There are two molds for an article that deals with a player’s performance within a small sample size.
Mold Number One: Yes, this player has been bad, but it’s a small sample size, so he’s probably good.
Mold Number Two: Yes, this player has been good, but it’s a small sample size, so he’s probably bad.
That’s it. End of story. No one wants to read that a good player has been good in a small sample, or that a bad player has been bad in a small sample, because . . . duh? No one’s interest is piqued by that one bite of your food truck burrito being good, just as the other bites were.
So it’s Mold Number One or Mold Number Two for this article, and this is emphatically the latter, so here goes:
Pablo Sandoval has been good (but it’s a small sample size, so he’s probably bad).
Except! What if he’s actually . . . you know . . . good? He did have a huge two-run, pinch hit, golf-swing single last night, after all.
And so far on the year, he’s been just that: good. We’re more than a quarter of the way into the season, and Sandoval’s wRC+ (113) and wOBA (.332) are both sixth on the team (minimum 20 plate appearances). Add in serviceable defense, and Sandoval has been quite successful in a pinch hit and spot start role.
Sandoval has been bad for two of the last three years, and injured for the other. 65 plate appearances isn’t enough to negate three years. Heck, even bad players have plenty of stretches where they’re good for 65 plate appearances . . . right?
Except not in Sandoval’s case. Sandoval hasn’t even put together a decent stretch during his extended stay in the depths of stink.
The Panda began his career in Boston with a bang. In March/April of 2015, he had a wRC+ of 134. After an unspeakable May (47 wRC+), he had a mildly decent June with a wRC+ of 105.
Since then, he hasn’t so much as hit the number 90 (as a reminder, a wRC+ of 90 means you’re 90% as good as a league average hitter).
Until this year, that is. In March/April? 112 wRC+. May thus far? 114 wRC+.
Those numbers won’t earn him any MVP votes, but for a player who hasn’t sniffed the underbelly of average in nearly three years, it’s a welcome sign. Bad Pablo Sandoval never had stretches of brilliance, or glimmers of potential propped up by unsustainable stats. He didn’t have the token month of quality numbers like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain repeatedly did. He just fell off a cliff and hung out at the bottom for three years.
In 2015, Sandoval was supposed to be a superstar for the Boston Red Sox, a team with high expectations and a crazy media. In 2017, he was supposed to prove that he could return to that player, until he was traded to the Giants, where we was supposed to prove that his stint in Boston was an aberration.
Then, after a summer back in the Bay, the Giants eliminated any scent of Pablo Sandoval, starting third baseman. They traded for an All-Star with a long contract, and Sandoval’s role became smaller, and more clearly defined: hit off the bench, be a clubhouse energy, and spot start.
If there’s a player in baseball who we would expect to be impacted based on roles and expectation, it should be Sandoval. This isn’t armchair psychology - it’s just that Sandoval has always exuded passion and positive energy, and has spoken at length about not feeling comfortable in Boston. He’s a prime candidate to shine when some of the pressure is taken off of him, and he’s allowed to just play ball.
He’s also not hitting in an unsustainable way. Sure, his BABIP jumps off the page a little, but prime Sandoval always had a high BABIP. When he’s hitting well he’s shooting the ball down the line and slapping it the other way. His number isn’t propped up by a bevy of walks or dingers that should eventually regress. He’s just been quietly, consistently, textbook good.
If you squint enough, you can find a few reasons to be cautiously optimistic that things will stay that way.