If there is one Pirates player who deserves a break – and that’s a good break – it’s right fielder Gregory Polanco.
Now 29 years old, Polanco never has lived up the lofty expectations that he helped create when his career got off to a promising start and then the Pirates created by signing him to a fairly lucrative, yet team-friendly, contract that runs through this season, with club options for 2022-23.
A big reason for that was a series of untimely injuries that began in 2017 and continued through the 2019 season. After a decent rookie season in 2015 (the Pirates last playoff team), it looked as if Polanco was on his way in 2016, hitting 22 home runs with 86 RBI and an OPS of .786.
But he started out slowly in 2017 then, just after starting to heat up in July, Polanco went down with a hamstring injury. After bouncing back in 2018 with 23 HRs and 81 RBI he dislocated a shoulder on an awkward slide which shut down his season in September. That injury lingered throughout 2019 which turned out to be a wasted season.
Finally, last spring, Polanco was healthy and one of the camp’s best players. “During 1.0 I thought he looked great,” manager Derek Shelton agrees. Polanco was hitting, including against lefthanded pitching, ran the bases well and even learned to slide properly.
But then came mid-March and the shutdown which affected Polanco as much as anyone on the team. “He battled through some things,” Shelton remembers, “started the season on the Covid-IL which set him back and then he never consistently got going.”
Even though Polanco was physically okay, he batted just .150 after the restart. “It was tough, it was short,” Polanco says. “I was in a slump and at the end of the season I started feeling better but we didn’t have enough time.”
By the time the short season had ended, not only did Polanco have one of the worst batting averages in the 139-year history of the franchise, he also struck out 65 times in 50 games. So, Polanco set about to change that. He says he’s not looking to really change his swing so much but is looking for more consistent contact. “I’m working on leaving my head in the zone longer,” he explains, “and not try to do too much with the ball right now.”
Shelton agrees that makes a lot of sense. “If you’re in the zone longer there’s just more surface level for contact and that’s the goal,” adding that Polanco’s natural power should take care of itself.
Polanco is also familiar with new assistant hitting coach Christian Marrero; in fact, they already worked together this off-season in Miami, but not until after Polanco had survived another injury scare.
Word came out of the Dominican that he had suffered a broken wrist during a December Winter League game, but Polanco says something was lost in the translation. “The manager made a mistake with the report; it was just a flare up of a small bone,” explains Polanco who says he kept on playing with little or no limitations.
Pirates Director of Sports Medicine Todd Tomczyk says Polanco has “no restrictions; he’s 100 percent ready to go.”
Polanco can only hope that the baseball gods will finally look out for him.
“It’s been tough last couple of years for my health but I’m here now and I’m healthy, 100 percent, and taking nothing for granted,” Polanco says. “I’ve been through some serious injuries and in this game you never know when it’s your last game.”
“This is what I love, I feel so happy right now,” Polanco smiles, “I’m able to go practice, swing, run and everything and not be in the training room, just able to do what everybody else is doing and enjoying the game.”