Panda and the Batting Title

April 3, 2017
 
Pablo Sandoval is going to win the American League batting title in 2017.
 
I think that’s covers me on the ‘bold prediction’ front, right? There’s no need to add anything else: ‘Pablo Sandoval, batting champ’ has sufficient boldness, all by itself. I can just go ahead and post this and call it a day.

Before I defend this projection, I’ll confess my biases. I’m a Red Sox fan, and I’m a fan of Pablo Sandoval. He was on the shortlist of my very favorite players in the National League during his tenure with the Giants, and I was thrilled when the Red Sox signed him as a free agent. Panda is an easy player to like: he is an aggressive hitter who tends to make hard contact, and he was, at least in his prime, a surprisingly adept defensive player. Most importantly, he seems to have fun on the diamond: he played the game like it’s a game.
 
It’s been hard, these last two years, to remember that Sandoval as being the same guy who has been rostered on the Boston team these past two years. I don’t think I’m underselling it to say that his time as a Red Sock has been Dickens-level bleak: after posting a less-than-impressive .245/.292/.366 batting line for the last-place 2015 squad, Sandoval arrived in camp visibly out of shape, and promptly lost his starting position to Travis Shaw. He lasted all of seven at-bats before a shoulder injury ended his season. Cue image of the soot-stained orphan waif pleading for a crust of bread.
 
I am, by nature, inclined towards optimism, but the notion that Sandoval would return as an effective major league player after two years in the wilderness slips past optimism, and teeters towards full-on delusion. Nonetheless, I think a comeback is coming.
 
Here’s why.
 
1.       Sandoval has had a terrific spring.
 
One of my least favorite ‘truths’ bandied about this time of the year is that spring training statistics are useless. They are largely useless: the sample sizes allowed in spring training are too small, and many of the players we pay attention to aren’t trying to win baseball games…they are trying to get ready for the season ahead. I don’t care that much if Max Scherzer has a good spring ERA, so long as his velocity is fine and he’s not walking more batters than he strikes out.
 
But sometimes a player’s spring performance matters, and sometimes a player’s performance can make strong hints at what kind of season is coming.  
 
Pablo Sandoval’s spring matters because he is fighting for his job: while the Boston Red Sox have said that the job was Sandoval’s, this is a team that is looking towards a title run: if Sandoval can’t handle the work, they’ll find someone else who can.
 
And the results have been interesting. Here are Sandoval’s batting numbers from this spring:
 
AB
H
2B
HR
BB
SO
BA
OBP
SLG
65
22
7
5
1
12
.338
.348
.677
 
I find this a huge positive going into the season, but not for the reasons you might think. I don’t care one iota that Sandoval is hitting .338, and I’m not all that impressed by the .677 slugging percentage. Those are fine marks, but it’s spring training: we’re dealing with small samples. Maybe he got lucky and had a dozen at-bats against Justin Verlander. What do I know?
 
What seems telling about Sandoval’s spring is that he is playing his game. The part I like the best about this batting line is the worst part of the batting line above: his absolutely abominable strikeout-to-walk ratio of twelve-to-one. That’s terrible. I love that it’s so bad.
 
I love it because it suggests that he is playing with confidence. He is hitting the way he’s always preferred to hit: by swinging. He’s not spending his training at-bats trying to work counts, or draw walks…he’s trying to square the ball up and rip it into the outfield. That’s great. That’s where his strength as a player lies.
 
The other number that gives me confidence is equally absurd: I like how many RBI’s he has. Last I checked, he was leading spring training players in runs batted in.
 
Well…what do runs batted in matter?
 
Nothing at all. Except…it is one thing for a team to state publicly that they stand behind a player. It is a separate thing entirely for a team to show that faith on the field. The Red Sox aren’t hiding Sandoval at the bottom of the order: they’ve been putting him into situations where he has the chance to drive in runs. The team isn’t just telling Sandoval that he has a job; they are sending the message that they expect him to produce at the position.
 
