Almost every MLB team has one or two on the roster. The Red Sox have two on theirs, but we’re only concerned with the bigger one right now. You can tell who they are when you see the letter “S” next to their name on the roster. The S is supposed to stand for switch hitter, and it usually does, even though most switch hitters are usually a little weaker from one side or another. But there is “a little weaker”, and then there is Pablo Sandoval.
When the Red Sox signed him to a five-year, $95 million contract in the 2014 offseason, they were expecting to get a player who somewhat resembled the player he had been in 2012 (.275/.299 L/R batting average split), 2013 (.281/.270) and 2014 (.317/.199). But, as we all know, they didn’t.
When Sandoval showed up for spring training in 2015, it looked like he’d spent the offseason at the Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet, complete with the chocolate fountains. But we fans were willing to reserve judgment until we saw his performance on the field. After all, he’d always resembled the “before” picture when he played for the Giants, yet it had not affected his performance. In San Francisco, he’d been rated average or above on defense, and had produced on offense .249/.346/.465. But in Boston, Sandoval had the worst overall season of his career, with a line of .245/.292/.366 in 505 plate appearances and terrible defense. He even abandoned hitting from the right side after going just 2 for 41.
Last season was even worse. Not only did he lose his starting job to Travis Shaw, but he went on the disabled list with a “shoulder strain” that soon led to surgery to repair a torn labrum and some rotator cuff damage. The Sox had no insurance on his contract and it was known by the front office that he had some shoulder issues when he was signed, but they were comfortable with the knowledge and willing to bet on him staying healthy.
Red Sox fans became encouraged as positive reports followed once he was able to resume baseball activities. He’d slimmed down and was working hard on getting his swing back from both sides of the plate to be as effective as it was in San Francisco. And in spring training this year, we were all hoping that we would finally see a productive Pablo. He was noticeably slimmer, was quicker and faster, and he hit the cover off the ball, going .338/.348/.677 with five home runs in 65 at bats. He was even named the starter for the season.
But real games have not been so kind. He has improved on defense and made some really nice plays, mainly because of his re-found quickness, yet he does lead the team in errors with four in 17 games. But it is his hitting that has people concerned.
Sandoval has never been known as Mr. Selectivity. When he was with the Giants (aside from 2008, when he played in just 41 games), his strikeout rate hovered in the 13% range. His walk rate ranged from 8.6% in 2012 to 6.1% in 2014. His BABIP ranged between a low of .291 in 2010 to a high of .350 in 2009. Like all things at the plate in baseball, there is some luck involved. His fly-ball rate varied slightly from 36.5% to 38.9%, while his line-drive rate was pretty constant around 20% with a low of 17.6% in 2009 to a high of 21.3% in 2013.
In 2015, after the move to Boston, things changed. His K% jumped to 14.5%, while his BB% was at 5%. His BABIP fell to .270, to that point the lowest of his career. His FB% dropped to 32.3% while his GB% leapt up to 48.9%. Hitting down on the ball is not a good way to get on base and could account for the 30+ point drop in his BABIP. Another reason for this precipitous drop could be due to the loss of his ability to hit from the right side.
But that trend actually started in 2014, when he hit just .199 from the right side. His previous low from the right hand box came in 2010 when he hit just .227. In his other years, his batting average ranged from .270 in 2013 to .379 in 2009.
Obviously, he hasn’t been to the plate enough this season to draw any firm conclusions, but his hitting prowess from the right side has been trending downward since 2013, gathering momentum in 2014, until he was finally forced to abandon it totally in 2015. In 2017, he hasn’t been good from either side of the plate due to what manager John Farrell termed his over-aggressiveness, which forced him to sit a couple of games. But he has been better from the left side, especially if you look at his FB and GB numbers.
Unless something drastic happens, Sandoval will be forced to once again admit that his ability to switch hit has left the building, and he is strictly a left handed hitter. Either that, or the Sox may be forced to sit him in in favor of one of the kids, or trade him and eat even more of his salary than they already have.