Pablo Sandoval: Jack-Be-Nimble, Jack-Be-Quick

He didn’t win a Gold Glove. He didn’t win a Fielding Bible Award. But Pablo Sandoval may be the best defensive third baseman in the National League, if not the majors.

Yes, I’m a San Francisco Giants fan. A season-ticket holder, in fact. So I do see a lot of Sandoval at the hot corner over the course of the season. But neither my fandom nor my eyes have blinded me. Sandoval is just that good. And not “good for a guy who looks like the Kung Fu Panda”; just flat-out good.

Let’s start with the numbers. Sandoval only played 904 innings at third base in 2011, as he missed about six weeks with a broken hamate bone in his right hand. Adrian Beltre — who won the American League Gold Glove and Fielding Bible Award for his play at third base — logged 980 innings at third. Placido Polanco — the winner of the National League Gold Glove — manned the hot corner for 1,044 innings. Evan Longoria was at third for 1,124 innings. Those were the top four defensive third baseman in the majors in 2011.

With the fewest innings played of the four, Sandoval led all third basemen in the three types defensive metrics tracked on FanGraphs.  He had the most rPM (runs plus minus saved) and DRS (defensive runs saved) with 20 and 22, respectively. He had the highest RZR (revised zone rating) and excelled at reaching balls outside the average third baseman’s zone (OOZ). He also had the highest UZR/150 at 17.9. And he did all of this on the team with the third-highest ground-ball rate in the majors.

Sandoval is the only infielder with the highest rating in all three types of defensive metrics. For first basemen, second basemen and shortstops, no single player captured the season lead in all three categories. This is significant because, as discussed in the FanGraphs glossary, the various metrics measure defensive acumen in different ways and often produce conflicting results. The fact that Sandoval mastered all of the metrics suggests to me, at least, that he was the very best at the hot corner in 2011.

At first base, Adrian Gonzalez ran away with the UZR/150 lead with a 10.8 rating, but fell short in RZR, rPM and DRS. Mark Trumbo had the highest rPM, DRS and OOZ but rated poorly on RZR.  Todd Helton had the highest RZR but otherwise was in the middle of the pack. Joey Votto was third in UZR/150, consistently good in other metrics, but didn’t lead any particular one.  Albert Pujols won the Fielding Bible Award for first base.

At second base, Howie Kendrick nearly had the defensive metrics trifecta, but was edged out in rPM and DRS by Ben Zobrist, who had 17 rPM and 17 DRS. Kendrick ended 2011 with a UZR/150 of 19.7, an RZR of .905, 14 rPM and 15 DRS. Dustin Pedroia made the most plays out-of-zone and was just .3 behind Kendrick in UZR/150, and won both the American League Gold Glove and the Fielding Bible Award.

You know who led the majors in DRS and rPM at shortstop? Brendan Ryan of the Seattle Mariners. And right behind him? Clint Barmes, then of the Houston Astros and now with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ryan also had the most out-of-zone plays. Barmes also had the highest RZR. Alexei Ramirez of the Chicago White Sox led in UZR and UZR/150. Troy Tulowitzki led in none of the metrics and won both the National League Gold Glove and the Fielding Bible Award.

Those are the numbers. But defense, like baseball, isn’t only about the numbers. It’s about the beauty of the dives, the slides, the stops, and the throws. Pablo Sandoval painted a beautiful portrait at third base in 2011.

He did it with plays down the third base line, like this and this; diving plays in the hole between third and short, like this and this; fielding bunts, like this; barehanded plays, like this; charging plays with throws home, like thisthis and this; and by running, sliding, back-to-the-plate grabs like this.

Sure, we could put together a similar highlight reel for Beltre, Polanco and Longoria. They all made spectacular plays throughout the season. But Sandoval was the best in every way, by every measure.




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Wendy's baseball writing has also been published by Sports on Earth. ESPN.com, SB Nation, The Score, Bay Area Sports Guy, The Classical and San Francisco Magazine. Wendy practiced law for 18 years before beginning her writing career. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


37 Responses to “Pablo Sandoval: Jack-Be-Nimble, Jack-Be-Quick”

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  1. Brad Johnson says:

    I’m curious why you went with that title.

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  2. mettle says:

    I’ve also had the pleasure of catching Panda at Pacbell about a dozen times, and it *seems* like one of those confirmatory cases where your eyes match the stats.
    But, I would hate to predict how he’ll field in 2012. I do think it’s hard to tell whether he really did looke “good for a guy who looks like the Kung Fu Panda” since his quantitative success isn’t long-running. Maybe he just looks good on the field because expectations are so low.

    Also, one minor quibble: Playing time, or lack thereof, isn’t relevant when you’re talking about rate stats (RZR, UZR/150), except as detracting from performance.

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    • Matthew says:

      really?

      DUDE WAS AMAZING THIS YEAR!

      I watched well over 80 or 90 of the games he played in.

      The man has ridiculous reflexes, makes the smart decision, and has a plus arm.

      He doesn’t play like a guy who looks like the kung fu panda. He did amazing things. Watch his highlights. Just watch him again. He’s more tiger than man. He’s like a big, strong cat.

