For the Red Sox, signing Pablo Sandoval last offseason, on the surface, seemed like a practical move. The team needed a third baseman, Sandoval was on the market early in his hypothetical prime and, for the ratings-hungry Red Sox, the Kung-Fu Panda presented another marketing opportunity. But, as has been well documented, Sandoval flopped in his first season in Boston.
Regardless of how anyone spins the numbers, Sandoval posted the worst season of his career last year. The 29-year-old hit .245/.292/.366 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI, played horrific defense, and posted a -2.0 fWAR. From all reports, the third baseman struggled to maintain a consistent playing weight during the season (an issue that was thoroughly documented during the courting process). Oh, and there was that whole liking an Instagram photo during a game ordeal that came at a time when the team appeared destined to disappoint and people needed somewhere to place the blame.
Sandoval is under contract for another four seasons, through age 32, with a team option for a fifth and is owed another $77.4 million even if the Red Sox decline said option. Of course, in theory, Sandoval can't be any worse than he was last season, especially considering that he's in what is supposed to be his athletic prime at 29 years old. "Pablo's worked real hard," president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told the media at the Winter Meetings in Nashville. "He's been working out since the end of the season and we've had people [in Florida] visiting with him. He's doing great. I don't know that he's ever going to be svelte, but he can be in good condition."
Whether or not that work will translate to better performance on the field is still in question. When taking a look at Sandoval's numbers, several downward trends are certainly alarming. Over the last four seasons, Sandoval O-Swing percentage, which measure swing percentage outside the strike zone, from 44.8 percent to 45.5 percent to 48.1 percent to 48.6 percent from 2012 through 2015, indicating that not only is Sandoval far from disciplined at the plate, but he's headed in the wrong direction. In fact, Sandoval's O-Swing% of 48.6 percent ranked last among all hitters in baseball.
Luckily for Sandoval, he's been good at hitting pitches outside the strike zone over the course of his career. This, however, brings up the issue of how well Sandoval can keep hitting as that ability regresses as he continues to age. In 2012, Sandoval hit .271 on pitches outside the strike zone. In 2013, Sandoval hit .244 on pitches outside the strike zone. In 2014, Sandoval hit .276 on pitches outside the strike zone. Last year, that number dived down to .202.
On top of that, in 2015, Sandoval ranked 17th in baseball among all qualified hitters in O-Contact% at 77.9 percent. That might sound like a positive, but that too has gone down over the last three seasons, from 81.1 percent to 79.8 percent to 77.9 percent.
Unsurprisingly, Sandoval is also not the most disciplined player at the plate even when it comes to pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%), swinging at 75.2 percent last season, which was tied as the 16th highest mark in baseball. Sandoval age will go up and his bat speed down, which won't help given that he swings at anything within a one-mile radius of Fenway Park. The decline in several key statistics is certainly eye-opening with Sandoval.
|O-Swing%||Avg. Outside SZ||O-Contact%||fWAR||Walk Rate||BB/K||ISO||wRAA|
Sandoval's defense has fluctuated greatly over the last four seasons, going from 1.0, -4.7, 3.5, -16.9 UZR from 2012-2015. In terms of defensive runs saved, Sandoval has gone from -5 to -5 to 4 to -11 in the same time span. Not exactly a surprise for statistics which don't claim to reveal much in single-season samples, but the extremes in 2015 are hard to write off as fluctuation. One of the main reasons Sandoval appealed as a free-agent was his ability to man third base at an above-average skill level. Despite his size, Sandoval's natural agility and athleticism made him a very solid option defensively in San Francisco. That, however, went out the window last season with Boston when Sandoval often looked a step slow, consistently botching grounders.
Given the magnitude of his contract, Sandoval has little-to-no trade value. There is little reason for the Red Sox to completely absorb his contract and ship him elsewhere given his track record and the idea that he can't possibly be any worse than he was last season. Among all qualified players, Sandoval posted the lowest fWAR in baseball by a significant margin, with Diamondbacks shortstop Chris Owings at -1.4 fWAR coming in second. He can only go up. Probably. Hopefully.
The Red Sox are limited by their in-house options as well. Brock Holt has started 78 games at third base in his career, but the hot corner is his worst position according to UZR and DRS. Travis Shaw looked passable there in limited time in 2015, but is better suited to first. Deven Marrero looks more like a (minor) trade chip at this point in his Red Sox career. Rafael Devers is 19 years old and is still a few years out of making his major league debut. Michael Chavis struggled in his first full season, hitting .223/.277/.405 while showing off significant pop, blasting 16 home runs and 29 doubles. The answer down the road seems to be Devers unless a trade changes that situation in an instant, though Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada could enter the picture if he eventually settles down at the hot corner.
But for now, the Red Sox are stuck with Sandoval, and according to manager John Farrell, the third baseman is making an effort to turn things around. "I know Pablo is very conscious of and has expressed disappointment in the way things turned out last year," Farrell told reporters in Nashville. "I think we expected more and certainly need more from [Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez] to get to the level we envision ourselves, and that's to contend for a World Series."
For Sandoval to make a marked improvement from his performance last season, he will have to buck negative trends over the past few seasons that usually indicate a player in decline. There are many things for Sandoval to consider before the season starts, whether it's what shape he wants to report to Spring Training in or whether he wants to start switch-hitting again. But for the Red Sox, there's no way to spin this into a pretty picture: Pablo Sandoval currently represents a financial albatross and a massive contract full of question marks.