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Player Review: Blake Sabol

The Giants asked a lot of Blake Sabol in 2023. He answered with not perfect baseball, but immaculate vibes.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at San Francisco Giants Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

2023 stats: 110 G, 344 PA, .235/.301/.394, wRC+ 92, 7% BB%, 34% K%, .158 ISO, .330 BABIP

I wrote a piece on Blake Sabol and the San Francisco Giants catching conundrum in March, cheekily comparing Sabol to the greatest band of all time while referring to Patrick Bailey as the pitching coach Andrew (amazing how far off my radar he was).

Some things have changed since then, and some things haven’t. The Beatles cultural cachet has not waned in these past 9 months (miraculously!), Andrew Bailey is no longer with the organization, and the not-related Patrick seems primed to be behind the Oracle dish for a long time. If Joey Bart wasn’t feeling a bit like the Fredo of the bunch back in the spring, he certainly is now: frustrated, stepped over, drunkenly walking up to Bailey at the team holiday party and shouting: “I can handle things…not like everyone says, like I’m dumb…I’m smart, and I want respect!”

Bailey’s play certainly backseated Bart’s future with the Giants, but the arrival of Blake Sabol complicated things further. The latter’s intrigue, power upside, and defensive flexibility kept the former number-1 draft pick relegated to Triple-A during the 2023 season and could make his services redundant going further.

But let’s not jump the gun. Bart hasn’t yet been taken out on Lake Tahoe to go fishing. He’s still on the 40-man roster and is projected by Fangraphs to be on the 26-man roster to start next season. While Bart has spent his minor league options, Sabol can now be shuttled back and forth between Triple-A as needed, whether it’s to fill in for an injured catcher, or aging corner outfielder (Lord knows there are plenty on the Giants payroll), or provide potential pop off the bench against a right-hander. That on-field utility now bolstered by roster flexibility might give Bart another chance to cling to a job with the orange-and-black and lead to both coexisting on the ‘24 roster.

As Bryan Murphy pointed out in his recent outfield breakdown, Sabol could just as easily be used to sweeten a deal as he currently exists in that dubious spot of uncertainty and intrigue. He’s not a “sure-thing” based on what he’s done, but it’s still all about what he could do. Upside and potential still hold sway in conversations about him, whereas Bart has floundered for too long on the shelf, he’s no longer the ripest apple in the pile.

Personally, it feels like it’s time for Bart to go. He’s a defensively solid catcher who is incredibly confusing as a hitter with problems similar if not worse to Sabol’s and ten-times the fan burnout. If Bart can help the front office swap for pitching depth or bolster the athleticism and defense of the bench, there should be no hesitation.

Admittedly, I’m a Sabol apologist. Was from the get-go and more so now after spending a season with him. His rookie season wasn’t easy, and it certainly didn’t look easy, and if you expected it to be easy based on Sabol’s experience, shame on you.

He had made 93 appearances behind the plate in the Pirates organization with only 8 (64.1 innings) of them coming in Triple-A Indianapolis before being plucked by the Giants as a Rule-5 pick. But it wasn’t his defense that enticed San Francisco, but his bat, and it intrigued enough in Spring Training to not be offered back to Cincinnati and make the Major League roster—a place that he would have to stay if he were to remain with the club.

The Rule-5 regulations cut both ways. The player gets a potentially season-long opportunity to proof his worth and make the club feel like they can’t let him go—but he is also held hostage by their needs.

The Giants needed catching. The Giants needed outfielders. The Giants needed a designated hitter, a bat off the bench, a runner. Sabol did it all. Sometimes poorly, sometimes serviceably, sometimes extraordinarily. His season is a checkerboard of feel-good moments and screw-ups but always dealt with a veteran’s maturity and an eagerness to get better.

I mean it took Sabol until his 8th game in his career and 3rd as a catcher to get his name in the Hall of Fame by becoming a member of the first all-Samoan battery (with Sean Manaea) in Major League history.

He etched his name in franchise history weeks later with his walk-off 2-run homer against the Cardinals, flipping a 2-out, 2-strike, 1-run deficit into magic. It was only the 5th time in franchise history that a come-from-behind walk-off homer happened on the batter’s last strike. 14 years had passed since the last one.

He laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt to set-up runners in scoring position before Mike Yastrzemski’s walk-off homer against the Padres in June. He warmed the cockles of our hearts by consoling a visiting Giant fan after interfering with a ball in play at Citi Field. He sought out wisdom from the greats and his first hitting lesson with Barry Bonds inspired his first multi-HR game in July.

Sabol started out hot with the bat in his hands, maintaining a .763 OPS through the All-Star Break (though he managed only a .562 OPS after that). His slash line with runners on base: .301/.354/.549 with a .9093 OPS (149 PA). It gets better. With runners in scoring position: .368/ .398/ .618 with an OPS of 1.016 (85 PA). It’s really all you want from a hitter: Capitalize on opportunities and keep the pressure on. Sabol kept the line moving.

But of course there were holes—mainly, baseball-sized holes in his swing. He did a fair job finding the barrel of the bat if contact was made but that’s a big “if”. Good lord, he could swing through a pitch. His Whiff-rate of 35.4% was in the 5th percentile of the sport, his 34% K-rate was ranked even lower.

His zone discipline was average, he wasn’t chasing more than the next guy, he was just missing the pitches a lot of guys hit. His 27.7% Zone Swing and Miss rate was 10th highest in the MLB (min 300 PA). Notably a hair higher than Aaron Judge. So it’s okay to miss the ball, especially when you’re swinging to flatten it, you just got to make sure the loudness of the contact makes up for the lack of it. Sabol had his moments of bash, but for someone with a 6’4’’, 225 pound build, you’d hope for a little more crash-boom-bang from his Statcast numbers. Both Hard-Hit% and average Exit Velocity were below average. His power went more to the center and left than his pull side which tends to be flashier. On Fangraphs quality of contact scale, Sabol did well to avoid Soft-contact (13.7%) but seemed to top out at Medium-contact (56.4%) —a similar profile to Luis Matos. While Matos’s problem with effective power might have come from his physicality, Sabol’s problem might be his struggle with a consistent swing path that launches the baseball at the ideal angle (“sweet-spot”) for probable success.

The holes continue: A sieve more than a wall behind the plate. Not exactly the picture of grace when chasing down a fly ball.

A bit goofy in left with a limited range and overall below league average rating, he wasn’t terrible and a better option than Joc Pederson or Mitch Haniger. As a backstop he was a bit of a mess. He was tagged with 6 pass balls but 28 wild pitches happened with him behind the dish. Statcast ranked him as the worst blocker in the league with -19 blocks above average. His arm accuracy and his ability to limit the running game was a concern going into the season, and it didn’t impress. His 2.00 pop time to second was tied for 65th slowest in the Majors. He threw out 16% of base stealers (7 of 44) while Bailey threw out 28%. His framing was decent, his arm accuracy was improving but it was still work for Sabol.

Overall, even with all his areas of growth, the vibes are still good with Sabol. Not a mathematical calculation, but an irrefutable one compared with the vibes of someone like Joey Bart.

Some want defensive prowess at the cost of no-bat with their back-up catcher, but with Sabol the Giants got something a little more raw but malleable in 2023. He now has 343 Major League plate appearances, 393.1 innings behind the plate, 271.2 innings in left under his belt, and a chance to be a bit more dynamic role player in 2024 than a no-surprises back-up backstop.

We’re still talking about upside, and I believe in the upside a hell of a lot more when the player has character.