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  3. Brad Johnson says:

    Throw away comment aside, you make two different claims which you seem to treat as one – that Sandoval had the best defensive season at 3rd base and that Sandoval may be the best defensive third baseman.

    You then proceed to argue the former point and ignore the latter, so I assume you didn’t mean to claim that Sandoval “may be the best defensive third baseman in the National League, if not the majors,” but instead meant to say he may have had the best season.

    Or perhaps you are playing fast and loose with your “may be.” Given Sandoval’s previous performance at the position, it’s hard to make a case for him being the best third baseman.

    Now I agree he turned a corner with his fielding in 2011, but none of those defensive metrics really allow us to accurately compare two similar defensive players.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      Just to clarify, a statistically based claim that Sandoval is the best 3b in baseball doesn’t have feet. You’d have to ignore all the previous years of defensive data which means you’re left with some numbers that you have to regress what? 80% to league average? It’s a lot in any case. Repeat that process with Beltre or Polanco, whom you don’t need to regress nearly as much because we can use 3+ years of data and there’s no statistical case.

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      • Train says:

        I disagree. You are saying that this article does not prove that Panda is the best active defensive 3rd baseman historically. That is not the same thing as saying he is the best defensive third baseman. Maybe he has improved over his history to the point he now surpasses everyone else. Regardless, though, being simply the best means you are the best, now, and Panda qualifies.

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      • LTG says:

        No, BJ’s point is that there is no good evidence for the claim that he has become the best 3B in the league. Even if it is possible that he has (which is at all times possible and so trivial), the argument doesn’t show that possibility has become actuality.

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      • Brad has one foot in the null hypothesis and the other in a tautology. This article’s central premise is not even disputable to those who watched him play.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        Let me be entirely clear, aside from Wendy asserting her opinion that Sandoval was very good this year, at no point did the article attempt to draw on subjective analysis of his defense. That’s as simple as saying “X coach lauded his improved defense” or “scouts agree that his defense had elevated to a new level.”

        What the article does do is make an entirely statistical case based on one year of fielding data. If you ONLY use statistics, it is extremely difficult to defend the assertion that Sandoval is the best defensive third baseman. You have to basically say that you aren’t regressing at all to league average which is nonsense.

        Again, my comment is meant as a purely statistical take.

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  4. Greg says:

    Thanks, as a Giants fan this is about as enjoyable of an article as Strikeouts Relievo or whatever the Sergio Romo one was called. I was definitely disappointing he didn’t get the Gold Glove (but not surprised) and it helps knowing I wasn’t “wrong” for thinking he should.

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  5. Hey Brad, take a page out of Panda’s book and lighten up, eh? Gotta throw out Sandoval’s past data because he was playing in a different body last season than in the past. I’m joking a bit because regression is important, but Wendy is right that it’s rare for all of those metrics to agree to that extent. We’ll see next year how it holds up, but I do think the weight lost has to be considered. His quickness clearly did improve markedly last season.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      I absolutely agree Will. I suppose I’m feeling a little contrary today.

      I know what Wendy meant to say, I just wish she had delivered a justification for ignoring his mediocre past performances. As I commented above, a simple scout or coach quote would have done the trick.

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  6. Giants2012? says:

    I’m probably the biggest pablo fan that I know, but I can’t help but chuckle at this. Most of you have probably already seen it: http://baselol.com/?p=141

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  7. Giants2012? says:

    Also, @WilliamCohen, I agree that the weight loss helped. However, he started gaining it back as the year went on. I think the biggest factor is that he’s relatively new to the position. He was brought up mainly as a catcher, who could maybe fill in at the corners. In 2008 he played pretty much evenly at Catcher, 1B, and 3B, and 2009 was the first year that he played predominantly 3B. So this was only his third year playing there regularly … which seems like about the right amount of time to get really comfortable

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  8. Barkey Walker says:

    ” he did all of this on the team with the third-highest ground-ball rate in the majors.” uh, having more GB should multiplicatively increase infield (the magnitude of) UZR/150. i.e. if you have 1.2 times more ground balls on team B than on team A, and a SS who would -3 UZR/150 and a 3B who would have had 5 UZR/150 if they were on the normal GB rate team (team A) then on team B (the GB intensive team) you would expect UZR/150 numbers more like -3.6 for the SS and 6 for the 3B.

    UZR is weighted by balls actually hit to you and this is part of its noise. There are (very) simple ways of correcting for this, but they are not done. Even doing this alone might make it a viable stat for a single year’s performance.

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    • Colin says:

      Did not know that Barkey. I know the general UZR method but are the specific calculations found here anywhere?

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    • Mike says:

      I agree with what you said, but the Giants are also #2 in K/9 so I think the total number of GB’s is probably about league average.

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    • Ken says:

      I don’t believe this is right. A -3 UZR shortstop has the same rating regardless of the pitching staff. UZR accounts for opportunities. If it didn’t, we may as well stick with range factor.

