When Pablo Sandoval signed a five-year, $95 million contract last winter, the move was met with some skepticism. Everyone can acknowledge that he is a good player, but whether or not he was a $95 million player was another discussion entirely. It wasn’t enough to have a clear upgrade at a position that has been a black hole over the last couple of years: the upgrade had to come efficiently. Obviously April 22 of year one of the contract is too early to decide which side was correct in this case, but we can start to look at some of the trends the 28-year-old is setting to start the year. Which ones are here to stay, which are mirages, and which ones are just plain fun?
Lack of Power
Arguably the most noticeable part of Sandoval’s game so far has been the complete lack of power. Over his first 52 plate appearances in a Red Sox uniform he has yet to hit a home run and has just a singular extra-base hit. He certainly isn’t going to continue with an .022 ISO, but that’s not the issue here. The question becomes whether or not Sandoval is going to be a singles hitter with an empty average, or if the power will come soon enough.
The issue right now is that Sandoval is hitting the ball on the ground much more often than he has previously in his career. While with the Giants, his highest GB/FB ratio 0.81 way back in 2009. Thus far this year, the ratio sits at a disturbingly high 1.50. Luckily for everyone involved, there’s little reason to think this type of performance will stay. Sandoval has proven to be a solid power hitter in his past, mostly in terms of doubles. This also came at a home park that leans significantly further towards pitcher-friendly than Fenway. He may continue to disappoint if you were expecting a 20+ home run hitter, but the doubles should start coming at some point soon, and at an even better rate than in his past. This one is a mirage.
Struggles Against Left-Handed Pitching
If you haven’t noticed Sandoval’s lack of power thus far, it’s probably because you’ve been distracted by his disappearance when a southpaw appears on the mound. A switch-hitter, Sandoval has yet to get on base in 13 trips from the right side of the plate and he’s racked up five strikeouts in that time. That’s an abysmal 38 percent rate. While he’s actually been outstanding as a lefty thus far (.950 OPS), the overall batting line is being brought down by the performance versus lefties, and Farrell has already shown a willingness to give him off-days in these situations.
In his career, Sandoval has a .651 OPS against southpaws, compared to an .851 mark against righties.
Now, whether or not this is a mirage depends on your definition. Is Sandoval going to continue to hit .000/.000/.000 against left-handed pitching? Probably not! Is he going to continue to struggle? Based on his past, the answer is likely yes. In his career, he has a .651 OPS against southpaws, compared to an .851 mark against righties. Clearly, this is an issue that has plagued him throughout his career, though not to the point of being detrimental to his overall numbers.
There’s already some talk of him abandoning switch-hitting, which seems to have become everyone’s favorite quick-fix method. Sandoval has learned to live with this deficiency and has been a very good player while dealing with it. Forcing him to adjust to hitting from the left side on a permanent basis on the fly appears to be unnecessary to me. With that being said, these struggles are not a mirage and we shouldn’t expect him to start mashing left-handed pitching any time soon.
One of the things that stood out the most about this signing was Sandoval’s plate approach compared to that of the typical Red Sox batter. While Boston usually preaches patience and drawing walks, Sandoval is more of an aggressive swinger who jumps all over pitches he likes early in at bats. So far this year, he has been much more patience, as our own Ryan P. Morrison pointed out yesterday. He’s swinging at just 52 percent of pitches compared to his career rate of 57 percent. What’s most noticeable is the drop off in his percentage of swings on pitches in the zone, down from a career rate of 76 percent to 70 percent this year.
This isn’t due to any change of approach by opposing pitchers, as he’s seen roughly the same percentage of pitches in the zone as earlier in his career. Instead, there are two options here. The first is the Red Sox are rubbing off on Sandoval. Whether it’s the players or the coaches, or both, it’s possible someone is getting on him to be more patient at the plate. This doesn’t really make sense given the recent additions to the team, though. Rusney Castillo and Hanley Ramirez are also aggressive swingers (though Castillo more than Ramirez, who is only slightly above-average in swing-rate the last few years), so it wouldn’t stand to logic that the Red Sox would sign these players and immediately try to change what makes them successful.
The more likely scenario is that this is due to a combination of small sample size and pressure. The longer Sandoval goes without hitting for the doubles power he was expected to, the more he’ll be pressing at the plate. This could be taking him off his game a bit, forcing him to wait more for his pitch instead of jumping early in counts. Once he starts hitting, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get back to his typical aggressive nature. I’ll call this one a mirage.
He’s a Villain
This one was pointed out by our own leader Ben Carsley on the twitter machine. Prior to 2015, Sandoval had been hit six times in a season once and four times in a season on two other occasions. Not even a month through the current season, he’s already been plunked three times. Sandoval has also already had a couple of controversial slides into second base that has irked his opponent.
In the past, he has seemed like the complete opposite of this, at least from afar. He was the big lovable panda, and it was hard to see him ever being viewed as a bad guy. Getting a close-up look at it, though, I have to say I hope it stays like this. As long as he doesn’t do truly hatable and dirty things, having the league’s villain on your team is a ton of fun. Ask Yankee fans how they feel about Alex Rodriguez right now. It’s impossible to say whether this early reputation will stay, but I’m praying for yes.
With it being so early in the season, it’s easy to fall into traps regarding player performances, especially new ones. First impressions last a lifetime and all that. With respect to Sandoval, some of his early-season trends will likely stick around — like his inability to hit left-handed pitching — while others should dissipate as time goes on — like his lack of power. As long as he remains the villain he’s been thus far, this should be a fun season.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.smugmug.com