When it comes to hitting a baseball, it doesn’t take long to identify what opposing pitchers think you can and can’t do well. Fail to prove them wrong and you’re destined to watch that weakness put under near constant attack.
For some players this weakness simply means attacking them in a certain area is the safest play, but in no way equals an automatic out. That distinction is what separates below average players from very good players.
We’ve watched this for years as Pirates fans. Gregory Polanco can’t hit anything outside especially from a lefty. Pause here for jokes that he can’t hit anything. It’s so established that I don’t really want to waste much time on him if I’m honest. No matter how Greg eventually finds his way out of town, the fact is he’s on his way.
Now there are some players who the Pirates want to understand a bit better. Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler specifically both need to be tested and tried.
Alford has shown a penchant for striking out so far that easily rivals Polanco and that’s not a skill you’d like to see him absorb. He’s shown that he doesn’t have the patience to spit on balls down and in. In fact he’s only faced 61 pitches in 2021, with two batted balls none of which were barreled.
You can’t get much more small sample size than that, but for his career that officially started at the MLB level back in 2017, he’s only faced 412 pitches which resulted in 3 barrels resulting in his 3 career homeruns.
This doesn’t mean he’s done or the Pirates shouldn’t at least explore working him through this, but it does mean the issue has been identified and until or if he is able to adjust and make pitchers pay for it he’ll continue to struggle.
One thing Anthony does, he takes his walks, and for someone with his speed tool that’s a plus. The way he’s hit it’s difficult to put him anywhere but the 8 hole, but let’s be honest, a pitcher for the most part will happily take a walk in front of the pitcher especially when a strikeout will come just as often statistically speaking. Yeah, I wouldn’t throw him anything to hit either.
Dustin Fowler has had even fewer opportunities this season but he’s largely done the same with his chances. We’re talking about a K% of 37.5 and at least for Fowler I can honestly say this isn’t his norm. In a much bigger sample provided back in 2018 he was sitting at 23.2%, so perhaps Dustin is quite literally just suffering from extreme small sample hell.
Point is though, strikeouts are predictable based on zones. Down and away from pitchers who throw from both sides are kryptonite for Fowler and he just can’t seem to spit on them, at least in the early going.
Look, I’m in no way telling you this by way of making it seem we’ve been too tough on Polanco, we haven’t. What I am saying is it’s not exactly like one of the other outfielders is jumping off the page as an upgrade for Greg.
When Ke’Bryan Hayes returns, perhaps Phil Evans could slide out to Right Field and give the Pirates at least another competent bat in the outfield. Even he doesn’t hit like a corner outfielder, but at this point I’ll settle for someone playing there and hitting anything.
But more than anything it’s hard to envision any team in MLB carrying 4 outfielders and only really getting production from one. Again, we’re 4 games in, but it’s pretty easy to see the best that can be hoped for is “ok”.
The patience to watch it play out is understandably in short supply, especially for Polanco. There is just nothing left to learn there, no more hoping it clicks. If anything we wait for his patented hot streak where he seemingly can’t be retired for a week.
Alford and Fowler on the other hand have years of control and very limited opportunity under their belts. Speaking only for myself I’d like to see them get the lion’s share of at bats moving forward. I don’t say this believing the production is going to jump off the page suddenly, but by the end of 2021, I want no more ifs on either of them. They either stay here as part of the solution or they leave as failed experiments that cost the team nothing to try. Playing both while sitting Polanco would at least get one of them out of the 8 hole every game and that would at least be giving them a fair shake.
I mean, there is a reason everybody predicted the team to lose a bunch more than they win. Point is though, if Polanco isn’t going to hit, we might as well make sure we get answers on the other options. I think I probably know those answers, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t flesh this out.
It’s also incredibly difficult to preach the virtues of small ball to a club that has 3 or 4 players in the everyday lineup providing little resistance. Strikeouts are going to happen, but many of these players aren’t even talking competitive at bats with regularity and that just isn’t going to help anyone. The principle simply doesn’t work without contact.
Brian Goodwin, Troy Stokes Jr., Jared Oliva, Chris Sharpe, Bligh Madris, and eventually Travis Swaggerty are all backing this mess up. Spend half a season getting answers on the options they went with out of camp and if they need to cut bait do it and start answering the next wave of questions.
The bar for what looks like success couldn’t possibly be lower than it is right now when it comes to outfield help.
Bryan Reynolds is quite literally the story when it comes to production out there and that simply can’t and won’t be enough, ever. That is no way an indictment of Reynolds, it’s instead to say that the Pirates should waste no time motoring through their options because the picture doesn’t start looking better until someone not named Bryan starts hitting out there.