If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the current Red Sox third baseman is a phoenix in human form.
Before 2015, Pablo Sandoval had twice pulled off major rebounds from poor showings the season before. Both times, he improved tremendously on what he had done the year before. That’s good, right? He knew how and why he played badly and made it better the subsequent season. San Francisco is notorious for their odd-and-even-year weirdness, but Sandoval was the poster boy for it, even if his up-and-down career didn’t perfectly sync up with the Giants’ title years.
As good as his rebounds are, Sandoval enters 2016 needing a third one, and betting on a huge comeback again doesn’t seem too smart. 2015 was by far his worst year in any uniform, and you can bet he spent his offseason searching for the fountain of youth that’ll allow him to play like it’s 2009 or 2011 all over again. The bottom fell out from under him last season, as he couldn’t hit or field, and by nearly every wins above replacement stat around, he cost the Red Sox at least a win. In no other season, even the ones he’s needed to bounce back from previously, has he been this bad. Sandoval hit bedrock.
You can see why I’m skeptical about him returning to form, whatever form that is. Not only is this the third time he’s had to do it, but he’s going to be 29 years old on Opening Day and still has three more years under contract after 2016. That doesn’t seem old, but it’s not like it’s 2011, when he was 24 and churned out a 5.8 Wins Above Replacement Player in 117 games after an unimpressive 2010. The older you get, the less likely it is you’re going to have some explosion of production. That’s just common sense. Few players go down the Raul Ibanez path, where you do all your damage in your 30s.
In no other season, even the ones has needed to bounce back from previously, had Sandoval been as bad as he was in 2015.
The aspects of Sandoval’s game that he’s improved in the past are starting to slip. During the 2011 season, Sandoval routinely frustrated pitchers, gaining a ridiculous 59 points in True Average (up from 2010’s .270 to .329) and adding 3.6 WARP onto a 2.2 total in 2010. In 2014, Sandoval had a revelation defensively, which earned him a 3.0 WARP as opposed to a lackluster 0.4 mark in 2013. The thing about that latest example is that it wasn’t influenced very much by his hitting. He upped his TAv from .275 to .283, which by definition is an improvement, however marginal it may be: he went from being a good hitter to a good hitter. Nevertheless, Sandoval’s ISO dropped for the third straight year in 2014, and he cut 25% off his walk rate. 2015 saw a further decline in both of those areas as well.
The most frustrating part of watching him do this over and over is that there’s a good player in there somewhere. 2012 looks strange in recent context, where he played 108 games and had a 3.5 WARP and a .295 TAv to show for it. Sandoval played a total of 225 games between 2011 and 2012, and he collectively churned out a very good 8.3 WARP. That’s the only time he’s had back-to-back good seasons. If you want to mess around even more with arbitrary endpoints, Sandoval has had a 9.3 WARP from 2011 onwards, and most of that is stored up in three years of really good baseball as opposed to the two years where he was worth -1.0 WARP.
So you can see the value here, and possibly why he earned the contract he has. The issue has been, and will probably always be, the career oscillation. We saw a glimpse of a good, consistent baseball player a few years ago, even if it was marred by two hamate bone fractures. We’ve also seen the worst, and you have no need for me to elaborate on that. Now he’s going to have to come back from the worst season he’s ever had, with a slowly declining bat.
As we’ve seen, Sandoval isn’t one for midpoints when it comes to production.
There are signs of some reasons for optimism, at least. Sandoval wasn’t the luckiest hitter last season in any capacity, 2015 looks more like a outlier than anything, and John Farrell already gave him a Best Shape of His Life shoutout. Even our own Nick Canelas wrote about him just last week, saying that he just needs to be better, if not spectacular. He only needs to be better than what he was, which shouldn’t be too hard, since he was nothing short of horrific. Projections are pegging him for a 2.5 WARP and a TAv somewhere around .280. Everything looks good so far! The Red Sox would love that, but as we’ve seen, Sandoval isn’t one for midpoints when it comes to production.
Outrage over his weight/effort aside, Sandoval’s roller coaster of a career is the most concerning thing when it comes to his outlook. He’s banking on a big comeback once again in 2016, and he cannot keep doing that, especially as he gets older. I’m not saying he has to be an elite third baseman, because I’m not irrational, and I know that’s a pipe dream. I’m saying he has to stop making his career a series of peaks and valleys, now that he’s fast approaching his 30th birthday. Tons of players have made good, long careers out of being consistently average or good while not being anything spectacular. Not as many have made it very far with a sine graph for a career.
This season will say a lot about the Pablo Sandoval we’ll see in the next four years. Is he going to level out and stay within a decent range, or will he continue with the extreme results? For his sake, and our sanity, the former is a much more appealing option.
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