Gregory Polanco, red-hot Pirates may yet thaw Pittsburgh's heart

CHICAGO -- This winter in Pittsburgh was straight out of “Richard III.” You know the line, the one about discontent. Actually, discontent might be a mild way to describe the collective frame of mind of the Pirates' fan base.

The fans in the Steel City had every right to be upset. Fan favorite Andrew McCutchen was shipped to the Giants. Top starter Gerrit Cole sent to the champion Astros. After years of what many fans felt was a less-than-overwhelming effort by ownership to maximize Pittsburgh’s most recent window of contention, a petition was started, aimed at convincing Major League Baseball to force owner Bob Nutting to sell the team. It attracted thousands of signatures. Later, the players' union filed a grievance accusing the Pirates and three other franchises of misusing revenue-sharing funds.

Then the season started.

Maybe, just maybe, the good people of Pittsburgh should have been more focused on the players who are still around rather than the ones the club sent packing. Players like Gregory Polanco. Because those players, during the coldest opening month in baseball in years, are collectively smoldering-hot.

“We’re having fun,” Polanco said. “We have to keep it like that.”

Polanco went deep twice at Wrigley Field on Thursday as the Pirates took the rubber match of a three-game set, beating the Cubs 6-1. Those are the bare facts, but what they signify might mean a lot more to a Pittsburgh sleeper bid for a postseason slot.

“It was a very good day for the analysts,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle joked. “Strikeouts don’t matter and the home runs count. [Polanco’s] swing has been so athletic and strong. He took some funny swings, but what I love is the short memory he’s got going on up there. One at-bat is not leaking into the next.”

OK, we’ll settle down. It’s early, early, early. Pittsburgh is 9-3 and already holds a 2½-game edge over Milwaukee in the National League Central. But 12 games is a mere 7.4 percent of a full season. Of what is to come, we know so little. Pennants are not won on April 12.

“I think this can get overcooked,” Hurdle said after the Pirates won the series opener Tuesday. “We’ve played 10 ballgames.”

With that out of the way, now consider this: The Pirates are averaging more than six runs per game and lead the National League in scoring, total bases and all of the slash stats (average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), have grounded into the fewest double plays and own the NL’s lowest team strikeout rate.

At the center of all this has been Polanco. If we can’t read too much into team statistics at this point, perhaps we can at least dream on the breakout potential of a player who has posted indicators of a matured approach. That approach, according to Hurdle, begins with Polanco’s body, then extends to the stat sheet.

“The body composition is in the best place I’ve seen it,” Hurdle said. “The strength in everything he does. There’s a maturity, too. He’s a year older. He’s seen more. He dealt with so much adversity, physically as well as professionally. In terms of playing, that was hard, but I think he’s used it as positive motivation moving forward.”

Last season, Polanco was supposed to be a very good third wheel in what figured to be one of the best outfields in the major leagues. That’s not a slight when the players next to him were franchise face McCutchen and the uber-talented Starling Marte.

McCutchen enjoyed a very good season, if not at his old MVP level. However, Marte was suspended for 80 games for a PED violation. And Polanco, frankly, just didn’t play that well. He hit just .251/.305/.391 and was limited to 108 games because of injury. He finished with just 0.6 WAR, down from 2.3 in each of the previous two seasons. That’s not the kind of age-25 growth pattern you like to see.

This season, Polanco’s hot start has been fueled entirely by approach. He’s walking at a rate nearly three times his 2017 number and pulling the ball much more frequently, and, according to FanGraphs, his rate of fly balls is nearly 13 percent higher than his career average. Yes, Polanco appears to be another of those launch-angle guys. And it’s working.

“I can’t think about what is in the past,” Polanco said, referring to his newfound ability to deal with each at-bat in itself, but he might as well have been talking about bouncing back from last season. “I have to focus and help out. Whatever happens, you can’t bring your last at-bat to your next at-bat.”

Polanco’s BABIP (.231) is way below the big-league average of .289, which also happens to be one point above his own career mark. That’s the trade-off with going to a take-and-rake, pull-heavy approach: The fly-ball outs can mount and defenses can shift you out of a lot of groundball hits. But the bottom line appears to be worth it. Polanco has a .714 slugging percentage and was tied for second in the majors with five homers, and his 15 RBIs were three more than anyone else in baseball through Thursday afternoon’s game.

Polanco’s first homer Thursday went to right-center with the wind blowing out off tough Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks. According to Statcast, the blast traveled 440 feet, Polanco’s longest dinger since June 4, 2016, and his third-longest ever. His second homer was even more impressive, coming off of lefty reliever Justin Wilson. Polanco had not gone deep against a southpaw since August 2016.

“It means a lot to me,” Polanco said. “I can’t remember the last time I homered off of a lefty. I just feel like I’m in a good position. I have to keep working and try to put the ball in play. Don’t get too big of a head.”

It was Polanco’s third career multi-homer game and gave him five homers in 12 games. Polanco didn’t hit his fifth homer last season until Pittsburgh’s 73rd game. Clearly, it’s different this year, and one that couldn’t be more timely considering the events of the winter.

“I think we’re all pleased, but we’re not satisfied,” Hurdle said. “If you had talked to us three months ago, what we were going through as an organization, with personnel and conversations that were being had. To say that you’ll get to be [in first place] on April 12, it was going to take clear communication. It was going to take honest self-evaluation from everybody, and a commitment to one another.”

Pittsburgh’s average game-time temperature this season has been just 42.5 degrees, and yet the Pirates have been coming out slugging through it all. Adam Frazier and Francisco Cervelli also homered Thursday, giving Pittsburgh 17 homers in its 12 games. They hit just 20 homers in all of April last season.

You could go on and on. The Pirates’ 9-3 start is the franchise’s best since 1992, Barry Bonds' final season in Pittsburgh. Starter Trevor Williams outpitched Hendricks on Thursday to improve to 3-0. He’s the first NL hurler to win three games.

“I think this series is going to sparkle for some fans,” Williams said. “The Cubs are a good team, world champions, and the team to beat in the NL Central. It’s good for us to take two out of three here, especially early [in the season].”

Hurdle has been adamant about keeping things in perspective. Yet you could detect a smidgen of excitement from him after Thursday’s game.

Will the Pirates score six runs per game all season? No way. Will they lead the league in runs? Seems like a stretch. But after this past winter, that’s all beside the point. If anything, this hot start has shown fans that, yes, even without McCutchen and Cole, the Pirates can still hope for a little baseball contentment.

“It just says we like to play,” Hurdle said. “And we’ve got some fight. It’s early. We like the direction we’re headed and we know what we need to do to prepare to play and to win games.”