Red Sox Set Kung Fu Panda Free

Nearly a month ago, Dave Cameron opined that the Red Sox ought to cut ties with Pablo Sandoval. On Friday the Red Sox acquiesced.

Just two-and-a-half years into a five-year, $95-million deal, Sandoval was designated for assignment on Friday. In parts of three seasons in Boston, Sandoval produced three below-replacement-level marks, totaling -2.6 WAR. He’s owed about $49 million.

Dave noted many things on June 15, including Sandoval’s deterioration against left-handed pitching, but it’s interesting to note Sandoval is also a player quite effected by defensive shifts.

Wrote Dave:

In San Francisco, before every team started shifting on nearly every play, Sandoval was reasonably effective when hitting grounders, hitting .261 with a .282 SLG on GBs. Since arriving in Boston and having to adjust to life without the ability to pull the ball between the first and second baseman for a single, he’s hitting .188 with a .197 SLG. Without enough power to offset the GB-heavy batted ball profile, Sandoval is probably going to struggle to run a BABIP over .300 again.

If you’re looking for a silver lining here, if you’re looking for a reason to believe the Panda is not finished, Sandoval’s 96.2 mph average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives ranks 30th in the sport this season. But Sandoval posted the most extreme GB/FB ratios of his career in Boston — a 1.51 ratio in 2015 and a 1.68 mark this season — since his rookie year in San Francisco.

While Sandoval isn’t a slugger, he perhaps would have benefited from getting more balls off the ground.

Beyond the shifts vacuuming up his increasing number of ground balls, Sandvoal, who is just 30, was also losing core skills, revealed most notably by his zone contact and overall contact rates.

When we think about the Kung Fu Panda at his best, we recall one of the great bad-ball hitters of his generation, but his ability to damage pitches in and out of the zone has declined significant.

Consider his slugging percentage per swing with the Giants from 2008 to -13.

And since 2015 with the Red Sox:

Sandoval has been losing his ability to damage pitches in the zone and just out of the zone.

Sandoval was a player whose chief skills were eroding, a player who was hurt by shifts, and a player who lacked either the willingness or ability to change his batted-ball profile. He was a player who was out of shape and who had seen his defensive value deteriorate (-18 DRS in Boston at third base over 1,259 innings, essentially one full season).

The Red Sox now have the second-greatest amount of dead money on their hands in the sport’s history.

While the Red Sox can afford the mistake, the evaluation error is of interest.

Sandoval agreed to terms with Boston after the Royals-Giants World Series matchup of 2014. If you recall back to that period, the game’s rising strikeout totals were receiving more and more attention. The alleged juiced ball had yet to arrive, and few hitters were paying attention to their launch angles or thinking about uppercut swings. That was our final pre-Statcast season.

There was this idea that the way to succeed in the high-strikeout, defensive-shift era was to load up on contact hitters who sprayed line drives around ballparks and limited strikeouts. And it was just in 2017 that Sandoval’s strikeout rate (22.0%) exceeded 14.5% in a single season for the first time in his career.

The Red Sox made a significant investment in low-power contact hitting in Sandoval. That’s not the kind of player who would excite many in today’s record home-run environment.

While few perhaps foresaw the depth and speed of Sandoval’s collapse in skills and performance — Sandoval averaged 2.5 WAR from 2012 to -14 in San Francisco — perhaps the Red Sox also invested too heavily in a skill set that was soon to become less valuable, as the game proceeded from a depressed run-scoring environment to a record home-run environment. Moreover, strikeouts keep increasing when singles have been less desirable as it’s more difficult to string together rallies. Perhaps, in this instance, the Red Sox bet too heavily on recent trends in the game and a player who seemed to combat them.

Free agency is risky. It’s always risky. But perhaps another lesson of the Sandoval signing is to remember the way the game is played today will not necessarily be the way it is played tomorrow.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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