Polanco, JHay, and Catching Bucco Baseball Fever

The question, “Can you believe how incredible this Polanco kid is?” was the first thing Pittsburghers asked one another – after exchanging good mornings – on June 11.

The night before, Gregory Polanco went 1-for-5 in his Major League debut for the Pirates in a night game against the Cubs. It was an opening act that featured a standing ovation before his first at-bat, his first career (scorching line drive) hit, and his first run scored. Although two feeble pop-ups to the short, a groundout to second, and a strikeout in the bottom of the ninth brought him (slightly) back down to Earth, Polanco had the fans shouting for an encore.

“He’s got a long swing, but it’s not too long, it’s completely perfect.”

“Did you see him almost beat out that ball to second? He moves like a gazelle out there and he’s barely even trying.”

“If I could pick one player to start a Major League team with, it’d be Gregory Polanco.”

Polanco-Mania had officially hit Pittsburgh, and I was ready to be swept up as well.

Being present for the parallel ascents of Polanco and Josh Harrison this summer has given me a first-hand view of a city’s passion for baseball, and taught me a great deal about fandom as a whole.

Polanco’s rise to the Major Leagues was a rapid one. After beginning his minor league career as a pitching prospect, he switched to the outfield and batted a combined .215 in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Seemingly overnight, however, he became a new player, batting .325/.388/.522 in A ball in 2012, working his way up to Triple-A in the 2013 season as a 21 year old, and dominating the 2013 Arizona Fall League to the tune of a .331/.428/.494 line.

By the time the 2014 season had begun, Polanco had added sixty pounds since beginning his minor league service – to become a gargantuan 6’5’’, 230. He continued to hit everything in April and May, and after the Super 2 deadline had passed and Neil Walker’s appendectomy opened up a roster slot, the Pirates rewarded Polanco with a call-up to the Bigs.

He began his major league career with a nine game hitting streak, passing Roberto Clemente and setting a Pirates franchise record in the process. In his fourth career game, he went 5-for-7, crushing a game-winning homer that brought pandemonium to many a Pittsburgh bar. Also, after waiting eleven games, he unleashed his speed and lanky limbs on the league and stole his first base.

All of these firsts and streaks for a potential future superstar would normally provide excitement enough on their own, but Pirates fans have been fortunate to have a second source of nightly exhilaration.

Ask any Pirates fan who the most irreplaceable player is on the team, and they’ll always respond with “Cutch” – Andrew McCutchen, their steady superstar and 2013 NL MVP.

After Cutch, something interesting happens. Some may say that Polanco is next in line, due to his youth and talent – but during the past two months, a large and increasing number would answer “JHay.”

Josh Harrison, known affectionately as JHay around Pittsburgh, has been a utility guy for the Pirates since 2011. Despite his aversion to walks and lack of power, he at least offered some value to the team by way of his positional versatility, and a decent glove in both the infield and the outfield. When I began to follow the Pirates before coming to Pittsburgh this summer, however, I was surprised to see Josh Harrison’s name at the top of the lineup card several nights in a row.

When I looked at the Pirates roster, there weren’t really any top of the lineup on-base threats that Josh was displacing, especially with speedster Starling Marte (who still only holds a career 4.9% walk rate) batting just .229/.308/.305 through the first month of the season. Still, I discounted Josh and assumed that manager Clint Hurdle would be searching for new options before too long. Instead, Josh seized the opportunity he was given, and “JHay” was born.

Since beginning his time as table setter, JHay has hit .302/.349/.500 in 2014. This line has been supported by an increased plate discipline, raising his BB% by 2% from his career average and by 3.2% from 2013. He has also shown increased pop, with a .160 ISO and an average fly ball/home run distance equal to Carlos Gonzalez, Anthony Rizzo, and Lucas Duda.

He has provided a spark to the team and the city, making plays in any position he’s plugged into, escaping rundowns that only the Benny Hill theme could provide a soundtrack to, and walking off extra inning games. He may have arrived in Pittsburgh without the fanfare of a Polanco, and did not appear on top prospect lists in the past, but he has captured the hearts and imaginations of a city to the same extent as Polanco – and the improvements in his game make it hard to write his strong play off as a fluke.

The rebounding bats and improving health of other Pirates regulars have led to somewhat of a roster crunch for JHay. Yet, I see him having a clear path to regular playing time – at third base for Alvarez when a lefty is pitching, starting around the diamond to routinely give both middle infielders and outfielders a rest, and also pinch-hitting/running on days he doesn’t see his name on the lineup card.

During this stretch of JHay’s exciting play and Polanco’s call-up, secondary Pirates ticket prices have increased by an unheard of 4.22% in just a month, moving them ahead of the rival Cardinals and Reds.

Polanco and JHay have transcended being just players for Pittsburghers to watch each night, and have become symbols for a team and a city that believes it is on the rise.

These two success stories have lifted up the mood of Bucco fans in a way that even makes me, a Garden Stater with no previous connection to the Pirates, want to gush about them. I realize that over the relatively short time I have been a serious baseball fan (since my Freshman Year in high school), I really have not made a conscious effort to emotionally connect with the game itself. I have spent more hours on Fangraphs or looking at Fantasy Baseball statistics than I can imagine, forming a skill of being able to judge everything about a player and the way he plays by looking solely at the numbers on a web page. Yet, I follow my team, the Blue Jays, from afar, never really engaging with them on a personal level.

Since arriving in Pittsburgh, however, I have been a part of a city that truly ebbs and flows with the hometown ball club. Downtown Pittsburgh normally empties out on typical nights, with everyone returning home to the suburbs from work. But on game nights, the Clemente Bridge fills up, fireworks can be heard during each home run, and the city is completely tuned into the spectacle.

Critics of the 162-game season say it drags on way too long, but I have realized more than ever how it brings people together, providing different events to talk about and reminisce over each day. I have discovered the amazing feeling of coming home from a long day’s work, getting changed into a team logo shirt, and heading to the ballpark for an amazing atmosphere and an even more amazing view. I have allowed myself to get swept up in Polanco-Mania and JHay-Fever (get it?). Being close to the Pirates this summer has made me fall in love with the personal side of baseball that I often have taken for granted.

I don’t know if I’ll end up dropping the Blue Jays for the Pirates some day, but what I do know is that the Buccos’ tight-knit communal feel and steadfast fan base is a model that most sports teams can only hope to emulate. So hold onto your pierogies tight – it’s an exciting time to be a Buccos fan.

Eric Mazelis

Staff writer

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