It’s been a terrible two years: there is no way to sugar coat the recent past, and no one would have blamed the Red Sox if the team had decided to cut bait with Pablo Sandoval. The team has chosen to try again, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for not doing it half-heartedly. The Red Sox are giving Sandoval an honest-to-God chance to contribute meaningfully to the team, and so far, it looks like he’s risen to the challenge.
 
2.       Sandoval profiles as a high-average hitter.
 
We tend to dismiss batting average in our little community, but for a few hitters batting average comprises the bulk of their offensive value. Sandoval is one of those players: he doesn’t walk much, and he isn’t a particularly prodigious power hitter, and he isn’t a contact-focused hitter. He’s a good hitter, but most of his value with the bat shows up in the first column of his triple-slash line.
 
Twice in his career, Sandoval has posted impressive batting averages: he finished second to Hanley Ramirez in the 2009 NL batting race, and he posted an impressive .315 average in 2011. His career average currently stands at .287, which is pretty impressive considering that most of his career was played in San Francisco.
 
 My point is that a successful comeback season for Sandoval will show most prominently in his batting line. It is unlikely that he will magically post strong defensive metrics going forward, and I don’t expect a late power spike or a sharp uptick in his contact rate going forward. If Sandoval improves meaningfully, that improvement will show up most prominently in his batting average.
 
And it is important to note that Sandoval’s average, for the bulk of his career, has been held in check by playing his home games in San Francisco’s AT&T Park, a stadium that hampers offensive production, particularly for left-handed hitters. Here are FanGraph’s park factors by handedness for AT&T:
 
Team
1B as LH
1B as RH
2B as LH
2B as RH
3B as LH
3B as RH
HR as LH
HR as RH
Giants
100
97
97
96
120
108
81
86
 
Sandoval is a switch-hitter, but he is better from the left-side of the plate, where he gets most of his playing time.
 
Speaking of parks…
 
3.       Fenway Park makes batting champs, and the park is due.
 
Let’s look at Fenway’s handedness factors, compared to AT&T Park:
 
Team
1B as LH
1B as RH
2B as LH
2B as RH
3B as LH
3B as RH
HR as LH
HR as RH
Giants
100
97
97
96
120
108
81
86
Red Sox
104
103
121
110
124
87
89
104
 
Fenway hampers left-handed power hitters: it is the third toughest park in the majors for a left-handed hitter to homer in. But Fenway is terrific when it comes to a left-handed hitter collecting singles, doubles, and triples. Fenway is the second-best park in baseball for left-handed singles and triples (behind Coors), and it’s the best park for left-handed doubles.
 
Anyone who has seen a picture of Fenway Park can understand why: the right field is huge and oddly angled, and someone put a giant wall in short left field. This means that left-handed hitters benefit from lots of space for their line drives to fall in, while chalking up a few fluke doubles on opposite-field fly balls.
 
This is why the Red Sox have done so well leading the league in batting average: in the team’s history, they can claim twenty-four batting champs, all of them coming in the sixty-eight seasons between Jimmie Foxx’s 1935 batting crown, and Bill Mueller’s 2003 title. And while Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski and Wade Boggs account for thirteen of those batting titles, Fenway’s made batting champs out of Carney Lansford, Billy Goodman, and Pete Runnels (twice). That’s not even counting Dale Alexander: he won a batting title in 1932, splitting time between Detroit and Boston. He hit .250 as a Tiger in 1932…and then he hit .372 after he joined the Red Sox.
 
That list is only a partial one: it makes no accounting of Jim Rice’s best years, or the best years of Dustin Pedroia. Johnny Pesky didn’t win a batting title, but he came in 2nd twice and third another time, retiring with a .307 average. Bobby Doerr narrowly lost a crowd to Lou Boudreau 1944 title (.327 to .325). Hell, Mo Vaughn hit .319 over a five-year span in Fenway…. there weren’t a lot of infield hits in that .319 clip.
 
Fenway Park creates high averages, especially for left-handed hitters, and Fenway’s been in a little bit of a rut in recent years. We’re now fourteen years out from Bill Mueller’s batting title: the old ballpark is due.
 
