Pablo Sandoval and Bouncing Back

After finishing in last place in their division in 2015, the Red Sox plan to bounce back in 2016. You know this because they’ve done things like sign David Price to a seven-year contract paying him a swimming pool filled with doubloons. Similarly they’ve dealt prospects to the Padres, which means “Wait, what?” in Spanish, for reliever Craig Kimbrel. They also dealt a starting pitcher, Wade Miley, to the Mariners, for reliever Carson Smith. Unless you subscribe to the idea that the Red Sox can’t abide a player who loses a cow milking competition — a reasonable position to take I’ll grant you — all of these are win-now moves. The Red Sox think they can compete in 2016.

However, in order to win now, these new players will have to perform better than last year’s new players, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, did in their first seasons in Boston. After producing a collective 6.4 WAR in 2014, the last season with their previous clubs, Ramirez and Sandoval recorded a cumulative -3.8 WAR in 2015 with Boston. That’s a drop of over 10 wins in total from two players aged 31 and 28, respectively — not exactly ages at which you expect players to fall off a cliff. Perhaps more surprisingly, a large portion of that negative production came from the players’ defense.

As you know if you read these same electronic pages, Ramirez was a mess at his new position of left field in 2015, so much so that there are no more jokes to make about him. Literally all of the jokes have been made. As a result (of his defense, not the joke thing), the Red Sox are moving him to yet another a new position this coming season. That was surprising because we all figured a guy who had played shortstop in the majors would be able to handle left field. Apparently not. And yet this isn’t an article about Hanley Ramirez. It’s an article about Pablo Sandoval’s defense. Who would have guessed?

Sandoval’s failure was also surprising, but in a different way. The Panda had been an above-average defender in three of his last four seasons in San Francisco before belly-flopping off the high dive into an empty pool last season. Figuratively speaking — although that’s not too far from what his defense looked like. The strange part was, though he moved from San Francisco to Boston, Sandoval continued playing the same third-base position he’d played since breaking in with the Giants in 2008. There was no new position, and no real difference between third base in San Francisco and third base in Boston, certainly not enough of one to explain the drop in his defense from +5.3 to -15.1 runs*.

*Note: for the purposes of this post, I use overall defensive runs (which includes positional adjustment) and not merely fielding runs. This allows for comparisons across positions and also accounts for players who’ve recorded time at multiple positions in one season.

That’s not to say there isn’t a good explanation, because there is a good explanation. In fact, I suspect you’ve heard it before assuming this isn’t your first FanGraphs article. It’s random variation. That’s not a very satisfying argument to make, though. Looking at his defense on a micro level and comparing it to his defense in 2014 might yield more specific issues from a scouting perspective, but on the whole, players have good seasons and they have bad ones.

For example, take Pablo Sandoval. Please! Ha ha, just kidding (not really). Here are Sandoval’s defensive runs going back to his first full season in 2009:

2009: -4.7
2010: -0.5
2011: +13.9
2012: +2.4
2013: -2.8
2014: +5.3
2015: -15.1

To recap, that’s below average, average, way above average, above average, below average, well above average, flaming mess. Remember, we’re talking about the same guy here and he’s playing the same position. In four years, he went from the third-best defensive third baseman in baseball (better than Adrian Beltre!) to the worst defensive third baseman in baseball by a large margin (the next worst third baseman was Brett Lawrie at -8.7) and the fourth-worst defensive player period by our rankings. Yuck. For the Red Sox, it’s even worse because they’re depending on this guy to play third base every day. They spent money, they traded good prospects for relievers, and they want to win baseball games, but Sandoval’s horrendous defense at third looks like it may hinder Boston’s efforts. What Boston needs is Sandoval to bounce back. Can he?

Sure! But how? It’s another concept in which you may be well versed if you are a regular around here. It’s called regression to the mean. In a basic way, regression to the mean is the idea that any extreme number will move closer to the arithmetic mean upon a second test. In essence, it’s likely that more of the plays Sandoval will be asked to make next season will, for a variety of reasons, be made. If you assume that there are a billion possible plays that any given third baseman could be called upon to make during the course of a season, some random group of those will be the plays that Sandoval is called upon to make. In 2015, perhaps some of those plays were more difficult for him individually, or did not fit into his skill set. Also likely, sometimes players just play worse. Good players make bad plays. Bad players make good plays. It’s baseball. It’s numbers. It’s life.

But just to see if this kind of thing really works, I looked back at the 10 worst defensive players in 2014, again by defensive runs. Did they improve defensively in 2015? With the help of editor extraordinaire Carson Cistulli, here is a list of the worst qualified defenders from 2014 who didn’t either retire before the 2015 season (Adam Dunn) or play the entire 2015 season in the minors (Dayan Viciedo), where “worst” is defined as the lowest defensive-runs mark per 600 plate appearances. I’ve also included the same numbers for their 2015 season, for sake of comparison.