      But speaking of range factor, I thought it was interesting that Polanco had a slightly lower UZR even though his RF/9 is a bit higher than Sandoval’s, even though the Giants have a groundball-heavy staff (though I suppose the Phillies do as well).

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      • Joe says:

        This isn’t true… the same can be said of OF’s on heavy flyball staffs…there is a correlation between heavy flyball pitching staffs and UZR of OF’s.

        The intuitive argument is that you have more balls in hard to hit zones too so nothing changes, but the weighting of the zones is not simply the inverse of the distribution of frequencies..

        It’s a zero sum game in terms of comparison from player to player, but not within a given player.. a good fielder will make more plays in each zone (easy and hard) and benefit as a result. I’m not sure about a defender flipping from negative to positive (but without running #’s I think it could be possible).

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        Ken, yeah, that is what I wish it was too. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      Here is the relevant paragraph from the UZR primer,

      “Let’s say that that same batted ball in the example above was caught by the CF’er on the first play of a game. Since typically someone will catch that same ball only 25% of the time (see above), this particular CF’er will get credit for an extra .75 plays – 100% minus 25%. We then convert .75 plays into runs by multiplying .75 by the difference between an average hit in that location and the average value of an air ball out. A typical outfield hit is worth around .56 runs and any batted ball out is worth around -.27 runs, so the difference between a hit and an out is worth around .83 runs. (We don’t vary the value of the hit or out based on the outs or base runners because we want “game situation-neutral” defensive evaluations.) Since our fielder gets credit for .75 extra plays, we give him credit for .75 times .83 runs, or +.6255 runs for that play.”

      So, once the ball is in play, at least one player is going to get a + or – for that play. This pretty clearly states it is summed over balls in play, not some sort of weighted average based on each zone (which would be the correct way to do it, to my mind).

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      • Ken says:

        Thanks for the clarification. So I guess that a 0 UZR fielder will be the same regardless of the number of opportunities, but the farther one gets towards the extremes, the more prone the metric is to opportunities.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        Ken, yes, that is the results of my back of the envelope calculation too.

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  9. Chones Figgins MVP says:

    I used to be quick and nimble.

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  10. Waluigi says:

    WWAAAAAAHHHHH!!!

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  11. brian fawcett says:

    Instead of slinging acronyms, why not explain why AGon was good in one metric, and Trumbo was good in the others. Geez….This is supposed to be an analtyical site. Do some analysis.

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    • Bip says:

      What’s the point of having terminology if you have to explain what every piece of it means every time you use it? Explaining why they did well in those statistics is like explaining that Player A had a high batting average because he got a lot of hits. Beyond that, we simply don’t have a better way of measuring fielding, so we can’t appeal to a higher authority of defense to put our statistics into context.

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  12. I think what is truly amazing about his defensive prowess at 3B, no matter how you slice it, is when you consider that Pablo Sandoval is a natural lefthander – yes, you read that right, he learned to throw right-handed when he idolized Omar Vizquel and had to learn that in order to play SS when he was much younger. He shocked some people in a minor league game when a hot smash to his left knocked his glove off, and since he was positioned for that, he astutely picked up the ball with his left hand and threw a bullet to firstbase to throw out the hitter.

    It should also be noted that he came up the minors jumping around as to his position, first he was a catcher, then they tried him out at 3B, then they went back to catching, before settling on him playing 3B when they brought him up to the majors, though even then he still played catcher some that first time up in the majors, before settling in at 3B (and the occassional 1B, frequent when he was having issues with an injury)..

    Thinking about it, he’s basically had one minor league season as a 3B (and that wasn’t even a full season), being a catcher for the most part during his pro career (not sure what he did as an amateur other than he once idolized Vizquel, but obviously his body type to go with his arm probably caused his move to C), plus he played some at 1B as well.

    In the majors, partial season in 2008 at the end of the season, where he basically split time between C, 1B, and 3B, he finally broke 71 games played at 3B in 2009 (ending with 120), but also saw significant time at 1B due to an injury that prevented him from playing 3B but didn’t stop him from 1B, then in 2010 he started 136 games there, before putting in 102 starts in 2011.

    So what you are seeing is basically a guy who is still learning to play 3B. That would explain why he spent the 2009 off-season taking ground-ball practice at 3B, he probably didn’t even have 100 games started under his belt as a 3B in the minors. And he has had two partial seasons and only 2010 is the one season that played close to a full season (136 starts), and that year has to be asterisked because he played a good portion of the season hampered by an injury that hurt his ability to field 3B (as well as his ability to bat right-handed).

    And he is a guy who is trying to get better, as evidenced by his off-season work on his fielding. Not that he’ll be like Mike Schmidt, but Mike had an iron glove at 3B that he worked on improving until he was among the best of his era, so it is not like there is no precedence for a young player (Sandoval just had his 24 YO season) who can get better through practice and perseverance. Particularly considering that before the 2011 season, he really only had roughly two season’s worth of play at 3B in pro ball, and spent a good part of even that small sample hampered by an injury in 2010.

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  13. Scout Finch says:

    If he continues to put up robust #’s at the plate, he’ll be a shoe in for the Gold Glove.

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