When Rick Eckstein joined the Pirates as hitting coach after the 2018 season, he heard about a hitter with a lot of talent and potential, but one who also had a history of injuries and shortcomings.
Now, Eckstein has had two seasons working with right fielder Gregory Polanco, who is entering his eighth season with Pittsburgh -- the most of any player on the roster -- and he feels like he’s getting closer to understanding what can help Polanco thrive.
Polanco is coming off his worst offensive year in the Majors. In the shortened 2020 season, his .154 batting average was the second lowest in baseball behind the Yankees' Gary Sánchez among players with at least 150 plate appearances, and Polanco's .232 weighted on-base average was the lowest mark.
It’s a frustrating development not only because of the numbers, but because Polanco’s ability to barrel and drive balls last year was marked. Despite struggles with contact, he was in the top five percent of the league in average exit velocity (92.9 mph) and in the top seven percent in hard-hit rate (51.6 percent).
So how are the Pirates approaching getting Polanco back to how he hit in 2018, when he posted career bests in homers (23) and OPS (.839)?
Polanco said part of it is small mechanical tweaks, which he says are less physical adjustments than mental reminders.
“I'm working [to keep] my head in the zone longer, not like in and out, you know, like driving away,” Polanco said. “Trying to stay short. Not trying to do too much with the ball. Just trying to see the ball as long as I can. I’m not changing anything. I think I was getting out of the zone too quick."
Eckstein declined to get into the specifics of the changes he’s looking to make with Polanco, but he said there’s been a three-stage plan developed through a lot of research. It started when Eckstein spent two days studying Polanco’s swing with the help of MLB’s video library, which gave him a few frames of view he wants to try to impress upon Polanco.
Polanco also got some work in with assistant hitting coach Christian Marrero, who is stationed in Polanco’s offseason home of Miami, to lay the blueprint going forward.
“You’re really trying to build a hitter up with some building blocks,” Eckstein said, “so we tried to build the foundation with Christian, and Christian did a great job with him.”
Eckstein concluded from his research that Polanco's swing didn’t need a full revamp. Shoulder injuries and the shortened season had hampered him during the past two years, but with Polanco fully healthy this spring, Eckstein feels like he can get the veteran outfielder back on course by working to his strengths.
“The more I got to know Gregory and the more I got to watch his career unfold and the studying that I do, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Eckstein said. “I don’t feel like I’m reteaching Gregory something new. I feel like I’m really redefining things in his career and really putting pieces back in place.”
In spring, the revamped approach is paying off somewhat with a 7-for-19 showing with two doubles, a triple and two homers. And Eckstein said Polanco is in Stage 2 of the three-stage plan.
“He’s very excited about it,” Eckstein said. “I know I’m very excited about it, but again, it’s still very early, it’s still a small sample, and we’re still in the pursuit of what we’re looking for.
“Everything I’m doing right now, I don’t want to change it,” Polanco said. “I’m just going to do the same thing every day and try to stay aggressive.”
Eckstein said he spent a lot of time assessing what went wrong for the Pirates in 2020. Was it his fault? Could he have handled things differently? What he concluded was that, above all, the team’s collective mental framework wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be to get back into a groove. He’s making no excuses about what happened last year, and he doesn’t think the players are, either.
“I don’t forget last year,” Eckstein said. “It’s motivation to really keep myself focused. The hitters have shown up and are really focused. They haven’t forgotten what last year was. I think that’s a motivator to showing up every day this year and proving what we’re capable is and proving we belong.”