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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7 years 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.