Pablo Sandoval isn’t going to hit a lot of homers: his ceiling in the power department is about fifteen or twenty homers, so we can assume that he’s not going to lose too many homers on flyball caught at the warning track. And I doubt that Sandoval, even slimmed down, is going to leg out too many triples this year. Where he’s going to make ground on his batting average…if he makes ground…is in his rate of singles and doubles. Sandoval’s great talent as a hitter is driving the ball out of the infield, and Fenway Park is a stadium that has always rewarded left-handed hitters who can do that.
 
I think Sandoval is the next guy the old stadium is going to reward: my bold prediction for 2017 is that Panda is going to end the 2017 season with a batting title to put on the shelf.
 
Why not? It’s Opening Day and thirty teams are sitting in first place. Anything can happen.  
 
 
Dave Fleming is a writer in New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

evanecurb
I lived in Virginia Beach for 20 years. It's the type of place you'd expect to see a lot of Golden Corrals. There are probably over a hundred locally owned, reasonably priced restaurants in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, but Golden Corral, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster are always packed. For Steve 161: the best national chain restaurant for burgers is Five Guys. But the best hamburgers are always at a local place, so you need to ask someone local. In Virginia Beach and Norfolk, it would be Kelly's. I haven't found a good burger place in Richmond in the ten years I've lived here.

7:49 AM Apr 10th
 
steve161
Pablo had an excellent game on Friday, at the end of which he was at an .891 OPS. Helluva a game, too, with late inning lead changes and Francisco Rodriguez, who used to blow people out of the water, just getting by with 88MPH and about six different change-ups. My life is SO much better now that the season is underway.
1:13 PM Apr 9th
 
ventboys
Altuve went 0-6 in a game, too. Even batting champs have rough days.
12:53 PM Apr 9th
 
DaveFleming
Yeah, really disappointing day for Panda. K-Rod made him look foolish on a couple pitches....
3:22 PM Apr 7th
 
OldBackstop
So, uh, Panda went 0 for 7 today in the opening of the Tigers series. Don't even bother looking at the box score.
3:12 PM Apr 7th
 
steve161
The difference between 7 years overseas and 40: Dave still has a handle on restaurants. I should probably open a Reader Posts topic so you guys can give me advice on where to find a good hamburger (which is one area in which America's cultural superiority remains unchallenged).
7:38 AM Apr 6th
 
DaveFleming
I think....and my memory is spotty here, so I might be totally wrong....but I think there used to be a few more Golden Corrals in MA. I think there might've been one somewhere on Route 9 in Framingham, amid a stretch of car dealerships. Probably turned into an Olive Garden by now...

I've only been to the GC once, and it was in Virginia Beach. Looking it up, there are five Golden Corrals in Virginia Beach, which is impressive. It's an interesting place (both the restaurant and Virginia Beach).

Side note: I really enjoy that all of my articles devolve into Evanecurb and me discussing chain breakfast places....it's our version of Godwin's Law. All of our conversation, if extended long enough, will circle around to the subject of Waffle House.
3:37 PM Apr 5th
 
evanecurb
One Golden Corral in the whole state? Amazing. Texas has 63; Florida 55, North Carolina 42, Mass. 1, Connecticut 1, Rhode Island 0. I'm starting to see a pattern emerge here.....
10:46 AM Apr 5th
 
DaveFleming
Actually...I think I predicted a batting title for Panda in 2015. It's in the '50 Ways to Predict a Season', so you can't blame me for it. And there's only one Golden Corral in MA, and it's all the way out in Springfield, so I think Panda's safe. Those places are....very interesting. I really should write a book about American breakfasts.

One slight positive is that Sandoval, if he stays healthy, is going to get into 135 or 140 games, not 160. He should get plenty of rest, and avoid match-ups against tough lefties. So that might help....he could get a short-season batting title, like McGee (traded to AL) or Cuddyer (130 games).

