Everyone loves a good comeback story. Hell, they even have an award if your comeback is better than everyone else’s, just to spice it up a bit. In reality, teams looking for a boost partially rely on players bouncing back from bad seasons, and the Red Sox are not exempt from that concept. Players coming off career-worst seasons are going to be scrutinized.
With the Red Sox, the potential bounce-back storylines are obvious. Will David Price pitch to his peripherals? What in the hell was Fernando Abad’s 2016, and will 2017 be any different? And the elephant in the room: what is Pablo Sandoval going to give us?
After going under the knife to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, all Sandoval has done is garner rave reviews about his rehab and fitness programs. He’s dropped tens of pounds, he’s eating healthier, and he’s been at the Red Sox’s Ft. Myers facility since August, presumably. With all the buzz surrounding a slimmer Sandoval, the hype is slowly working its way up about what he could do once he returns. He’s not going to rack up four-win seasons again, that’s for sure, but you can be pretty confident in saying that he won’t be as bad as his 2015 season ended up being.
PECOTA agrees with me on that last sentiment. This is what it sees for his 2017:
In terms of possible outcomes, that’s the center of the bell curve, the least extreme result and the one most likely to happen. That projection was pessimistic about his fielding, giving him a -2 FRAA, which isn’t surprising. Throughout his career, his defensive metrics have been all over the map, and he’ll also be 30 years old come Opening Day. Defense tends to spike early on in a player’s career then gradually get worse, and with Sandoval being the Jekyll & Hyde defender that he is, you can’t count on positive returns in that area at his age.
The offense looks to be the key to his comeback, as even a .260 TAv is 14 points better than both Travis Shaw’s and Brock Holt’s 2016 TAv. The power will be about the same, but PECOTA thinks Sandoval will hit for a better average and take more walks than those two. The VORP seems low, but that’s exactly the same as what all the Red Sox third basemen combined for in 2016. BWARP is probably his harshest critic, as the 2016 hot corner battalion cranked out 2.2 BWARP and the projection barely gives him a quarter of that. That’s mostly attributed to fielding, however.
The putrid production from the hot corner last year is the floor for Sandoval. It’ll be tough to be worse than that. But the creeping suspicion still remains: he could also be as bad as 2015. Thankfully, PECOTA doesn’t add fuel to that fire. What we’ve got to understand is how bad 2015 was, and the best way to show it is to compare it to PECOTA’s tenth percentile outcome – alternatively known as the extremely bad result:
|Sandoval’s 2015||.245||.292||.366||.229||3B: -7.8||-5.1||-1.4|
|PECOTA’s 10th percentile||.242||.294||.376||.232||3B: -2||-7.9||-1.1|
If it takes the really terrible outcome to replicate Sandoval’s worst season, I think he’ll be alright. Acceptable, even.
It shouldn’t be very hard to get more production out of third base this year than last year. The Red Sox were dead last in OPS by third basemen in 2016, and it wasn’t particularly close. The second-worst team at the position, the Cincinnati Reds, coughed up a .701 OPS. The Red Sox? A whopping .685 mark. As fun as two months of Baseball Annihilator Travis Shaw was, it was those other months that brought him way down, and no one else really stopped the bleeding at the third – not Brock Holt, not Marco Hernandez, and certainly not Aaron Hill, who looked pretty pumpkin-like during his time in Boston.
It goes without saying that if you’re going to hype up a Panda bounce-back, you need the context. The Red Sox desperately need something to come out of the black hole at third base, and anything Sandoval can give will go a long way to replacing some of the production David Ortiz cranked out. The projections think that he’ll do that, and it’s not unlikely that he’ll do so. He’s a better option than anything the Red Sox have, which is now Brock Holt (who was bad last year and shouldn’t play a full season), Marco Hernandez (solid but a better bench bat than anything), Josh Rutledge (ew), and Deven Marrero (audibly dry heaves). You could make an argument for Holt, but if that argument consists of “hustle and grit” remarks, no one wants to hear it.
If Sandoval looks to shoot for better than that 50th percentile projection, there are a couple of things that could bring a better-than-expected result to him. Matt Collins wrote about Sandoval in October on these web pages, and while he did note that being better with the glove could help, it’s not something to expect from him. The biggest improvement would have to be made to his plate discipline. A reduction in strikeouts and a newfound improvement in his walk rate would go a long way to a great comeback for Sandoval. He’s a free swinger, and takes hacks at pitches even Vlad Guerrero would lay off, so a modest improvement would do wonders. It’s unlikely, but for a player that drastically needs a career revival, that would be a nice place to start. Not everyone will have a comeback on the level of 2013 John Lackey.
A huge turnaround isn’t unheard of – especially in Boston – and when the bar’s set this low, you don’t need one. Sandoval just needs to play. He doesn’t need to be flashy, doesn’t need to be exciting, he just needs to give us anything better than the carnage we’ve seen. Keep the hype levels low, ignore the Best Shape Of His Life reports, and expect some modestly acceptable baseball from Pablo Sandoval. It’s all we can really ask for, and it’s what PECOTA thinks he’ll give.
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