Miserable Defenders, 2014 to 2015
Name 2014 PA 2014 Def 2014 Def/600 2015 PA 2015 Def 2015 Def/600
Matt Kemp 599 -26.5 -26.5 648 -24.1 -22.3
Torii Hunter 586 -24.7 -25.3 567 -6.5 -6.9
Dexter Fowler 505 -20.6 -24.5 690 0.6 0.5
Victor Martinez 641 -21.2 -19.8 485 -14.6 -18.1
Shin-Soo Choo 529 -16.7 -18.9 653 -10.5 -9.6
Edwin Encarnacion 542 -15.8 -17.5 624 -11.7 -11.3
Domonic Brown 512 -14.9 -17.5 204 -2.0 -5.9
Nick Castellanos 579 -16.3 -16.9 549 -9.0 -9.8
Chris Carter 572 -15.5 -16.3 391 -10.6 -16.3
Curtis Granderson 654 -17.2 -15.8 682 -0.7 -0.6
Average 572 -18.9 -19.9 549 -8.9 -10.0
Def/600 denotes defensive runs per 600 plate appearances.

That’s some pretty horrendous fielding from some non-stellar fielders. They can’t all have improved, right? And yet, on the basis of the total damage done, they all did improve! Some players even improved a lot. Hunter went from extraordinarily bad to run-of-the-mill bad in similar playing time. Fowler went from terrible to very slightly above average, and did it with more playing time. On the whole, even given the playing time changes, the damage done on a per-innings basis was about half.

Of course Sandoval is a specific case. If he goes from a -15.8 to a -15.7 while playing 126 games like 2015, that’s going to be huge problem for the Red Sox. Still, like the above list of players shows, the chances are Sandoval will improve in the field. Sandoval has his age and his defensive history as an above-average player going for him, but mostly we can expect some improvement from him because it’s simply mathematically hard to be that bad again. So fortunately for the Red Sox, even if Sandoval isn’t as good as they wanted him to be, it’s likely he’s not as bad as he’s been. At least defensively. Let’s just agree to not talk about his hitting.



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jfree
Member
jfree
4 months 4 days ago

The real question is who wants to be the one who tries to catch him on the bounceback? I think I’d prefer to wait on the sidelines until he stops bouncing.

Joe
Member
Joe
4 months 4 days ago

Plate appearances doesn’t seem like a good denominator for defensive statistics. Choo, Martinez, Encarnacion, and Carter all spent significant amounts of time at DH for at least one of those seasons.

bbdawgrex
Member
bbdawgrex
4 months 4 days ago

Martinez fielded 3x as many innings in 2014 than 2015. Declined heavily on a per inning basis from 2014 to 2015

EE fielded 50% more innings in 2014 than 2015. On a per inning basis, wouldve been about even instead of improving.

Carter played innings in the OF in 2014, which was where he was really terrible. No OF in 2015.

Cory Settoon
Member
4 months 4 days ago

Most of the players on that list have years and years of being a bad defender (negative double digit Def value).

At least with the Panda, he has had some positives more recently. Not sure if that’ll mean anything, but couldn’t hurt.

redsoxu571
Member
redsoxu571
4 months 3 days ago

That’s pretty much the point of the article. If a group of a season’s worst defenders (likely composed primarily of annual bad defenders) can see improvement across-the-board and major improvement as a group, you have essentially proven regression towards the mean as a likely outcome for any bad defender.

Once you lump in Sandoval’s not-bad defensive history, you assume that he did something differently before 2015 (leading to his belly flop) and so needs only return to what worked for him before to make an around-average season a near lock.

Slappytheclown
Member
Slappytheclown
4 months 4 days ago

Boston needs to make sure Panda bites are spinkled around 3b like Giants did. Makes him bend his knees more to pick them up, keeps him on toes.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member
4 months 4 days ago

Fat SOB’s like Panda have bouncing fronts, not bouncing backs.

edgcar
Member
edgcar
4 months 4 days ago

I think it is reprehensible to call someone that. Yes, he had an awful year. Let me be specific: he had 1 awful year while changing leagues. This is a player who was unequivocally pivotal in 2 world series winning teams. Can he be that guy again or at least close to it? Absolutely, why not?

