The San Francisco Giants currently sit comfortably in a playoff spot in the National League. They are but 3.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West race. Only two teams in the NL have more wins than the Giants’ 62.
And yet, the Giants are probably not a great team. They project to land square in the middle of a Wild Card dogfight. They are either the worst good team in baseball or the best bad team in baseball. Sometimes they look the part, other nights their lineup betrays the mediocrity lurking within.
In my mind, these key traits of the the Giants are reflected in two of their best-known players, Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval. Brilliant at times but perplexing at others. While Lincecum is quickly becoming a beloved enigma, Sandoval is a little tougher to figure. He’s not what he once was or what he might have been, but he remains a vital contributor to the Giants’ success.
But he is perceived as such? You can watch Sandoval play and see an overweight ballplayer happy to swing at any pitch thrown between his eyebrows and shoe tops. You see a hitter with his best years behind him, a guy with wild swings in his production and an injury-risk unable to stay on the field.
Or, you see a non-superstar but still quite good third baseman about to hit free agency. You see a player in just his age-27 season. You see a switch hitter with real pop. You see a middle-of-the-order hitter for two World Series winners. You see one of the best defensive third baseman in the game this year.
Your thoughts on Pablo Sandoval can say a lot about you. In his own way, the Kung Fu Panda is a window into your very soul. The flaws and shortcomings in his game are easy to pick up, but too much time spent pointing them out misses his value, both to the current, playoff-aspirant Giants and as a free agent.
The “real” Sandoval is some combination of the two. More than anything, you have one of the most interesting free agent cases in recent memory. Few players reach free agency in time for their age-28 season, and few third baseman hit the open market with the sort of earning power Sandoval possesses.
Below is a list of third baseman to sign free agent contracts longer than three years since the year 2000.
That’s it. That’s the whole list. Chone Figgins barely belongs on said list but he’s included for posterity. It’s a short list. There might well be a new name added to that list come this winter, when both Chase Headley and the Giants starting third baseman figure to test the waters. The idea of Sandoval earning a lucrative contract with this kind of term might seem crazy, considering the ups and downs during his time in SF.
There is no lack of teams that Sandoval could help next year, though the team with the most pressing need might be the team he’s helping right now. He is putting together a now-typical Sandoval season, boasting a 120 wRC+ with 14 homers. He does the same things he always did, swinging at more pitches than just about anybody.
As Sandoval puts his rough April further and further in the rearview mirror, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine the Giants, notoriously loyal to their “guys”, letting Sandoval walk with only a compensation pick coming back. Given Sandoval’s youth and productivity, it should be a no-brainer for him to remain in San Francisco. But his size, injury-woes, and approach are big red flags.
The biggest challenge is sliding Sandoval into a box that best encapsulates his performance. Though he plays the same position as Aramis Ramirez while putting up similar power numbers and K/BB rates, Sandoval’s a free swinger to such an extreme that he renders most comps pointless. A less powerful, switch hitting Josh Hamilton?
Because he is so unorthodox, it is natural to wonder when the clock might strike twelve on Sandoval’s ability to produce at the big league level. And though his numbers aren’t what they were during his breakout years (2009 & 2011), he remains one of the top ten third baseman in baseball. His numbers have leveled off over the last three seasons, producing close to 120 wRC+ with solid power (.150 ISO in a park that works hard to keep such numbers low) while remaining the same swing-happy maniac he’s always been. This is who he is now, and it is nothing at which to sneeze.
As Jeff Sullivan showed earlier this season, Sandoval swings at more pitches when he’s feeling good and seeing the ball well. The more he swings, the more he hits. Right now, he feels good and he’s swinging at everything and hitting everything, with almost as many extra base hits (10) as walks or strikeouts (12) over the last month. He’s doing his part to keep the Giants near the top of the NL West and in the playoff race.
The more he gives them, the higher he drives his value and the harder it becomes to let him walk. As noted at the top, few noteworthy third basemen get to free agency. Pablo Sandoval is certainly noteworthy – both to San Francisco and the third base market. Don’t be surprised if you see Headley sporting one of these hats this winter.