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 this, this 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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