Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Pablo Sandoval.
The Question: Where (if anywhere) will Pablo Sandoval see improvement?
We’re just about done with this series, but it’s already clear that nobody on the roster is more of a question mark than Pablo Sandoval. Hell, it’s possible he’s the biggest question mark in the entire league. In fact, there were so many potential questions to ask that it was hard to come up with just one. I kind of cheated by making it more broad, but it’s necessary with Sandoval. There are a million areas in which he can improve compared to the rest of his Red Sox career. Now, with spring training underway, we’ll find out in which areas he’ll actually improve. That is, if he improves at all.
It goes without saying that Sandoval is a unique case of anyone around the league. The former good-not-great Giant has been in Boston for two years, but he missed all of season with an injury. He might as well have missed all of 2015, as well. In that season, he came to the plate 505 times .245/.292/.366 for a 75 wRC+. He combined that horrendous offensive performance with an atrocious year with the glove. Like I said, there are a million areas in which he can improve. Today, I’m going to look at the three that defined Sandoval when he was with San Francisco.
The first is plate discipline. Although it defined him as a Giant, it wasn’t really in a good way. For essentially is entire career, he’s been the poster boy for aggressive hitters. However, despite his propensity for swinging he always managed to keep respectable strikeout and walk rates. That changed in 2015, with his strikeout rate rising by a percentage point and his walk rate dropping about three points from his average down to five percent. It’s the latter rate that is most concerning, and there’s a pretty simple reason. Sandoval just lost the ability to control the strike zone.
Before coming to Boston, his approach was something along the lines of controlled chaos. He swung all of the time, but just at good pitches to hit. He was outstanding at identifying strikes and didn’t wait around to see a second. That changed in his first year wearing a Red Sox uniform. In 2015, he finished the year with a career-low swing rate on pitches in the zone and a career-high swing rate on pitches out of the zone. I think it’s fair to say that this is a rough combination and it’s how you end the season with a five percent walk rate.
Beyond the plate discipline, Sandoval always succeeded because he made consistently solid contact. Although he obviously has never been a burner on the base paths and he doesn’t have massive power. Instead, he relies on good contact to all fields to hit doubles and singles when he’s at his best. That, clearly, wasn’t the case in 2015. He finished that season with a career-low .270 batting average on balls in play, his first season below the .300 mark since 2010.
The reason for that just comes down to quality of contact. For one thing, he was almost too balanced in how he spread the ball around the diamond. According to Fangraphs batted ball data, he pulled the ball just 31 percent of the time compared to a 30 percent rate to the opposite field and a 39 percent rate to center field. Obviously, this in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, it’s also true that the best contact comes when you pull the ball, and this was Sandoval’s lowest pull-rate in a full season. When he’s at his best, his pull-rate is in the mid-to-high 30’s.
More importantly, though, was the type of batted balls he was putting into play on a consistent basis. In his first year with the Red Sox, Sandoval hit ground balls far more often than he ever had before. His 49 percent ground ball rate was a whopping five percentage points higher than his previous career high. He combined that with a 18.8 percent line drive rate — his lowest rate since 2010 — and 24.5 percent hard-hit rate that was far and away a career low and the 16th lowest in all of baseball. This explains not only his lack of BABIP luck, but also his relative lack of power. Looking at Brooks Baseball, it’s clear that it was offspeed pitches that he struggled with the most in this regard, as he hit a ton of changeups directly into the ground.
Finally, we have his defense, which is kind of hard to predict. Even as a relatively big guy with San Francisco, he was surprisingly competent at the hot corner. He was rarely an elite guy with the glove, but he at least held his own. That deteriorated with the Red Sox. He lost his quickness, and made too many bad throws. At this point, as he enters his age-30 season, it’s hard to expect him to get back to being good. Despite the impressive shape in which he reported to camp, anything better than “atrocious” has to be considered a win in this regard.
It’s impossible to lock down what exactly we should be expecting from Sandoval this season. There aren’t many players around the league with a wider range of possibilities. If he finds a way to get back to his old way of hitting and swinging at strikes and punishing them, he’ll be good. If he can combine that with consistently solid contact that stays off the ground, he’ll be a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. Unfortunately, all of these improvements are easier said than done.