2015, Pablo Sandoval’s first season with the Red Sox, was an utter disaster. After peaking at .329/.417/.466 on April 28th (hard to believe), Sandoval hit .229/.267/.348 the rest of the way. That’s left him a local pariah up to the present day, even if he’s maybe starting to escape that label thanks to his physical transformation.
The bat, though, was only half of it. When the Red Sox signed Sandoval in the first place, it was part of a strategy to maximize infield defense and take advantage of a rotation that, while it didn’t exactly stand out in terms of talent, could at least induce ground ball after ground ball.
We know, of course, that didn’t happen. Part of that was certainly because no amount of defense could save Justin Masterson or Joe Kelly as a starter. Part of that was because Rick Porcello was experiencing his growing pains in transforming from a pure ground ball pitcher to a Cy Young winner who can strike a few guys out while still not walking anyone. Part of that was because Pablo Sandoval, previously a more-than-capable defender despite his physique, was replaced in the field with a stone statue. If he moved, it was so that he could get close enough to the ball to boot it. He was just awful, with a -11 DRS actually the more generous evaluation of his defense.
The new-and-improved Sandoval is probably more likely to help with his glove than his bat. There’s reason to hope that not just the physical transformation but the new drive it reflects will bring Sandoval’s bat back into acceptable territories. But there’s a lot of players who’ve been exceptional hitters while carrying quite a few other pounds. See: Ortiz, David. Fewer are the ones capable of flashing the leather in that state. Sandoval was, at one point, one of them, but obviously less so as the years went on. Now that he’s dropped so much of that excess weight, he should be a great deal more mobile, allowing him to help contribute to what’s shaping up to be an excellent rotation.
It’s worth asking, though, just how much he can really contribute there, and the answer is unfortunately...not that much. Here are the six presumptive starters for the Red Sox this year and their ground ball rate from 2016:
Chris Sale, 41.2% GB rate
David Price, 43.7% GB rate
Rick Porcello, 43.1% GB rate
Drew Pomeranz, 46.2% GB rate
Eduardo Rodriguez, 31.6% GB rate
Steven Wright, 43.7%
Last year, the Red Sox rotation had one of the lowest ground ball rates in baseball, and adding Chris Sale to the mix isn’t likely to improve it much. If that sounds like a bad thing...well, it’s not ideal in Fenway, but it’s more than made up for by adding Chris Sale to a rotation that was already fourth in the American League at striking batters out.
It does, however, leave a good deal of pressure on Sandoval to produce with the bat, and the same is true for Mitch Moreland on the other side of the diamond. There’s not too much concern that Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia will do enough offsenviely for their positions, but it’s Sandoval’s bad luck (or, perhaps, Sandoval’s fault) that the Red Sox’ strategy has moved so far away from the initial plan with Sandoval in the year where he’s finally in condition to execute it.
Of course, even on a team that doesn’t induce ground balls at a particularly high rate, there’s still going to be plenty to field. Sandoval will have his chance to show that he’s a changed man defensively. It just might not come through as clearly in statistics like fWAR, particularly if the bat lags behind. Sandoval’s Red Sox reputation in 2017, then, will likely be determined primarily at the plate. And given that the rotation isn’t likely to see many changes anytime soon, we should expect that to remain true through most of his contract.
This is only an ill fit for Sandoval if he doesn’t find his old rhythm at the plate, mind. If he does, then any defensive improvements can only be a bonus. And, for what it’s worth, a Sandoval who is as good defensively as he was earlier in his career would actually have some value to other teams even if the bat does not fully recover. No, he’s not going to be a big trade chip in any scenario where the Red Sox are actually interested in dealing him, but they might at least be able to open up some salary and the roster spot for a better fit if, indeed, this scenario should come to pass.