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Pablo Sandoval’s strange start to the season

Trying to figure out Pablo Sandoval.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox

Remember the offseason, when we were sitting in the cold, shoveling snow (I’m knocking on wood because if we somehow get more snow I will just cry for eternity) and wondering about the season to come? Sure you do, it really wasn’t that long ago. Since you remember that, you surely remember the biggest question of the offseason: What will Pablo Sandoval bring to the table in 2017?

There was just no way to know what to expect. We’ve never seen him play well in Boston, but it was also basically one year as last season was essentially completely erased by injury. He came into camp in much better shape this spring and looked genuinely interested in getting his career back on track. He was doing and saying all of the right things, but at the end of the day there really wasn’t much reason to be optimistic about a guy who hadn’t had a successful season since 2014. Then, Sandoval started hitting well in spring training and there was at least some reason for optimism.

Fast-forward to today, and we still have no answers. Obviously, we’re only twelve games into the season so that’s not too much of a surprise. Still, there is some data on Sandoval, and it’s utterly confusing. If you just look at his slash line, it looks pretty bad. The third baseman is hitting .143/.196/.381 through his first 46 plate appearances for a 50 wRC+. It goes without saying that the sample is tiny. Still, it’s all we have to work with, so let’s dig a little deeper into the madness.

To start, we’ll check out Sandoval’s plate discipline in the early going. Throughout his career, this has been a major sticking point with the now-30-year-old. Always ultra-aggressive in his career, the numbers to start the year aren’t all that great, but not all that terrible, either. Thus far in 2017, he’s walking 6.7 percent of the time while striking out 21.4 percent of the time. That walk rate is a little below where he was in San Francisco, with the strikeout rate being significantly above his Giants rates. Pitchers are approaching him about how you’d expect given his famed aggressive style: Throwing him lots of pitches off the plate. Unsurprisingly, he is swinging a lot. More surprisingly, however, is the fact that he is swinging through so many pitches.

That swing strike rate is why you’re seeing so many more strikeouts than usual from Sandoval through the first week-plus. Thanks to Fangraphs’ rolling game tracking tool, we know that Sandoval has never gone through a period in which he’s struck out as often as he has to start this season.

Looking even a little deeper than that, you start to see that the problem is coming on pitches above the strike zone. When Sandoval was at his best with the Giants, he was still an ultra-aggressive hitter, but he was aggressive on pitches in the zone. Below, you can see a side-by-side comparison of the pitches at which he swung in his last season in San Francisco compared to the pitches at which he’s swung in 2017.

This won’t come as a shock, given the location of the pitches he is swinging at so often, but the biggest issue for Sandoval early on this season has been the fastball. This is typically a pitch he can jump all over, but he’s whiffed on almost half of the fastballs he’s seen this season. Overall, the plate discipline issues aren’t promising, but there is also plenty of time to turn it around. Since the problems are with fastballs, it could just be a timing issue that will be solved with a few more games under his belt.

While that aspect of his game has been poor, it hasn’t all been bad for Sandoval this year. As you can probably tell from his overall line at the top of this post, he’s been hitting for plenty of power. After hitting a home run in Sunday’s game, he’s up to a .238 Isolated Power on the year. That’ll happen when four of your six hits go for extra bases.

The batting average on balls in play, on the other hand, is a different story. After yesterday’s game, it’s sitting at just .100, which tells you all you need to know about how small this sample is that we’re dealing with. It’s not at all indicative of how he’s hit the ball this season. In fact, part of the reason it’s so low is because he’s making such good contact. Home runs don’t count towards BABIP, so when such a large percentage of your balls in play go over the fence, it’s going to have a noticeable effect on your BABIP. Over the course of a whole season, players don’t hit enough home runs for it to have such a huge effect, but it can stand out in small samples.

Regardless, most everything points to Sandoval hitting like the guy who regularly posted .300+ BABIPs when he was still with the Giants. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, he has roughly the same profile in terms of grounders, line drives and fly balls as he did in San Francisco. Furthermore, he’s using the entire field this year. Sandoval is a contact-oriented player. He tries to put as many balls in play as possible, and if he’s not hitting the ball well he’s basically useless. His BABIP right now suggests he’s useless, but it’s not a good reflection of the contact he’s making.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know what the Red Sox can expect from Sandoval through the rest of the year. It’s April 17; no one knows what to expect from anyone. With that being said, the Red Sox third baseman is the most fascinating player on the roster, and it’s always worth checking in on what he’s doing. So far, he’s been incredibly confusing, which is pretty much what you’d expect. The plate discipline has been bad, and not in the way it was bad while he was in San Francisco. On the other hand, he’s made good contact even if he has a dismal BABIP. There is plenty of reason for optimism, but Sandoval is still no sure thing for 2017.