Cuddyer is a good example of park effects influencing batting average significantly: he was a .271 career hitter who went to Colorado at Age-33, and posted a batting average of .331 in two years as a Rockie.
8:27 PM Apr 4th
 
ventboys
I can feel your thought process, Dave, and in many or most cases I would agree with you. We picked up Sandoval for our big money fantasy team in 2015, based on the same reasoning.

I looked him up and he actually had a fairly large home/road split with the Giants. He hit very well in PacBell (or whatever phone company owns the name now) Park, .313-.365-.488, a .853 ops compared to his overall .790. His career home/road ops numbers are .841-.743. I wish I had done that two years ago, it would have saved us some grief. I blame you, Dave, for waiting until 2017 to write this article, you procrastinator.

If Panda can stay healthy - and maybe avoid Golden Corral - I still think it's possible he could have a big year. Nobody saw whazzhisname from Minnesota coming when he won a batting title with Colorado in 2013. Michael Cuddyer. I can never remember his name. If Sandoval plays 145 games, I see no reason why he couldn't hit .290-.310 with 20 homers, 100 rbi. Small sample sizes, the possibility that he'll really take to the park, and the vagarities of babip could ratchet that up to .330, and then you never know.

Nobody expects Panda to outhit Mookie, of course, but if you are offering some odds, guys, I might take the bet.
3:17 PM Apr 4th
 
Davidg32
I've always liked the Panda, and Fenway is an awfully good park for a hitter. Don't see him winning a batting title, though.
9:02 AM Apr 4th
 
packbringley
Your email address is dfleming1986 and you're a Red Sox fan? 1986?
8:32 AM Apr 4th
 
JackKeefe
I can't be sure because I've never hit left-handed in Fenway Park, but it seems to me that one thing that the park has going for it is that the Green Monster serves as the world's best batting eye for left handed hitters against right handed pitchers. A lefty swinger is basically looking towards shortstop against a right handed pitcher, and there's nothing but a big green wall framing a white baseball with red seams. Especially if you're a guy like Sandoval who likes to take the outside pitch the other way, keeping your head on the ball, there's nothing to distract you. Of course, I felt the same way when the Panda signed with the Sox, and he put up a dud of a season, so who knows?
8:23 PM Apr 3rd
 
jimburb
He's still fat, he peaked as a player 8 years ago, he missed virtually all of last year with shoulder surgery. And he's still fat. He won't hit his weight. He won't finish within 75 points of Jose Altuve. Fat. And yet he'll out hit Mitch Moreland. Who looks kinda fat, too.


4:41 PM Apr 3rd
 
OldBackstop
Good article. Ain't gonna happen. He has an injuryish body at this age..
4:16 PM Apr 3rd
 
chuck
I'm not rooting against the panda, but I also couldn't see the image of the soot-stained orphan waif, as it was hidden behind the image of a rotund man busting his belt on a swing. Good to hear he was motivated to lose weight this offseason.
4:00 PM Apr 3rd
 
DaveFleming
He had good at-bats today....fly out to the opposite field gap in his first appearance. Drove in the first run on a hard infield single, and later scored from second on a single up the middle. Struck out in his last at-bat, but he scorched a liner just foul down the right-field line. Looked good in the field, too.
3:14 PM Apr 3rd
 
mskarpelos
You're not alone, Dave. When the Red Sox come to the Bay Area (either Oakland or SF) , you can still find fans wearing Panda hats. For some people, hope never dies.
2:07 PM Apr 3rd
 
pgaskill
Ha. I'm not a Red Sox fan either—in fact, I generally root for them to finish last while the Yankees finish FIRST. ;-) I'm neutral with Panda; I'm fine with him doing well. That said, I agree with what steve161 says about Mookie Betts.
8:51 AM Apr 3rd
 
steve161
I'm not a Red Sox fan--in fact, I generally root for them to finish tied with the Yankees for last place--but I've always liked Pablo and hope he succeeds. That said, I'll be surprised if he finishes with a higher average than Mookie Betts.
7:01 AM Apr 3rd
 
 
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