Btw, he’s taken 20 pounds off already

Joser
Member
Joser
4 months 3 days ago

Every year he loses weight in the off-season, and then puts it back on during games. It became such a running joke at McCovey Chronicles that they had a #fatchat tag, and a couple of years ran before/after pictures with a svelte-ish Sandoval at Spring Training and then something that looked like Jabba the Hut’s pile of laundry by the following August. Yet despite all that, it didn’t seem to have much effect on his output. Which means losing weight this offseason isn’t much of a predictor for improved performance with the Red Sox.

jmsdean477
Member
jmsdean477
4 months 4 days ago

I always thought it was a bit incredulous that someone as un-athletic as Panda could actually score positive defensive marks. He looks like he shouldn’t be good on defense with that body, maybe last year was just him regressing to his physical mean.

scooter262
Member
Member
scooter262
4 months 4 days ago

Can any of the variance in Panda’s defensive metrics be correlated to his weight during those seasons? In other words, were his defensive metrics worse when he was heavier?

I know that his weight typically bounced around quite a bit — e.g. he would typically start a season very fat and lose weight as the season went along.

Likely, there’s no way to analytically tie Panda’s playing weight to his defensive metrics–you’d need data that probably isn’t measured (day-to-day player weights), but I’m wondering if this might explain some of the variance.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 4 days ago

If you look at either UZR or DRS, the one season where Panda was a true standout was 2011, following an offseason where he literally got into the best shape of his life after his embarrassing 2010. So my best guess is that at the extremes, he plays great defense when he’s in MLB-average condition, good defense when he’s in Sandoval-average condition, and crappy defense when he’s got his own gravitational field.

WilsonOnHouse
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WilsonOnHouse
4 months 3 days ago

The greatest correlation for “best shape of his life” is # of spring training articles about “players in the best shape of their life.”

WARrior
Member
Member
WARrior
4 months 3 days ago

On the contrary, when he’s got his own gravitational field, balls hit in his general direction should curve towards him, making his defense better. His increased girth will also stop line drives that get by skinnier third basemen.

Hurtlocker
Member
Hurtlocker
4 months 4 days ago

I think the Giants didn’t sign Panda because he is so undisciplined. The weight isn’t the only thing, he seems immature in his personal life, drinking, partying and bad decisions all diminish his talent. He has a ton of cash now, no real motivation to get better.

Menthol
Member
Member
Menthol
4 months 4 days ago

This Giants fan would like to agree with what you say here, but my recollection is that the Giants matched the Red Sox’s offer to Panda. They were saved only by his desire for a change.

walt526
Member
walt526
4 months 4 days ago

That’s correct. He took great offense to the Giants signing Hunter Pence to a $90M/5yr extension before the season started, but offering him only 3 years, and so he signed with Boston for exactly the same amount of money that the Giants were offering.

scooter262
Member
Member
scooter262
4 months 4 days ago

Well, as a Red Sox fan, let’s hope that shame can motivate him now that he’s got all the money he needs. To not be an embarrassment at his position, and not get booed relentlessly at Fenway might be enough motivation to get him back close to what he can be.

redsoxu571
Member
redsoxu571
4 months 3 days ago

The one thing I strongly disagree with is regarding your view that Sandoval lacked motivation. I think he works very hard at his craft. But for years Sandoval seemed displeased that the Giants were so insistent that he be in better shape, and his displeasure implies that he assumed he would be just fine if he did things “his way”.

Well, 2015 proved that wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt. Sandoval is human; he thought he could get away with being in worse shape. Now he knows he can’t, and so likely will do what he has to do to be better prepared.

As of now, we really have no clear evidence that Sandoval is lazy or unmotivated. We know that he doesn’t care much about being in shape, but that’s not the same thing. If he is the same for 2016 though, after as bad a season as he’s just had, that would point to him sitting on his contract. So we’ll have to wait and see…but if I had to bet one way, I’d say expect to see him in better shape in 2016.

Paul22
Member
Paul22
4 months 4 days ago

Too much emphasis on defense here. After Hanley hurt his shoulder, he was awful at the plate. Pablo was so bad he gave up batting from the right side, at Fenway! Didnt do much from the left side of the plate.

Then add in Victorino and Napoli, who were awful, slow starts by Ortiz and Betts, and Pedroias injury, and the Red Sox offense was awful for much of the first half.

edgcar
Member
edgcar
4 months 4 days ago

You forgot to mention the horrible pitching from inning 1 through 9. Oh man, that was painful to watch.

lostatlimbo
Member
lostatlimbo
4 months 4 days ago

This is seriously one of the funniest articles I’ve read on here. Kudos.

jwpepa
Member
jwpepa
4 months 4 days ago

I disagree. I find writers reaching to make puns and trying to throw in sarcasm distracting and annoying. Just wasted words/sentences. But people seem to love sportscenter so I’m very likely in the minority.

With all due respect…just write your analysis, don’t try to be amusing. While your at it, get off my lawn.

Joeys Bat Flip
Member
Joeys Bat Flip
4 months 3 days ago

You misspelled you’re. That shit’s annoying.

