Rise of Pirates' Polanco is old-school success story for new-age franchise
BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates are known as an analytical organization. The front office employs data-heavy analysis in decision making. But traditional scouting and development remains paramount in amateur-player acquisition, and amateur talent remains the lifeblood of small-market teams.
The truth is the Pirates still rely heavily on traditional scouting, particularly in Latin America. There are no meaningful statistics on the ramshackle fields of the Dominican Republic.
The truth is while data can be credited for much of the Pirates' remarkable 2013 season — from explaining defensive shifts to the signing of Russell Martin — data meets limits in what it can accomplish in amateur scouting and player development.
The truth is no algorithm could have identified Gregory Polanco or predicted his rise.
Gregory Polanco never wanted to pitch.
He possessed the paradoxical blessing and curse of throwing left-handed. That made him valuable but pulled him away from what he wanted to do: play the outfield. When Dominican evaluators saw the lanky teenager's size and throwing arm, he was turned into a pitcher for showcases.
“He was a real tall, left-handed guy. Everyone was going to see him as a pitcher,” said Pirates Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo.
When Gayo first stumbled upon Polanco on the outskirts of the Dominican capital, Polanco had rotated into the outfield due to a shortage of players. Gayo was intrigued by how Polanco moved and his relatively compact swing. He filed away the notes. The next time Gayo saw Polanco, the 17-year-old pitched several innings. Gayo made a request.
“He just said, ‘Run to the outfield,' ” Polanco said. “I liked playing the outfield.”
While some teams aggressively have doled out seven-figure bonuses in Latin America, Gayo prefers to scour the Dominican for value, which is important with baseball's new spending caps on amateur talent. Unlike other evaluators, he was willing to stray far from the plush hotels of Santo Domingo. To find value, Gayo employs a simple but effective directive for his 24 Latin American scouts: find athletes who can run and hit.
“If you can swing the bat and run, you can play for us,” Gayo said. “That has always been my prototype. And we like guys that love to compete. If those three factors are around, you can play for us.”
The prototype led Gayo to Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, fellow top-10 prospect Alen Hanson and Polanco, a trio Gayo signed for a combined $325,000.
Gayo agreed to meet Polanco's asking price of $150,000 in spring 2009 with one stipulation: “I said, ‘I don't want you pitching, I want you in the outfield.' He said, ‘I'll do whatever you want.' I thought he'd get better. But I never thought he'd run like he does. Guys that big don't move that fast. I thought he'd be an average runner. You're basically looking at a guy the size of Jim Thome running around. It's ridiculous.”
There was no formula to follow for what happened next.
Polanco developed from a rail-thin, 17-year-old into Baseball America's No. 10 overall prospect, the Pirates' best positional prospect since Andrew McCutchen.
In spring 2012, Polanco was coming off his first two seasons of professional baseball, two seasons of struggle. He hit .202 in 2010 and .237 in 2011 at the Rookie levels.
In spring 2012, Polanco never had played on a field with a grandstand or video board. He had been surrounded only by chain-link fences on sun-baked playing surfaces. Gulf Coast League games often are played at teams' minor league complexes. Few are watching. Games are played in oppressive heat as many facilities do not have lights. It would be difficult to feel further from the majors. It was then a surprising thing happened: Pirates manager Clint Hurdle summoned Polanco to join the major league team for a trip to Fort Myers, Fla., to play the Boston Red Sox.
Spring training games typically don't matter. But sometimes they do.
“I don't know how to explain it in English,” Polanco said. “It was exciting for me. … (They) trusted me. They put me out there.”
The 20-year-old Polanco entered in the eighth inning on March 9, 2012, and stood in right field surrounded by several thousand fans — Red Sox Nation travels well — and a number of Red Sox regulars in the lineup. In the ninth inning, he came to bat and struck out against Brandon Duckworth.
“Clint is amazing like that. That's so huge. That's really a big deal for a Latin kid that's only played in the academy and in Bradenton. All you've been playing around is chain link, so you're not really a pro baseball player,” Gayo said. “You give a kid, that kid, an opportunity, and all of the sudden he's standing in right field and David Ortiz is up and everything comes to light. That's what turned the corner. … He said, ‘Oh, wow.' He went down to West Virginia and went crazy.
“Now he's Polanco.”
Hurdle was not following a formula. It was a decision based upon anecdotal evidence. Hurdle takes a day or two off from managing the big league club in spring training to scout prospects at Pirate City. He was intrigued with Polanco.
“We thought a jolt of confidence could be an opportunity to build momentum for him,” Hurdle said. “The sooner you can give him a little bit, whether it makes him hungrier, whether it makes the transition a little bit easier … it can make a difference. It was big. There were a lot of reasons for it. Sometimes there's a method to our madness.”
Said general manager Neal Huntington: “It's the age-old question: What comes first: confidence or performance? Sometimes it takes someone believing in you to boost your own confidence, and then your performance takes off from there.”
Polanco reported to Low-A West Virginia with a new resolve. There, the coaching staff helped refine his approach. He was always a worker, the son of a mother and father who are police officers in Santo Domingo.
“Let the ball get deep,” Polanco said of his focus in West Virginia. “That helped me to recognize the pitches, the breaking ball and off-speed stuff.”
Polanco could afford to let the ball get deep because of his bat speed. Shortening his swing, combined with an all-fields approach, paved the way for a breakout season. Polanco hit .325 with 16 home runs and 40 steals.
He has become stronger, adding 60 pounds since signing in 2009, chiseling his wide-shouldered, long-limbed frame. He's 6-5 and 230 pounds. He is Calvin Johnson in right field. He hit .312 at offensive-suppressing High-A Bradenton and was promoted to Altoona at midseason. He remarkably walked as much as he struck out in his first taste of Double-A. The ascension continued in winter ball, where he was the Dominican league's MVP and earned comparisons to Darryl Strawberry.
“I've talked to a lot of friends of mine who saw him down in the Dominican this winter and thought, head and shoulders, he was the most improved player they had seen over the course of the year,” said John Hart, an MLB Network analyst and former general manager. “Exceptional talent. Believe me, when this kid arrives, he's going to be pretty special.”
Polanco homered early in camp against the New York Yankees. The 22-year-old has doubled off A.J. Burnett and Rick Porcello this spring. He has hit in the No. 3 spot. Polanco looked liked he belonged but was optioned to Triple-A on Friday.
“Every day I get better,” Polanco said. “Right now I feel good. I just have to keep working.”
Hurdle told Polanco he hopes to see him with the Pirates soon. When he arrives, perhaps in June, for a club invested in 21st-century analytics, Polanco will represent a traditional scouting success story.
“It's Rene and his guys identifying a frame, identifying an athlete. Then it's the coaching staff and the development staff working hard to refine those tools,” Huntington said. “It's a great identification-and-development story, which is what baseball is founded upon.”