Pablo Sandoval’s Happy Place

A lot of people think Pablo Sandoval is back. I don’t know if I agree.

In a lot of minds, baseball players are constantly coming and going, and it seems like that shouldn’t be true. Results waver; ability doesn’t — at least not so much. I don’t think Pablo Sandoval was ever gone, but what we can say with certainty is that early 2014 Sandoval didn’t look right. Recent 2014 Sandoval has looked a lot better. He’s looked a lot more familiar. He seems to be back on track to be one of the Giants’ positional leaders.

And there’s an interesting thing about that. In April, Sandoval drew 10 unintentional walks. In May, he’s drawn zero. In April, Sandoval swung at an above-average rate of pitches. In May, he’s swung at more pitches. This is what writers call an “understatement.” It’s what non-writers also would call an understatement, because that’s a everyday word.

I pulled every regular and semi-regular who’s batted at least 50 times in both April and May. This gave me a sample of 224 different players, and I wanted to take a look at their monthly swing rates. In April, Sandoval swung 50% of the time. In May, he’s swung 65% of the time. As it turns out, his change of 15 percentage points has been the biggest change in baseball, in either direction. Only five players have had swing-rate changes in the double digits, and only two have had increases in the double digits. Relative to the rest of the league, Sandoval was pretty aggressive in April. In May, he’s been aggressive to an extreme, and the results have followed.

Swing rate doesn’t change very much because discipline and aggressiveness are parts of a hitter’s identity. A hitter will want to swing at a certain number of pitches, and these tend to be numbers that stabilize fast. So it’s interesting when they’re unstable, and from the Sandoval case, we might infer that something was wrong in April that caused him to turtle, relative to himself. The assertion is Sandoval’s mechanics were messed up. This is often the belief when a hitter isn’t hitting, but it’s clear now that Sandoval is batting with a lot more confidence than he was previously.

Sandoval’s 50% April swing rate was the lowest monthly rate of his career. It wasn’t the lowest by much, but he’s never before had a swing rate beginning with a 4.


Meanwhile, Sandoval’s 65% May swing rate is nearly the highest monthly swing rate of his career. It’s off by a few tenths of a percentage point, and May doesn’t end until Saturday. There’s still an opportunity for Sandoval to follow one extreme with the other.

Sandoval has swung a lot. The last qualified batter to post a swing rate of at least 65% in a month was Vladimir Guerrero, and that was in April 2011. Prior to that, you have Bengie Molina and Josh Hamilton in April 2009. Then you have Molina in August 2008, then Sandoval himself in September 2008. May Sandoval has hit like Sandoval in his rookie days. And while that includes swinging at more than half of the pitches outside the strike zone, Sandoval is among the best bad-ball hitters in the game. He has to be, otherwise he wouldn’t have made it this far. Pablo Sandoval is why you always treat plate-discipline statistics on a case-by-case basis, because general rules don’t apply to every player.

There are other indicators that April Sandoval was off, and that May Sandoval is on. Over his career, Sandoval has swung at 43% of first pitches. In April, he swung at 27% of first pitches. In May, he’s at 51%. Beyond that, in his last game of April, Sandoval swung at three of eight pitches. In no game since has Sandoval swung at fewer than half of all pitches. Almost overnight, he started to feel good enough to swing away. Almost overnight, he got over his mechanical complications.

Of some interest is this is the reverse of what we’ve seen from Sandoval previously. Two other times he’s had monthly swing-rate changes in the double digits. Between April and June 2011 (he was injured that May), Sandoval increased his rate 12 percentage points, and his wRC+ tumbled. Between June and July 2013, Sandoval decreased his rate 13 percentage points, and his wRC+ took off. There’s no positive correlation between Sandoval’s monthly swing rates and his monthly wRC+ figures, so it’s not like the latter automatically follows the former. Sometimes, Sandoval is over-aggressive. Sometimes, there are stretches where he can take walks without getting too passive in the box.

So it’s not like Pablo Sandoval is going to be swinging at 65% of all pitches forever. And it’s not like Sandoval can have great success swinging at this many pitches forever. Pitchers will adjust back to Sandoval’s adjustment, and then Sandoval will have to adjust again. This might help explain why his swing rates have fluctuated in the past. The most stable players can have a lot of moving bits underneath, and there are pitches Sandoval ought to stay away from. Pitchers will probably throw more of them, and he’ll either lay off or he’ll make mistakes.

But the big thing about Sandoval’s May isn’t that it’s sustainable as is. The big thing is Sandoval feels good enough and confident enough to be swinging this aggressively, especially after an unusually passive first month in which he struggled to find his routine. Now Sandoval seems to have his swings, and subsequent adjustments should be made.

It shouldn’t be about whether Pablo Sandoval feels right and locked in, though. It should only be about his pitch selection. Of course, that’ll never be normal — but that’s Pablo Sandoval’s normal. He’s ready now for a normal season, at least by his standards.

We hoped you liked reading Pablo Sandoval’s Happy Place by Jeff Sullivan!

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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.

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The difference is he’s hitting it now, he wasn’t in April. When he starts hitting the ball good, he swings at everything.