The life of Pablo Sandoval has been nothing but a slow moving train wreck in endless vine loop ever since the All-Star third baseman signed with the Boston Red Sox during the 2014-2015 offseason. The 29-year-old battled through a mediocre campaign in 2015, and after six hitless at-bats in 2016, Sandoval’s season is done.
The team announced on Monday that Sandoval will undergo reconstructive surgery on his left shoulder this week, adding to an already impressive series of unfortunate events for the switch-hitter. After winning three World Series titles with the San Francisco Giants in three consecutive even years from 2010-2014, Sandoval took his talents to Boston on a five-year deal worth $95 million in an attempt to lead the Red Sox to a championship.
That didn’t turn out quite as planned for both the team and Sandoval. The player known as “Kung Fu Panda,” hit for a career-low batting average of .245 in 2015, and managed just ten home runs and 47 RBIs. Sandoval’s .121 ISO and .292 OBP were also career lows in addition to his 75 wRC+ where 100 is considered average. But it wasn’t just the offense where Sandoval struggled, the third baseman was even worse defensively, as shown by his -16.9 UZR (ultimate zone rating), which is a measurement of defensive value. Overall Sandoval generated a WAR (wins above replacement) of minus two in his first season as a member of the Red Sox.
Even Year, Even Worse
Following a poor 2015, Sandoval looked to the new season for a new beginning, and 2016 would be an even year. But things unraveled quickly for Kung Fu Panda. Rumors surfaced early in spring training which reported that Sandoval had shown up to camp out of shape. Sandoval’s weight had already been a major concern, and a factor that many Red Sox officials believed contributed to the third baseman’s drastic defensive decline in 2015.
Things got worse for Sandoval when the team awarded second-year player, Travis Shaw, the starting third base job out of spring training despite Shaw’s natural position being first base.
But before Sandoval could hit rock bottom squarely in the rear, the internet made a mockery of the Panda in the form of a GIF when his belt unbuckled during an at-bat following a swing-and-miss. Not long after that, Sandoval began to express discomfort in his left shoulder. The Red Sox immediately put the troubled third baseman on the disabled list to save him from additional scrutiny.
A Life of Uncertainty
With the Red Sox third baseman now done for the season, Sandoval’s future as a member of the team is in question. Travis Shaw has gotten off to a great start in Sandoval’s absence, posting a slash line of .322/.390/.533 with three home runs and 17 RBIs, and it doesn’t appear that he will be relinquishing third base any time soon. Red Sox fans will not miss Sandoval either, already placing the Panda in the shameful category of free agent busts whose members include: Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Edgar Renteria. To make matters worse, it has been revealed that the Red Sox failed to kick in an insurance policy for Sandoval’s contract, meaning they will be paying all of the $17 million that the third baseman is owed this year for six at-bats. The front office can blame themselves for that one. But you might ask, what happens should Sandoval make a successful recovery next season? Kung Fu Panda has only known one position his entire career, and it’s clear the Red Sox have better options at third base with Shaw. However, the answer to that question stands right in the heart of the Red Sox lineup.
Big Papi = Big Panda
As you may know, David Ortiz aka “Big Papi,” is making his final laps around the majors after announcing his retirement prior to the start of the season. Although Red Sox fans will find it hard to imagine life without the hulking slugger in the lineup, they will have to get used to that reality very soon. Replacing Big Papi’s damage from the left side of the dish will be difficult, especially considering his regular season and postseason resume, but if there is one thing that Ortiz was never good at, it was playing the field. The DH role allowed Ortiz to have 15 successful years with the Red Sox and allowed the slugger to put his first base mitt aside permanently.
In that regard, transitioning Sandoval from third base to designated hitter shouldn’t sound revolutionary, in fact, Pablo Sandoval would be the perfect replacement for Big Papi. First of all, like Ortiz, Sandoval has a great nickname. Second, Sandoval has compiled an impressive postseason resume including three WS titles just like Ortiz. Finally, with Sandoval’s weight becoming an increasing concern, as a full-time DH, the switch-hitter’s athleticism will be of less significance. Of course, the Red Sox didn’t sign Sandoval with the intentions of shifting him to DH duty so early in his deal, but at this point, it appears that a full-time DH role is the only option that will allow the club to recoup any of Sandoval’s lost value. Sandoval’s remaining value resides solely in his bat and that’s exactly what the Red Sox should have him focus on. The $95 million dollar question is, can he still hit?
Fight in the Panda
There is reason to believe that there is still some juice left in Sandoval’s bat. Kung Fu Panda’s offensive drop off between 2014 and 2015 was indeed large, but at 29 years of age, Sandoval shouldn’t be approaching a major decline just yet. Learning a new league with different pitchers is one factor that could have led to Sandoval’s weak 2015. Working in Sandoval’s favor is the fact that he plays 81 games at Fenway Park, one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. Sandoval hit well there last year, posting a triple slash line of .288/.330/.428 which was much more in line with his career mark .287/.339/.451 than his overall numbers in 2015.
Sandoval’s problems surfaced away from Fenway, hitting .208/.259/.314 on the road, and facing left-handed pitching. Sandoval was so bad versus left-handers in 2015, just a .049 batting average in 41 at-bats, he decided to abandon switch-hitting altogether. While Sandoval said he would return to switch-hitting in 2016, I would argue for the slugger to continue batting from the left side against southpaws after posting a triple slash line of .255/.288/.302 in 106 at-bats. While those numbers are not going to win him any silver slugger awards, it’s an improvement for Sandoval. The improvement was even more noticeable when examining his strikeout rate, which dropped from 27.9 percent batting right-handed to 15.2 percent batting left-handed against left-handed pitching. Batting from the left side of the dish full-time would also allow Sandoval more opportunities to push the ball to left field off the Green Monster or pull the ball just beyond the Pesky Pole in right, something his teammate, David Ortiz, has made a living off of.
Rolling with the Punches
It will be a long journey back to relevance for Sandoval. The slugger went from being named Kung Fu Panda in San Francisco, to becoming a fan base punching bag in Boston in less than a year and a half. The year 2016 will be no better for Sandoval, but if he can deflect the punches as well as the punchlines until his return from surgery, the Panda still has a chance to win back the fans and win a championship just like former Red Sox starting pitcher, John Lackey, managed to accomplish before him.