I have a weird relationship with the movie Bruce Almighty. Bear with me, because I promise I’m actually going somewhere with this.
When I was younger I started a movie website. It had news, reviews…all the stuff you’d expect a movie website to have. It’s still running to this day. One day I posted a casting update for Bruce Almighty; Morgan Freeman had been cast as God. Seemed like a good/fun choice. A year or two later, the film came out, and it was surreal. Not the movie itself, but seeing on the screen something that I remembered posting news about so early in the process. It was the first film I can remember following from the start, and then seeing made into reality.
This never seemed to happen with Pirates. I remember reading about Chad Hermansen, Ron Wright (that epic minor league power hitter we got in the Denny Neagle deal), J.J. Davis, and John Van Benschoten. I remember thinking “wow, when these guys all come up, we’ll be good again!” And somehow it never happened. It was like watching epic trailers for movies that never got released.
That changed with Andrew McCutchen.
Andrew McCutchen is the first star I saw form. The first whose entire career arc was visible across the sky. The day he was drafted, the interviews, the scouts talking dreamily about him. All the stuff I’d heard before and learned to distrust. But then the minor league reports came rolling in. He was performing at all levels, rising steadily, sometimes performing better the next level up than he did before. He was charting a trajectory so steep it had no choice but to break the orbit of the bigs.
And then he’s there, in a Pirates uniform, and he’s good right away. But even that doesn’t break through the pessimistic defenses I’ve constructed. It takes until 2012, when he leaves the galaxy entirely and becomes one of the best players in baseball, and the flinch is gone completely in 2013 when the league formally recognizes him as such.
This has happened again since, though it’s still rare. I remember Gerrit Cole being drafted. I remember him rising through the minors. I was there for his first start, and I’ve seen him flip that switch and become one of the best in the world at the game he plays.
And now it’s happening again.
I’ve written almost 400 words and I’ve yet to mention the name of the player this post is actually about: Gregory Polanco.
I don’t actually remember the day we signed Polanco, because he wasn’t drafted. He was signed as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2009 for $75,000. For the first couple of years, he was all potential: he hit .202 in the Gulf League in 2010, and it wasn’t until 2012 that he started getting people’s attention, hitting .325 in single-A West Virginia. Before that, he was exactly the kind of prospect Moneyball warned you about: all projection. All scouts’ dreams about how he might grow into his body, or how good he’d be if all his skills reached their ceilings. But that’s exactly what started to happen.
By 2013, Baseball America had named him the 12th best prospect in baseball. He kept forcing the Pirates’ hand: in 2013 he played in A+, AA, and AAA, and just wouldn’t stop hitting. He was hitting .347 in AAA when they called him up nearly two years ago.
Unlike McCutchen, Polanco wasn’t good with the bat right away: he was able to stay on the field thanks to his defense and base running, and played an underwhelming 89 games in 2014. Nobody was worried, because nearly every star player has a forgettable half-season at the start of their career. Many predicted a breakout in 2015. But that didn’t happen: he had a .653 OPS in the first half, and there were rumblings of a benching, or a demotion to work things out. There was talk of trading for outfield depth.
By the end of the season, everyone had made the same quip: Polanco had improved so much in the second half that their best trade deadline move was not trading for anyone to replace him. He OPS’d .749 after the break, and had a penchant for putting together long, memorable at bats against some of the best pitchers in the league.
This season, it’s hit another level. In less than a year, he’s gone from borderline startable to hitting third. The results are tremendous: I could list all the things he’s doing better (line drive percentage, fly ball to ground ball ratio), but it’d be a waste of time, because all you need to know is that all of them are better. And it’s not just the results: he looks good. He’s hitting balls hard. As the picture way back at the top of this post shows, sometimes he’s basically swinging out of his shoes. He’s in the top ten in National League WAR, tied with Bryce Harper. He’s 24 years old, and if he finished as a better player than Andrew McCutchen this year, I honestly won’t be surprised.
Brighter stars than Gregory Polanco’s have burned out. Players get hurt, pitchers adjust. Stuff happens. But I’ve seen a couple of stars form over the last decade, and this feels the same. It may be that Polanco ends up a phenom who has a short peak in the majors. I don’t know what his floor is, but I’m not convinced his career has a ceiling. It’s a career that can leave the solar system, and float off into the heavens, where there’s another Pirate right fielder who seized all of his potential.