Aside from that, I tend to agree: writing humor is really hard, and trying to make jokes can really subtract from a substantive article. That’s not to say that you can’t provide levity in a post, but it should be done carefully, and only when it will very clearly fit nicely. I find that Jeff Sullivan’s posts are the only ones where humor fits well.

I feel like Kory works to ‘find spots’ where jokes will fit, rather than inserting them when they come to him as he’s writing, or otherwise in review. I obviously don’t know this and am going off of what I read in the article, but it is nonetheless my impression.

Matthew – focus on the analysis, and leave the jokes aside unless you really think that they add to the commentary somehow.

ice_hawk10
Member
ice_hawk10
4 months 4 days ago

BSOHL reports are already filtering out. in other words he’s doomed.

regress him halfway to average and he’s still a pretty bad defender with a weak, overaggressive platoon bat and a terrible, high-risk body.

Joeys Bat Flip
Member
Joeys Bat Flip
4 months 3 days ago

An interesting data point that can help this analysis is to look at the Inside Edge Fielding data. For those unfamiliar, IE employs scouts who literally watch every ball hit and determine how likely a fielder is to make a successful play on it. Then, you can tabulate these up and see whether a player’s improvement in the field is due to an increased ability to get impossible-to-get-to balls, or simply not letting as many routine balls get past him. The obvious caveat is that there’s subjectivity in how you describe a hit ball, but these are scouts and they aggregate across a few of them to try to remove that variance in evaluating a ball.

So with that in mind, if we look at Sandoval’s IE fielding data (which only goes back to 2012, and therefore misses his best year of 2011, we see that the biggest slide that happened last year was in getting the more straightforward plays. Here are his numbers for the last three years for plays defined as ‘Likely’, meaning he should get 60-90%:

2013-83.3%
2014-89.4%
2015-68.8%

For plays defined as ‘Even (40-60% likelihood):

2013-60.9%
2014-71.4%
2015-52.6%

For less likely plays, there is no substantial deviation from his career numbers (not going to put them here, go look them up if you care), which tells us that Sandoval is still making the diving stops at the same frequency he always has. He’s still charging hard on bunts and making the play to first with the same frequency he always has.

But the hard hit ball right at him? For some reason 2015 didn’t work out well for him on those plays. Maybe he’s a good candidate for a bounceback, especially since his sustained ability to make the tough plays suggests his skills haven’t deteriorated across the board; it ‘feels’ like the physical skills are still there, so maybe this is a mental/focus thing.

Joeys Bat Flip
Member
Joeys Bat Flip
4 months 3 days ago

Oh, and for a laugh, Hanley’s IE numbers are remarkable. That guy didn’t make a successful play on any play where the scouts said the likelihood of making it was less than 60%, and his success rate on ‘Likely’ balls (60-90%) was 55.6%. Of interest, Hanley’s last season at short for the Dodgers was poor as well, by IE, as his ‘Likely’ rate was 56% (although he did make some of the trickier plays at short that year.

In conclusion, on balls hit at him in 2015 that the scouts defined as more difficult than just ‘routine’, adding up all the categories, Hanley’s success rate was 8.1%, which is terrible. If the ball wasn’t hit right at him, Hanley did not make a play on it more than one time in every eleven

redsoxu571
Member
redsoxu571
4 months 3 days ago

And people wonder why Boston’s rotation was a tirefire in the first half and then pretty much what was expected in the second half…

Sadly, people tended to ignore that second part, and outside of the Price addition don’t seem to realize just how much damage Ramirez really did, or how reasonably well the pitchers did were it not for Ramirez being there.

In other words, look for a pretty good season from Rick Porcello.

redsoxu571
Member
redsoxu571
4 months 3 days ago

Actually, let’s talk about the bat.

The narrative is simple. Before 2014, Sandoval could hit LHP well as a RHB. In 2014, it fell off. In 2015, it vanished into a black hole. Ouch.

Sandoval abandoned batting RH once he realized this, and held his own vs LHP as a LHB. He still wasn’t as good with the bat in any form, including vs RHP, but it’s amazing how much those 43 PAs as a RHB murdered his overall line:
2015 Overall- .245/.292/.366, 0.658 OPS
2015 as a LHB (minus the 43 RH PAs)- .263/.310/.396, 0.706 OPS

He lost 48 OPS points from just 8.5% of his season’s PAs…batting in a way that he will not in 2016. Assuming even a little improvement as a LHB vs LHP (which he had never done before), that projects a very sizable improvement just from the batting handedness change alone.

channelclemente
Member
4 months 3 days ago

I think the Lasix eye surgery caused the PHB problem. In any case, less than 260 pounds Sandoval is a superstar, 300+ he’s a buffoon. He started 2011 at ~240.

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