Polanco, McCutchen, and AAA At-Bats

How many times, since the last out was recorded in Game 5 of the NLDS, have you heard, “The Pirates will call up Polanco in June and he’ll take over?” Or, “They just need a place-holder in right for a coupla months.”

I’ve heard it over and over and I’m saying, “Where’s the fire?”

Yes, every Pirate fan – including this one – hopes to see Gregory Polanco do exactly what Andrew McCutchen did when he was promoted to Pittsburgh at mid-season in 2009. Fairly dominate from the start and never look back – or need to be sent back. But, though all the reports say that Polanco is every bit the elite prospect that McCutchen was, there is one profound difference.

Going into the 2009 season, McCutchen already had 662 plate appearances at AAA. Polanco has 9.

McCutchen had a total of 881 AAA plate appearances before he was promoted to Pittsburgh at mid-season and hit .286/.365/.471  — .836 OPS in 493 plate appearances. And he went on to hit  .286/.365/.449  — .814 OPS in 2010

The amount of time McCutchen spent at AAA is a good reason to give Polanco a full season – or more – in Indianapolis. But it’s not the only one. For instance, there are the performances of some top Pirate prospects who did not get a full season – or more – at AAA.

Pedro Alvarez had a total of 278 plate appearances at AAA, in which he hit .277/.363/.533 – .896 OPS, before being called to Pittsburgh. In 386 plate appearances with the Pirates that year, he hit .256 with a .788 OPS and 16 HR. But, the following year, he hit just .191 with a .561 OPS and had to be returned to the minor leagues.

Starling Marte had a total of 431 plate appearances at AAA in 2012, in which he hit .286/.347/.500 — .847 OPS, before being called to Pittsburgh. In 182 plate appearances with the Pirates that year, Marte hit .257/.300/.437 — .737 OPS. That’s not bad, but it’s also not the kind of production that a contender wants from a corner outfielder. And “contending” for a division title is the position the Pirates hope to be in at mid-season 2014. Will Polanco be able to do better than Marte did after only a half season with Indianapolis – at one year younger than Marte was?

Baseball America ranked Jose Tabata as the 27th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2007 season and at #37 prior to the 2008 season. Tabata had 400 AAA plate appearances over two seasons before being promoted to Pittsburgh. In 2010, he spent the first half of the season with Indianapolis and hit  .308/.373/.424 — .797 OPS before being promoted. With the Pirates, that year, he hit .299 with a .746 OPS. But he dropped off to .266/.711 OPS in 2011 and, in 2012, he collapsed and had to spend more time at AAA.

Alvarez, Marte, and Tabata all had AAA batting lines that suggested they were ready for major league baseball, but things didn’t go so smoothly after they arrived.

And then there is the most concerning example.

Prior to the 2009 season, Baseball America rated Pedro Alvarez the 12th best prospect in baseball – six spots behind . . . Travis Snider. That’s right, at age 21, Travis Snider was just as much of an “elite” prospect as Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco – and even Andrew McCutchen.

Prior to the 2008 season, Baseball Prospectus ranked Snider as the 7th best prospect in baseball and had this to say about him:

“Snider’s .313/.377/.525 line last year was impressive enough, but the context in which he achieved it makes it even more so. Just 19, he was playing in the most pitcher-friendly league in professional baseball and led that league in slugging, doubles, and extra base hits. Hitting is Snider’s main skill as a ballplayer . . . but his bat is so special – and could get even better if he turns his patient approach into an aggressively patient approach – that it excuses his other limitations . . . Snider could be lined up for a Jay Bruce-like breakout this year.”

Travis Snider was an elite prospect.

But the Toronto Blue Jays promoted him to the major leagues at age 20, with only 70 AAA plate appearances under his belt. In 80 PAs with the Blue Jays that year, he did well, hitting .301 with an .803 OPS. But he went back to AAA in 2009 for 204 PAs and hit .337 with a 1.094 OPS. The Blue Jays promoted him again and he hit only .241 with a .748 OPS. He was still only 21 years-old and had only 274 PA at AAA.

In 2010, Snider had 319 PAs with Toronto, hitting .255 with a .767 OPS. He also spent time in the minors at High-A and AA.

In 2011, at the age of 23, Snider got another 277 PAs at AAA, hitting .327 with an .873 OPS. The Blue Jays promoted him and he hit .225/.616 OPS.

You get the picture. The Blue Jays rushed him to the majors, then bounced him up and down – never letting him get the time he needed at AAA.

Over the course of being bounced to-and-from the minor leagues for four years, Snider amassed 797 AAA plate appearances – 84 fewer than Andrew McCutchen had in a season-and-a-half.

Andrew McCutchen had far more AAA plate appearances before being promoted to the major leagues than did Starling Marte, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and Travis Snider. And he adjusted to big league pitching far better and much more quickly than all of the other four.

That, alone, is good reason to give Polanco a full season at AAA. But there is also this: Though Polanco did well at Double-A Altoona last year, he was far from dominant. He hit .263/.354/.407 — .762 OPS. He did have a very good walk rate of 12.6% and an excellent 1:1 K/BB ratio, so he showed great plate discipline. And his .282 BABIP dragged his batting line down a little – adjusted to a league average BABIP he would have hit .280/.369/.441 – .810 OPS. Those are good signs – at AA – but not good enough to say that he doesn’t need 500 plate appearances – or more – at Indianapolis, on his way to Pittsburgh.

Steamer projects that Polanco would hit .258/.313/.390 — .703 OPS if he plays for the Pirates next year. Oliver has him at .255/.310/.400 — .710. Neither of those lines are good enough for a corner OF on a contender. And Polanco should not be expected to be a productive, starting corner OF on a contender at age 22 in 2014.

The most elite of prospects can – and do – often struggle upon being promoted to the major leagues. Especially when they are rushed through AAA. Look no further than the two players who opened 2013 sharing time in rightfield for the Pirates.




43 thoughts on “Polanco, McCutchen, and AAA At-Bats

  1. If they can get decent production in right field from Tabata, Snider or Lambo, I say let Polaco get a full season of at bats in AAA. But, if right field remains a sore spot AND Polanco is absolutely tearing it at Indy, I say bring him up and give him a try.

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