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Pablo Sandoval was the fourth-best hitter on the Giants in 2018

He wasn’t just the Giants’ best pitcher.

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

STAT LINE 252 PA (92 games) .248 / .310 / .417, 9 HR, 40 RBI 99 OPS+

The Giants were bad this year, but Pablo Sandoval was not. On paper, he came into 2018 still in the prime of his career. Virtually everything we saw from 2015-2017, though, colored that view pretty well, and so beyond ruining the Giants’ chance for the #1 pick in the 2018 draft, Pablo was basically a roster afterthought.

Still, he made the team out of Spring Training and then went on to have his most productive season since his last full season with the Giants in 2014. Had it not been for a terrible hamstring tear suffered at the beginning of August, we might’ve been talking about the National League Comeback Player of the Year award in September instead of the worst month in the history of the franchise. That’s remarkable, and here I am remarking on it.

His 99 OPS+ (or 97 wRC+ if you’re FanGraphsy) means he was basically a league average hitter. The last time he had a 99 OPS+ was in 2010, when he had 616 plate appearances in 152 games, and you’ll recall that season was a down year for him. The difference in playing time skews the comparison a bit, but in a lot of ways, he hit better in 2018 than he did in 2010. Does this mean he’s all set up for a nice run in 2019?

No, of course not, but let’s admire what happened. Baseball has so many stories about good players running into trouble and facing a career crossroads. Usually, we’re talking about players at the end of their careers, but players who are either at the midpoint or just past it could very easily be viewed, too, as possibly being at the end of their careers, depending on which path they take.

Jonny Venters won the NL Comeback Player of the Year award and that’s because after last pitching in 2012 and enduring three Tommy John surgeries, he posted a 3.54 ERA in 20.1 innings for the Braves in 2018. That’s facing a crossroads. Pablo Sandoval found refuge in the team he grew up with after an embarrassing stint in Boston and for a lot of players, that might’ve been enough.

For a player who’s famously been criticized for how seriously he takes the game, you can’t say he didn’t take himself and the game seriously this year, and we were all the better for it. We got basically the best parts of Pablo Sandoval without any of the distractions. Maybe he was liking Instagram posts during the game, but nobody cared because the expectations were low and he was hurdling the bar. He was only doing that because he committed to proving to himself and everyone that he was still a pro ballplayer.

Role on the 2018 team

He was there for bench help. Some roster depth and versatility. A familiar and friendly face to lift the moribund franchise’s spirits after a dispiriting 2017. He was all that and just a bit more. Pablo was the 4th-best hitter on the team if you mean “Players who were supposed to play more than they did”. If you limit it to a minimum of 250 plate appearances, then it’s even clearer. Not only does his 99 OPS+ rank 4th by that measure, but he was also 7th in home runs and RBI. His 19 walks and 96 total bases were 10th-most on the team.

He wound up becoming the starting third baseman in Evan Longoria’s absence, and when necessary, he played first base, second base, and pitched that wonderful inning in relief which led to genuine discussion of Pablo Sandoval playing all nine positions in a game later in the season. We were so close! September had plenty of opportunities.

I said when we learned of his hamstring tear:

Mainly, Pablo Sandoval made the Giants fun again, for the first time since he was last on the team. There might be a level of irony involved here in terms of the injury happening on a scoring play following a triple, a triple that only Pablo Sandoval could’ve hit, but I’m not all that interested in the ironic aspects of his season ending on a torn hamstring.

His role was to make the team fun again and he basically did for a nice chunk of the year.

Role on the 2019 team

It all depends on how he’s recovered from his torn hamstring. There will always be questions about his physical health, but now age and major surgery can only complicate matters. For all his good intentions and Kung Fu Pandaesque efforts, he might not be able to fortify his body against the erosion of time. Stupid, emotionless time.

The team renewed his option, so there’s a design that sees him back on the bench being the depth and versatility the organization otherwise lacks, and he could still serve as the elder statesman / duguout cheerleader crucial for morale, but it all depends on how he does during Spring Training.

If nothing else, we’re getting a bobblehead because of what he did in 2018.

Final grade: A

The Giants paid the league minimum for a league average hitter on a team that hit well below league average. He made the team better not just by being better than a good chunk of the roster, but by bringing more talent to it. Don’t forget, he was the one who helped Dereck Rodriguez decide where to sign this past offseason.

More importantly, he proved to himself that he could be better than he’d been and let the baseball world know he still had some baseball left to play. It’s easy to lose sight of those individual stories when the larger story of a bad team seemingly overwhelms everything else, but let’s not forget, dude was a welcome surprise.