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Pablo Sandoval's declining plate discipline

Pablo Sandoval was bad in every aspect of the game last year, but there was one particular aspect of his plate discipline numbers that were concerning.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

As the Red Sox head into the offseason, the members who were around at this time last year are probably regretting how things unfolded last winter. Although the process can still be defended, the results on the field showed that the organization could have taken a better road to the 2015 season. Of course, the faces of the disappointing season are Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, who were both signed as free agents last winter and both had very disappointing seasons. There are rumors and speculation that Boston will try to trade at least one of them, although based purely on the volume of rumors and speculation Ramirez is the most likely to be dealt. As such, it’s looking like we’ll be going through another season of Sandoval at the hot corner, and I wanted to look at why he was so bad last year. Specifically, I wanted to look at how his plate discipline changed from his time in San Francisco to his first year in Boston.

Before we get into all that, let’s take a quick review of just how bad the Red Sox’s third baseman was. Sandoval got 505 plate appearances last year and hit an abysmal .245/.292/.366, culminating in a 76 OPS+. That last mark was by far the worst of his career, and the third worse on the Red Sox among players with 100 plate appearances (Rusney Castillo and Sandy Leon were the only worse hitters). Among the 142 qualified batters in all of baseball, only five had a lower OPS+ than Sandoval. So, yeah, he stunk.

Some will point out the fact that he was declining over the last few years as a Giant, and that’s a true statement. However, the decline was extremely slow — almost unnoticeable — and no one could’ve expected such a steep drop off this year. Unsurprisingly, Sandoval saw his numbers drop virtually across the board. His batting average on balls in play was lower than it’s ever been. His Isolated Power was lower than it’s ever been. His walk rate was lower than it’s ever been (in a full season). His strikeout rate was higher than it’s ever been (in a full season). I could keep going, but I assume you get the picture and I really don’t want to do this anymore.


Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

So, obviously Sandoval was straight up bad at everything in 2015 — including defense, which I’m not going to get into today. Heading into the season, one of the big narratives around him was whether or not his plate discipline tendencies would fit with this team. Sandoval, you see, was known as a free swinger, and the Red Sox have long been one of the most patient teams in the league. I hadn’t really looked at his plate discipline numbers since the season was lost, so I figured now was as good a time as any to check those numbers out and see if he tried to make any changes to his game for a new franchise that went horribly, horribly wrong.

In short, some of it did, and it wasn’t for the better. Per Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers (which I’ll be using for this entire exercise), pitchers pounded the zone against Sandoval more than they had throughout his Giants career. In turn, he started swinging more than he ever had previously in his career, which is something for a guy who is known for swinging at a lot of pitches. If he’s swinging at strikes, though, it’s all fine. However, herein lies the problem. While Sandoval was seeing more strikes and swinging at more pitches, it wasn’t the strikes he was swinging at. Despite the career-high swing rate, his Z_Swing_Rate (swings at pitches in the zone) was lower than it has been at any other point in his career at just 74 percent. On the other side of the coin, his O_Swing_Rate (swings at pitches out of the zone) was higher than it’s ever been at any other point in his career at 47 percent.

So, after looking at these numbers, the next step was to look at what kind of balls he was swinging at, specifically in what portion of the strike zone. To do so, I went over to Brooks Baseball and looked at all of the pitches Sandoval swung at relative to the strike zone. You can see his swinging zone plot in 2015 vs the same plot over the rest of his career in the following two images.

As you can see pretty clearly, there were two areas of the zone in which he became much more vulnerable in 2015 than previously in his career. He swung at a ton of pitches in on his hands (he hit almost exclusively left handed in 2015), and up above the zone.

Intuitively, this makes sense given the rest of his numbers. Sandoval watched his swinging strike rate climb to its highest level in three years, and pitches high in the zone are often fastballs that pitchers are trying to blow by their opponents. Meanwhile, the pitches on in the inner part of the plate are extremely hard to make solid contact on, which helps explain his career-low BABIP. Additionally, both locations lead to many pop ups on all but the best swings. Wouldn’t you guess it, but Sandoval’s 19 percent infield fly ball rate was the highest of his career by a significant margin.

The last step of all this is to try to determine why this was happening. As I’m just a random guy on a laptop, it’s hard to make this call without purely speculating, but I can give that a shot. As hard as it is to make contact on those pitches, they are also ones that can be crushed with the right swing. Sandoval was in a new environment after signing a large contract and probably felt some pressure to live up to his new salary. It’s nothing more than a theory, but it’s entirely possible that the third baseman was trying to crush too many pitches to make his mark on his new team, especially when they were struggling for offense in May and June.

None of this is meant to be predictive, or non-predictive by the same token. It’s entirely possible he shakes out of these tendencies next year, or he could continue down the same path. It’s really just something to watch for over the first few weeks of Sandoval’s season. While he’s always been a frequent swinger, he’s also had a very good eye for the plate. If he starts letting these bad pitches go by next year, he should be able to get back to his line drive oriented game, and become the player we all expected him to be. If not, well, maybe Hanley can get back to his old ways.