One of the most startling things about this 2015 Red Sox team is the way it has struggled against left-handed pitching. There were many potential pitfalls coming into the season, but no one could’ve imagined this righty-dominated lineup would struggled against southpaws. And yet, here we are, with Boston currently putting up a 76 wRC+ with lefties on the mound, worse than all but five teams in the league. It’s been hard not to notice these extreme struggles, and one man in particular has been the face of them. I speak, of course, of Pablo Sandoval.
Generally speaking, it’s been a very good first month+ for Sandoval with the Red Sox. His performance has been just about in line with his career numbers. Despite some preseason worries that were largely due to preconceived notions about a man of his size, he’s been impressive with the glove, despite the early-season defensive metrics suggesting otherwise. With a .285/.353/.423 batting line — good for a 117 wRC+ — he’s been a net-positive for this Boston lineup as well. With all of that being said, it’s hard to push aside just how bad he’s been against left-handed pitching.
Sandoval, a switch-hitter, has looked infinitely more comfortable when stepping into the box as a left-handed batter. When hitting as a righty this season, he’s hit an atrocious .059/.086/.059 with a -72 wRC+. No, that minus sign was not a typo. He’s walked just once in 35 trips to the plate, and has struck out an alarming 12 times. Even the most optimistic person on the planet couldn’t be encouraged by this performance in which he’s looked completely lost on a consistent basis.
As such, it’s been commonplace for many to call for Sandoval to ditch switch hitting and start batting exclusively as a lefty. It seems to be the hip thing to do, after all. Shane Victorino has experimented with it, as has Daniel Nava. It would only make sense for the Red Sox to ask the same from their highly-paid third baseman, a guy they need hitting against all pitchers. As good as the plan sounds in theory, however, it’s hardly the cure-all solution some would make it out to be. In fact, it’s something that I would absolutely advise against unless it was Sandoval’s idea, not the team’s.
As often as you hear this idea thrown around for various players around the league, you don’t see many hitters actually go through with the change. Especially not those who are already established major-league hitters. When doing some research on the issue, I found this article on Beyond the Boxscore that outlines the history of the move. The only thing that’s clear from that article is there is no definitive answer on whether or not ditching switch-hitting would work. It certainly did the trick for some players, but it didn’t fix everyone’s issues by any stretch of the imagination.
Those same results stand when you look at how the change has affected Victorino and Nava. The former has been a better hitter against right-handed pitching since he’s abandoned switch-hitting. The latter, on the other hand, has looked demonstrably worse hitting left-handed pitching as a left-handed bat. Of course, we’re dealing with small samples in both cases, but anecdotally they support the seemingly random success rate from the article linked above.
It’s not only the history of other players that suggests this is a poor move, either. Sandoval has always been a worse batter against left-handed pitching, but he’s never really been a black hole. In his career, the Red Sox third baseman is hitting .262/.309/.378 as a right-handed bat against left-handed pitching, good for an 89 wRC+. It’s certainly not a good line by any stretch, but it’s also one you can live with considering his defensive value and ability against righties. This season, he’s suffering from an .091 batting average on balls in play against lefties. His 34 percent strikeout rate is almost double his career rate from the right side of the plate. While he’s certainly never going to be above-average on this side of the platoon, it’s fair to expect significant improvement from his current performance. It’s never advisable to make such rash decisions in the midst of small-sampled slumps like this.
The last point against this kind of move is messing with an established players routine. I said above that if this type of move is to be made, it would have to be upon Sandoval’s request. Baseball is a very hard game, and comfort is of extreme importance. It would be silly to force the veteran into such a change if it wasn’t something he was totally on board with. It’s not worth the risk that it would affect other areas of his game, specifically his valuable performance against right-handed pitching.
The more Sandoval struggles against lefties, the louder the calls for him to abandon switch-hitting will become. It’s an easy thing to suggest, but far more complicated to implement, especially in the middle of the season. Based on similar moves in the game’s history, it’s far from a guarantee the move would even work. There’s also some serious improvement from the veteran if his past performances are any indication. The Red Sox have plenty of problems to deal with right now, but an issue with a 35 plate appearance sample size is surely not one of them.