Tweaks help Polanco conquer 'Airbender'

April 17th, 2021

Pirates right fielder accomplished something in Friday's 6-1 win over the Brewers that no other Major League hitter has: He homered off a changeup from Brewers reliever Devin Williams.

The “Airbender” is Williams’ signature pitch, the one that helped him win the National League’s Rookie of the Year and Reliever of the Year awards last season, but Polanco took it on a 407-foot ride to center in American Family Field. In three big league seasons, Williams hadn’t allowed a home run off his changeup, and it became just the fourth hit by a left-handed hitter off the pitch since the start of 2020.

“I didn't know it was the first [home run], no, but I know [Williams’] ‘Airbender’ -- so to say -- changeup gets a lot of publicity, so to see [Polanco] do that. ... I mean he smoked that ball to center field, too,” Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier said. “That's staying on the baseball, staying through it, and on one of the best pitches in the game, so it's pretty awesome.”

So how was Polanco able to be the first hitter to achieve such a feat? Perhaps his comments following Pittsburgh’s win over the Padres on Wednesday can provide a clue.

In the second inning of that game, Polanco drilled his first home run of the season to right field off of San Diego starter Joe Musgrove. It was the first run allowed by Musgrove since Sept. 15, 2020, a streak of 32 scoreless innings.

Following the game, Polanco discussed how he has tinkered with his mechanics at the plate.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but I changed my [stance] and I’m not just hanging with my front foot,” Polanco said. “I’m trying to get my foot on the ground on time.”

On both swings, Polanco clearly adds an extra toe tap to help with his timing, and in both Polanco goes yard. It’s a small change in mechanics, but one that might help him continue his recent upward trajectory at the plate.

“I think the biggest point is the timing aspect of it. He's in a better position to hit more consistently,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “He has adjusted some other things mechanically, he and [hitting coach] Rick [Eckstein] and [assistant hitting coach] Christian [Marrero], but all those kind of work in culmination to make sure that he's in a better situation or a better position to hit, and I think we saw it [Friday].

“He hit a home run off a guy that arguably has the best changeup in the game.”

Shelton also said that for bigger and longer players like Polanco, the tinkering never truly stops.

“Guys that are short and have really short strokes, it's easier to sync up because there's not as much room for error. With guys that are big, it takes a long time,” Shelton said. “So the common answer for that for most big guys is they're always tinkering with it, because you're seeing different pitches, you're seeing different movements from pitchers, you're seeing stretch, you're seeing windup, you're seeing slide step. It's kind of an ongoing process.”

In his first nine games of the season, Polanco was hitting just .138 with one extra-base hit and no RBIs. He fell out of the starting lineup for the first two games of the series against the Padres. Over the last three games, though, he’s 4-for-10 with two home runs, and has managed to get his average back over .200 while sporting a season-high .725 OPS.

The changes have been effective so far, but have come in a small sample size, and only time will tell if it can continue for the long haul.

“He's putting a lot of work in and I think he's made a couple changes with his timing deal and it's working,” Frazier said. “He's in a good place. If we can keep him right where he's at, then that's huge for our lineup and our chances for winning games.”

Quick hitter

Hitting remains the only baseball activity for injured third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, according to Shelton, though the rookie was able to hit on the field Saturday. The intensity and volume of his hitting session, however, remained the same as they have been in the past few days.

Hayes was eligible to come off the 10-day IL on Wednesday, but Pittsburgh continues to play his return slowly and cautiously. Hayes hasn’t played since sustaining a left wrist injury on April 3.