Yesterday was a pretty good day for hitters on the comeback trail. Jason Heyward blasted a walk-off grand slam. Matt Kemp hit another home run. Ian Desmond hit another home run. Jurickson Profar hit another two home runs. And Pablo Sandoval hit his own home run. With the Giants, Sandoval’s been only a part-time player, but over 112 trips to the plate, he’s posted a 115 wRC+. He hasn’t finished as an above-average hitter since 2014.
Let’s take a closer look at Wednesday’s game. Sandoval homered in the bottom of the first. Before that, though, he took the first pitch from Clay Buchholz. In the third inning, he again took the first pitch from Buchholz. In the fifth inning, he again took the first pitch from Buchholz. In the eighth inning, he took the first pitch from Archie Bradley. In the tenth inning, he took the first pitch from Andrew Chafin. Stick with me here, because this is going to get weird. This is bigger than you could imagine.
You know full well what Sandoval has been in the past. Once upon a time, he was one of the closest things baseball had to being the new Vladimir Guerrero. Sandoval was known as an excellent bad-ball hitter, and he was also a quality good-ball hitter, and it all helped to explain his over-enthusiastic tendency to swing. Pablo Sandoval liked to swing. He’s always liked to swing. It’s not an approach that would work for everyone, but for a while, Sandoval pulled it off. It was the only kind of hitting he ever knew.
Sandoval liked to swing early, he liked to swing late, and he liked to swing in-between. Sandoval wouldn’t only defend the plate with two strikes; he was also always happy to ambush. And so, given that, consider where we are today. Sandoval has batted 112 times. He last swung at the first pitch of a plate appearance on May 16. Previous to that, he hadn’t swung at the first pitch of a plate appearance since April 20. This isn’t the Pablo Sandoval we’ve known.
Through 2017, Sandoval’s longest career streak was taking 23 consecutive first pitches. That looked like something of a fluke — he hadn’t otherwise put together a streak longer than 14. Sandoval opened this season with a streak of 19. Then he swung at a first pitch, then he shortly swung at another one. And then came a streak of 43, leading into May 16. And Sandoval now has an active streak of 45. That’s 45 times in a row that Sandoval hasn’t offered at the first pitch. This is, for him, very much unprecedented territory.
Look at how Sandoval’s career has gone. Here are his first-pitch-swing rates since 2008, expressed as 100-pitch rolling averages:
Sandoval has never been close to this patient. Last year, he swung at the first pitch about 44% of the time. This year, so far, he’s a hair under 3%. In other words, that’s a drop of about 41 percentage points. The five biggest drops in baseball, year over year:
- Pablo Sandoval, -41 percentage points
- Jon Jay, -16
- Wilmer Difo, -15
- Paul DeJong, -15
- Corey Spangenberg, -14
It’s Sandoval, by more than double the runner-up. It maybe hasn’t been the easiest thing to notice, but what’s been going on with Sandoval has been extraordinary, given his own track record. Sandoval, on the first pitch, has basically just shut it down. And, after the first pitch? Then he’s more or less back to normal:
Sandoval, obviously, has left the first pitch alone. After that, he’s swung about 60% of the time, which is in line with his career averages. As another way of looking at the information above, here’s Sandoval plotted in terms of his league-wide percentile ranks. This helps to establish further context.
After the first pitch, Sandoval remains aggressive. His swing rate ranks in the 88th percentile, which isn’t too far off where it used to be. But, you notice a missing blue bar. That isn’t a calculation error. This season, 305 players have batted at least 100 times. Sandoval’s first-pitch-swing rate is tied with Logan Forsythe for 305th place. They’ve both batted 112 times, and they’ve both taken just three first-pitch swings. For Forsythe, that just continues how he’s been for a while. Sandoval, though, has gone from one extreme to the other. When you’re looking for players who’ve changed their approaches, you almost never find changes this dramatic. For one pitch every time he’s come up, Pablo Sandoval has had a brand new identity.
This is one way of measuring hitter patience, and, according to this, compared to Sandoval, no hitter has been more patient. It is important to understand the difference between patience and discipline. It’s a little like how, for pitchers, there’s a difference between control and command. For a hitter, patience means taking pitches. Discipline means taking the right pitches. Anyone can be patient; not anyone can be disciplined. It’s very hard to get better at identifying pitches. Sandoval appears to be doing something more deliberate. I’ve heard of other players around the league who’ve essentially just been told by the coaching staff to stop swinging at the first pitch for a while. Could be what’s going on here. Could be Sandoval’s own idea. It’s worth noting that Sandoval is now seeing more first pitches in the strike zone than ever before. Opposing pitchers have perhaps picked up on this first-pitch patience. That could call for the swing rate to rebound.
We’ll see where that goes, moving forward. We’ll see where Sandoval’s overall game goes, moving forward. And I can’t even necessarily tie Sandoval’s early success to his adjusted and uncharacteristic approach. Maybe they’re almost unrelated. But, regardless, Sandoval has a 115 wRC+ through the first week of June, and as he’s gotten here, he’s posted the lowest first-pitch-swing rate in either league. He’s gone after the first pitch like Logan Forsythe, which is to say, he’s been happy to stand there and wait for the second. This isn’t the Pablo Sandoval anyone has ever known. I’m not sure another stat is more incredible than this one.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.