Hey, remember back in Spring Training when we wondered who would hit third in the Pirates’ batting order when they decided to move the former no. 3 hitter up to second?
Clint Hurdle has apparently found the answer in Gregory Polanco. And now that he’s locked into a five-year, $35 million contract extension that begins next season, he might be there for a while.
Not only has Polanco been good this season, he’s still getting better. After a 3-for-5 night Tuesday with a home run, a double and five 5 RBIs against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he is now hitting .317 with a .587 slugging percentage in the third spot, and his manager and teammates have taken notice of how he’s grown into the role.
“(He’s) definitely letting it come to him,” said shortstop Jordy Mercer of Polanco’s maturity and patience at the plate. “Especially when you’re hitting in the 3-hole, you can get some really nasty pitches up there.”
“I know he was excited with the first opportunity when we shared it with him,” Hurdle said. “You put good hitters in third, and we did some things tactically to with our lineup to change some things up. Once (Jung-Ho) Kang got back (from injury) we moved some things around. Gregory had gotten to a good place. It seemed like a good fit for him.”
“I like it,” Polanco told the Trib’s Bob Cohn about hitting third. “Every day in the minor leagues I hit third. I like it because you have men on base and it’s a good spot to hit.”
That much appeared evident during Polanco’s three-run blast off a 3-1 Shelby Miller fastball in the first inning that sailed over the right center field wall. To better describe the contact Polanco made with the ball would be to quote Michael Kenneth Williams’ cool-natured outlaw character Omar from The Wire: “Even if I miss, I can’t miss.”
Polanco’s manager felt the same way about that first-inning swing after the game.
“I don’t think he thought he got the ball when he hit it,” said Hurdle. “The ball had some finish to it and some carry.”
“I didn’t think I got it,” Polanco said, confirming Hurdle’s assumption. “I know I hit it decent, but that’s a good pitch. You should hit it better. That’s what goes through my mind in that moment, but I put a good swing and thank God it happened.”
The home run was his sixth of the season, second on the team behind Andrew McCutchen’s eight. Not bad for a guy who hit his sixth home run of last season on August 7th. Of the five tools Polanco was said to possess by scouts and executives from every corner of the baseball-knowing world, the one he had exhibited the least was hitting for power.
But thanks to some minor improvements in his swing and hand placement, the power has shown through this season with 25 extra base hits so far, the majority of them coming when he’s either ahead or even in the count.
“He’s taking really good pitches that are just off the plate for balls, and then they’ve got to come back and groove one over the plate and he’s definitely not missing it,” Mercer said. “When he gets extended, the ball jumps off his bat. It’s fun to watch.”
“He’s on a nice run right now,” Hurdle said. “You saw the numbers flashed on the board at one point in time what he’s done since he’s been in that position and he added to it.”
In addition to his increased home run total, Polanco now has 17 doubles on the season. He entered the game leading the National League in that category before he lined another off Andrew Chafin into right center field in the sixth inning. That double looked like it might have been hit harder than the home run from earlier, driving in Chris Stewart and David Freese to increase the Pirates’ lead to eight runs en route to a 12-1 victory.
“To stay in on the left-hander and drive two more in late, he’s shown the ability to do that in the past as well,” Hurdle said. “Any night you can drive in five runs in a Major League ballgame is pretty special.
The five runs Polanco drove in set a new career high, and it catapulted him ahead of Josh Harrison for the team lead with 28, also among the top 15 run-producers in the league.
To put it in perspective, Polanco’s .307/.395/.546 slash numbers for the season are dangerously close to matching the .300/.400./.500 that McCutchen produced from 2012-14 while hitting third in the batting order.
So much for wondering where the extra offense would come from.
“He’s been outstanding this year,” said fellow Dominican Republic native Francisco Liriano, who was also Tuesday night’s winning pitcher. “He’s just taking good at-bats, taking it pitch-by-pitch, not trying to do too much and relaxing. He’s looked pretty calm and just trying to put the ball in play. It’s nice to see that.”
“It’s a good spot to hit because you fight on every pitch, in every at-bat,” Polanco said. “In every game you know you’re going to go through a fight.”
Right now, the Pirates are in a good position to win quite a few fights with their best new weapon in their best spot.