What Can John Lackey Teach Us About Pablo Sandoval?

The World Series is still being played, and therefore some teams need to hold off a little longer until they can put 2017 on the forefront of their collective minds. For those with no vested interest in the final series of the year, we can look forward. The Red Sox don’t have a ton of holes to fill this winter, but they do need to figure out a plan for the corner infield spots and DH. Much to many fans’ chagrin, Pablo Sandoval is likely going to be given a chance at third base. In fact, there were even rumors he could’ve come back at the end of this past season, although that was always unlikely.

As much as we, as fans, have tried to push him out of our minds during this season filled with fun, he’s almost back. I’ll get more into this just a little bit later, but I think it’s fair to say the chances of Sandoval being dealt are slim to none. The other internal third base options, Travis Shaw and Yoan Moncada, both have enough questions marks to justify giving Sandoval a shot. The former struggled for most of the season after supplanting Sandoval in the spring and getting off to a red-hot start. The latter did not look comfortable at the plate in the Majors and is likely ticketed for Pawtucket to start the season.

That leaves Sandoval, who obviously has his own question marks but also has more of a track record than the other internal options. If we’re being honest with ourselves, his forecast for 2017 is not great. However, we’ve been down this road before, and it’s worked out in the past.

Travel back with me to April 2013. The Harlem Shake was a thing for some reason. Blurred Lines was being played everywhere on Earth. Yours truly was just about to graduate college. John Lackey was coming back to the mound for the Red Sox after missing all of 2012 on the disabled list. We all know what ended up happening that season, but it’s easy to forget the outlook we had on everything before the year began. Lackey was arguably the most hated athlete in Boston. He was viewed as massively overpaid, having been disappointing (but actually not terrible) in 2010 then completely falling on his face in 2011. Obviously, 2012 was a season to forget, but in the eyes of many, there was a silver-lining in not being forced to watch Lackey.

Then, he turned around the perception of himself in 2013. It’s fair to assume the injury had something to do with his struggles in 2011. Taking some time out of the negative spotlight probably didn’t hurt, either. Lackey looked like a totally new man after his year off, upping his strikeout rate to prime-levels while showing off control he had never shown before. He quickly changed his perception in the city and was a major reason the Red Sox won the World Series.

Sandoval is itching for a similar turnaround in narrative. Heading into next year, Sandoval is in a similar position to 2012 Lackey. He doesn’t have the extra disappointing year mixed in, but he did have a little time to disappoint us at the start of 2016. He didn’t have a hit in seven plate appearances before hitting the DL, and more importantly, this happened. After that debacle, it’s fair to say his Q-Rating was at an all-time low. After missing the rest of the season, Sandoval is now ready to take his 2013 Lackey step forward. How can he do it?

The best model to go by is that Lackey model. In other words, Sandoval can bounce back if he regains his old form in one area (a la Lackey’s strikeouts) while reaching new heights in another (the walks). For Sandoval, there are two options for the first category. For starters, he could certainly use some improvement on the defensive side of things. After spending his Giants career as a surprisingly solid third baseman, he was terrible in 2015 with the Red Sox. Both the eye test and all of the defensive metrics we have access to back up this point. Of course, given his age and body type, one can’t expect too much improvement here.

The other option is getting back on track with his BABIP. His offensive success in San Francisco always came on the back of average or better BABIPs. With Boston, Sandoval only hit .270 on balls in play, far and away the worst mark of his career. He was pounding the ball into the ground too often, and he clearly doesn’t have the speed to beat out infield singles. If he can get back to his line drive-oriented swing, one can see him pushing .320 BABIPs once again.

The other side of this, developing a new skillset, is yet another page he can take from Lackey’s book. While the pitcher started limiting free passes at a career-high rate, Sandoval would do well to start drawing more walks. Obviously, this goes against who he’s always been as a hitter, as his aggressiveness is one of his calling cards. However, if anyone is in a position to drastically change his profile, it’s a player who just lost an entire season and is in desperate need of a narrative shift.

Sandoval consistently gets low zone rates, because pitchers know he’ll swing at everything. If he can find a way to fight his instincts, he’ll draw walks early on in the year just because pitchers haven’t adjusted yet. Again, this is likely wishful thinking, but it’s a change that could dramatically improve his overall production at the plate.

The bad news for Red Sox fans is that Lackey-like transformations don’t happen often. For every one of those, there’s a Carl Crawford who never turns it around. The good news is that Boston has had a good track record with this of late, as both Rick Porcello and Hanley Ramirez could qualify to some extent. Still, Lackey is the most extreme example, and there are some real parallels between the start of his Red Sox career and Sandoval’s. With third base currently a question mark, it would do everyone a world of good if Sandoval can continue those parallels.

Photo by USA Today Sports Images

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