Hurdle confident in Polanco's 'thirst' to improve

Decreased walk rate, BABIP contributing to outfielder's struggles

Hurdle confident in Polanco's 'thirst' to improve

CINCINNATI -- After a strong first half, Gregory Polanco cooled considerably at the plate as the summer stretched on. If his performance in the Pirates' 9-7 win over the Reds on Friday night was any indication, Polanco could be heating back up.

A popular breakout pick before the season, Polanco delivered on his immense potential this season by hitting .287/.362/.500 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs in his first 82 games. He shortened up his swing and smashed the ball to all fields, scorching line drives at a higher rate than ever before.

But the league pushed back against Polanco, who entered Friday batting .227/.273/.449 in the second half. He was still hitting for power, crushing nine homers to go along with 10 doubles and two triples in his last 50 games. But he has not walked as often, nor has he hit the ball as hard as he did over the first few months of the season.

What changed?

"They're not throwing him the same pitches," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's shown the ability to hit certain pitches. In this tech industry that we work in right now, you're not going to keep getting pitches you splatter. You're just not going to. And you have enough talent up here for pitchers to stay out of those zones."

Then came Friday night, when Polanco showed what he can do at his best. He ripped a line-drive homer into the right-field seats. He hit an opposite-field single in the seventh. Even several of his outs were hit hard, like the 103.5-mph lineout to second baseman Brandon Phillips in the third inning.

"I like sending them out there and watching them play. They're going to tell you what they're learning," Hurdle said after the game. "They're going to show you things. They're going to grow. They're going to develop and they're going to mature."

One interesting aspect of Polanco's slump has been the dramatic swing in his batting average on balls in play. He hit .333 when putting the ball in play in the first half, but that number tumbled to .237 in the second half.

Such a drop is often attributed to bad luck, which could be part of Polanco's problem. But Hurdle noted that Polanco had been mis-hitting more pitches lately, which may be a product of late-season fatigue or hitting in a different part of the lineup, among other possible factors.

Polanco avoids a collision

The numbers fall in line with Hurdle's assessment. In the second half, Polanco's line-drive (26.7 to 19.6 percent) and ground-ball (40.5 to 36.5 percent) rates are down, while his fly-ball (32.8 to 43.9 percent) and popup (9.2 to 13.8 percent) rates have increased.

According to Statcast™, Polanco has been hitting the ball in the air or straight ahead since the All-Star break. It's an unusual new struggle for Polanco, whose struggles in 2014-15 were most often caused by him putting the ball on the ground too often.

Polanco responded to those issues by putting together an excellent first half. Hurdle expects Polanco will find a way to counter this latest challenge as well. The way he hit the ball Friday night, he may have already found it.

"They're going to give him some different looks and try some different things, and he's going to have to find ways to adjust -- and he will," Hurdle said. "I think that's the thing I continue to really appreciate about him is his continuing thirst and quest to improve."

Trainer's room

Starling Marte, out since Sept. 5 by lower back spasms, was out of the lineup again Friday, but should return for one of Saturday's doubleheader games.

• Right-hander A.J. Schugel threw a bullpen session on Friday, but wasn't available to pitch, nor was setup man Neftali Feliz. Both have been sidelined by right arm discomfort. Hurdle still expects both relievers to pitch before the end of the season.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.