Depending on your scope, Pablo Sandoval has looked either incredibly familiar, or incredibly foreign this year.
He’s been a comfortably above average hitter this season, something he never came close to accomplishing as a member of the Boston Red Sox, or in his pre-2019 reclamation time with the San Francisco Giants. In that sense, it’s been an odd year. “Who is this guy? I don’t recognize him” you might remark.
He’s also putting up eerily similar offensive numbers to 2014, his final year in his initial stint with the Giants. That year he slashed .279/.324/.415. This year it’s .269/.314/.509. Both seasons left him with a wRC+ of 110, marking him as 10% better than the average hitter in that year. “Ahh, there’s the Panda I know and love. That looks just like him,” you might note.
Either way, you’d be right. And whether your baseline for Sandoval is the All-Star years in the Bay Area, or the get-paid-eight-figures-to-disappear stint on the East Coast, his hitting has always had one constant: A willingness and desire to swing at just about anything.
If you had told me before the year that Sandoval would have a bounce back campaign, a reasonable assumption might have been that he reformed his plate approach a little bit. Most hitters, as they age, need to do so to stay effective. It helps them deal with not only their waning athleticism, but an evolving league.
And yet . . . if Sandoval has reformed his plate approach, it hasn’t been in the way you would anticipate.
Here’s his walk rate for every year since 2009, his first full year in the big leagues (and disregarding 2016, when he played in only three games).
Even more notable is the strikeout numbers. Here’s his K rate:
Ahhh. Well. That’s pretty interesting.
Despite this mini-renaissance, Sandoval is striking out more than at any time in his career, and far more than when he was last good. Of course, baseball as a whole is striking out much more than it did 5-10 years ago, so in that regard, Sandoval is evolving his plate approach with the times.
But his walk rate is the third-lowest of his career. Walk less, strike out more isn’t usually a recipe for success.
Yet here we are. Perhaps loosening up his plate approach has allowed Sandoval to play a little more freely, and get back to the things that made him a plus hitter for so long. Perhaps these numbers are just funny, and will reverse course in 2020. Perhaps hitters are challenging him more and he’s loading up more, as the modern game calls for.
Either way, Sandoval is striking out more and walking less, and yet his OPS (.823) is better than his career mark (.780). So is his OPS+ (115 to 113). And his wRC+ (110 to 111) paints him as having an offensive year that is perfectly average in his book.
It’s not always conventional. It doesn’t always make sense. But then again, that’s Pablo Sandoval.