-center alley, where the deepest left field in the majors extends 410 feet from home plate before cutting in to meet the bullpen fence.
This offseason, Marte advised Polanco to play back and toward the gap.
“It’s not easy,” Marte told Polanco, “but it’s better.”
Polanco was an above-average defender in right field, according to most metrics, but he’s good for an epic hiccup here and there. His Defensive Runs Saved last season was 2, down from 12 in 2015, and he contributed 10 outfield assists. All six errors he committed were fielding errors. His arm will be asset in left field, where he has started 27 games in the past two years.
A left-hander, Polanco plans to play toward the gap, per Marte’s advice, and make more room to the glove side, toward the line. He prefers going to his right, and he’s more comfortable going forward to field a ball than going back toward the wall, but direction isn’t his primary concern.
“It doesn’t matter as much as the jump,” he said. “If you get a good jump, no matter where you’re going, no matter which side, you’re going to have a chance. But if you …”
He used a head fake to show hesitation.
“… that’s a problem.”
Polanco’s first spring as left fielder was interrupted twice, first by the World Baseball Classic and then by a shoulder injury. He played some left field for the Dominican Republic, but it was his bat drawing rave reviews. In five games, he was 11 for 19 with two doubles and a homer.
Polanco took swing tips from veterans Robinson Cano and Jose Bautista. Seeing his struggles with the inside fastball, they set up a screen down the center of home plate and forced him to shorten his swing. With his long arms, it’s easy for Polanco to extend and smack the ball middle-away. Pitches on the inner half, particularly down and in, are harder to get around on.
Last season, Polanco had an .862 OPS in the first half, and an .682 OPS in the second half. He surged out of the gates, and pitchers punched back. He saw fewer and fewer fastballs, and his on-base percentage plummeted. Polanco’s stolen base total fell from 27 in 2015 to 17 last season. He said he tired down the stretch, and he designed his winter training to avoid a repeat.
Polanco would like to bat cleanup, providing protection behind Andrew McCutchen in the middle of the Pirates lineup. If his bat stays hot, even if left field proves perilous, he’ll fit there just fine.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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