Minor league report: Diminutive Polo displaying power
Tito Polo is a leadoff man, a speedy center fielder and one of High-A Bradenton’s lightest players at 185 pounds.
Through his first 78 games, he isn’t exactly hitting like it. The 21-year-old — all 5 feet, 9 inches of him — leads the Pirates farm system with 15 home runs.
“I try to hit the ball hard the opposite way,” Polo said Tuesday through interpreter Sean Banks, when asked about his 2016 power surge. “I just try to hit balls hard. I don’t try to hit home runs.”
Intentional or not, balls have been clearing the wall for Polo. After hitting just three home runs in 102 games with Low-A West Virginia in 2015, he returned to the Power a more dynamic player. Polo hit 12 home runs and stole 20 bases in his first 54 games, earning a start in the South Atlantic League All-Star game and a quick promotion to Bradenton.
In his first 17 games this month, Polo, 21, hit .297, the result of better recognition of offspeed pitches, Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said.
“He’s not chasing as much, and he’s not swinging at the sliders at the dirt, which has given him an advantage when he gets to the plate because he’s got some power,” Ryan said. “He can find the barrel of the bat, he can bunt when he wants, and when he gets on first he’s dangerous.”
Ryan hasn’t had much time to observe Polo from the third-base coach’s box, but has been taken by the young outfielder’s instincts on the basepaths.
“You see guys that they just have something special about them that they see in a pitcher when an offspeed’s coming or they pick something up on pitchers that you just can’t teach,” Ryan said. “Guys that are quick to the plate, he’s still stealing bases off them. He just sees something, you know?”
A dose of effortless aggression is also what could help Polo become a better center fielder, Ryan said.
As the Pirates and a host of other major league teams have placed an emphasis on playing their outfielders shallower to prevent bloop hits in front, so have the Marauders.
Greater humidity and less carry in the Florida State League increase the importance of outfielders playing in. Polo, Ryan said, is working more on trusting his speed, both on balls hit over his head while playing shallow and on balls hit in the gaps, when he has to decide between making a play and yielding to corner outfielders.
“The one thing that he definitely needs as far as improvement is he needs to be more aggressive, especially in center field. I think he relies on the corner guys just a little bit too much,” Ryan said. “He’ll see something in the gap, he has to realize that those are his balls and those are plays that he needs to make the play on, and I think he plays a little bit too deep. I don’t know if he’s real comfortable going back on a ball and those are things that we’re working on right now.”
This season is Polo’s fifth since the San Andres Islas, Colombia native was signed as a 17-year-old. His responsibilities lately have increased — a spot start in spring training after an Andrew McCutchen scratch, a spot on Colombia’s 2017 World Baseball Classic roster and a midseason promotion are a few recent upgrades to his baseball career — and so has his confidence.
“In spring training, I worked hard. I worked hard to gain more confidence and that’s my personality,” Polo said. “Step-by-step, pitch-by-pitch, I’m really watching the game trying to better understand myself and how the game happens around me.”
Polo has learned his way through a breakout 2016 campaign, while also attempting on occasion to stop and appreciate the journey.
“It was my goal to get here,” Polo said of reaching Bradenton this season. “While I work hard, I try to remember to have fun while playing the game and enjoy the game and just to take it step-by-step to achieve those goals.”