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Is Pablo Sandoval really this bad?

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Pablo Sandoval is having a rough year at the plate. Is it a fluke, or should we expect this kind of performance for the next four years?

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We are now in the middle of August, and the Red Sox flat-out stink. That means it’s the time of year in which we can start looking at the nominees for a major award. Who will be the scapegoat that will be ridiculed for years to come? Whoever it is will be following in the footsteps of such legends as Bobby Valentine and Carl Crawford. This has been a particularly terrible season, which means there are a ton of potential winners here. John Farrell, Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello and Ben Cherington are just some of the nominees. For now, however, my opinion is that Pablo Sandoval leads the pack.

This season has had a little bit of everything that adds up to Sandoval being the perfect scapegoat candidate. He was a big-money free agent who has subsequently underperformed. He’s had some publicized weight issues (or at least they’ve been perceived as issues). His style of play is generally unappealing in an aesthetic sense. There was even the infamous Instagram controversy!

I know I sound a like I’m being sarcastic here — and I mostly am — but that doesn’t mean the negativity around Sandoval has been unjustified. For all of the stupidity surrounding some of those issues, the fact is he’s having a really bad year and has been a big contributor to a disappointing 2015 season. Overall, he’s hitting .253/.304/.376 on the season with an 85 wRC+. Overall, that puts him on the same level as Did Gregorius, Erick Aybar and Adeiny Hechavarria, all of whom are shortstops that are not exactly known for having big bats. In layman's terms he’s been super not great.

There struggles have (mostly justifiably) gotten on Red Sox fans' nerves, to the point where the calls for him to be traded this offseason are getting louder and louder. That’s what I want to examine here today. When I first heard these cries, I dismissed them as reactionary and not quite realistic. The more I thought about them, I recognized there was some validity to the claim, and thought it deserved a deeper look. Is Sandoval’s offensive downturn a fluky event, or should the front office be worried they simply missed on a free agent and cut bait as soon as possible?

The first place we turn to when we talk about Sandoval’s offensive game is his plate discipline. He’s never been Kevin Youkilis in his career, of course, but it seems like it’s gotten even worse this season. In the past, he was able to succeed despite low walk-rates because he jumped on good pitches to hit and hit them hard. This season, it seems like he’s swinging at more bad pitches than usual. The numbers back up this claim. Per Baseball Prospectus, he’s swinging at roughly 47 percent of pitches he’s seen out of the strike zone, a rate nearly 2.5 percentage points above his career average. In addition to swinging at bad pitches, he’s watching good pitches go by. His 73 percent Z-Swing% is the lowest mark of his career, and three full percentage points below his career average. Looking at his zone plots, there’s been one particular section of the strike zone with which he’s had trouble in 2015.

As you can see from the plots above, Sandoval has been swinging at an inordinate percentage of pitches above the strike zone. I obviously have no proof of this, but it seems plausible this is a result of pressing and trying to do too much. If this is the case, it’s something that could only get worse as the struggles continue.

While this is the most visible problem with Sandoval’s offensive profile, it’s certainly not the only one. Relative to the rest of his career, he’s having some issues pulling the ball with authority. While he was generally good to all fields with the Giants, he really made his money when he pulled the ball, putting up a 161 wRC+ in those situations. This season, that number is all the way down to 102. Yes, some of that is because of his batting average on balls in play, which could be the result of bad luck. However, he's also making bad contact on balls he is pulling. Specifically, he’s turning his hands over and hitting everything on the ground. His 68 percent ground ball rate on balls he pulls is higher than all but 26 qualified batters in baseball this season, per Fangraphs.

The final issue I’ve noticed, and one that may be the most concerning in the long run, is that Sandoval has struggled much more than usual against fastballs in 2015. The following facts come courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

  1. He has a substantially lower HR/FB ratio against fastballs this season relative to his career.
  2. He is hitting more ground balls off fastballs relative to his career.
  3. He is hitting more pop ups off fastballs relative to his career.
  4. He is hitting fewer line drives off fastballs relative to his career.
  5. His batted ball velocity off "hard pitches" has been trending downwards as the season has gone on.

The worst part about all these struggles, you ask? Many of them started creeping up last year. Perhaps at that point, they could’ve been described as a fluke, but now it’s starting to look like a trend. In 2014, he started to swing at more bad pitches than ever before. (It’s worth pointing out that he was still being more aggressive on pitches in the zone than he has been this year, however.) He also started to struggle pulling the ball more than ever before in 2014. Finally, his power on fastballs started to decline that year as well. Put it all together and you have a sad trend.

Of course, in the spirit of fairness, one has to point out that Sandoval is in his age-28 season, so he’s plenty young enough to turn it back around. His career is not over. With that being said, I’m more in favor of cutting bait with him if possible than I ever thought I’d be. There are some troubling trends here, and they could contribute to a rough four years. Obviously, it will depend on the market that develops this winter, and there will be a chain reaction of moves that would follow this, but Boston has to at least look in to cutting bait with their big free agent signing.