Almost three weeks ago, Pablo Sandoval did something extraordinary at the plate. To be fair, Sandoval often does interesting and unique things — mostly involving swinging at and hitting impossible pitches — so this might not come as a surprise. However, this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill sort of Sandoval madness. I’ll allow a short looping film to begin to tell the story:
A few things happened here: Sandoval swung at the first pitch — it was high and inside — and he got jammed but still managed to hit a line drive. These are all things Sandoval routinely does, so you can’t be blamed if you think one of them is what we’re highlighting. The true answer? Sandoval faced a left-handed pitcher as a left-handed batter.
If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider this: Kung Fu Panda hadn’t batted from the left side against a left-handed pitcher before this at-bat since 2011. For what it’s worth, both Sandoval and his manager John Farrell claimed he batted as a lefty in this pinch-hit appearance only because of a knee injury sustained by a hit by pitch a few days before. Still, the fact remains: Sandoval’s struggles as a switch-hitter from the right side are well-documented, and they’ve gotten remarkably worse this season. It at least says something that he batted from the left side here, given his struggles.
So just how bad has it gotten when he’s in the right batter’s box? Sandoval has a .166 OPS as a right-handed hitter facing a left-handed pitcher this year. He owns a 2.0% walk rate and a 28.6% strikeout rate from that side. In other terms, he’s hit three singles in 47 at-bats with one walk. That’s about the equivalent offensive output of Kyle Kendrick in 2014, except that Kendrick is a pitcher, and he doesn’t bat near the middle of the order for the Red Sox.
We would do Sandoval a disservice if we didn’t mention his bad luck this year as a righty, however. If a few more of the balls he hit in play during the past two months found holes in the defense (his .091 batting average on balls in play is one of the three lowest for qualified right-handed hitters vs. lefties), we might not be zeroing-in on this issue. This year’s output is a small sample, and issues tend to take on an oversized profile when they occur at the beginning of a season.
Still, the conversation on the topic is active, and red flags have been popping up for longer than just these past two months. Let’s put his switch-hitting in a longer time frame. Here are the 10 players with the lowest On-Base Plus Slugging numbers as right-handed hitters facing a lefty pitcher (minimum 300 plate appearances) from the beginning of the 2013 season to now:
Sandoval is buried at the bottom of a group containing many aging, everyday switch-hitters, and he’s more than 160 points below the league average. Another way of putting it: From the right side over the past two years and change, Sandoval has been a far weaker version of Ben Revere, who has a .665 OPS and two total home runs in a six-year career. That’s quite a turnaround from Sandoval’s pre-2013 numbers, when he had a combined .763 OPS as a right-handed hitter dating back to his debut in the majors. What’s behind the dip in production?
We know Sandoval is a "bad-ball hitter"; he’s become famous for being the prime example of one. However, when the inclination to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone continues while the ability to make solid contact with those pitches degrades, bad results usually follow. Let’s take a look at Sandoval’s hard-hit rate over his career as a right-handed hitter, compared to the league average for those seasons:
As we can see, Sandoval never has hit the ball very hard as a righty, only posting above-average hard-hit rates in two seasons of his career. And, following two years of decline, his hard-hit rate from the right side has cratered in 2015. We can see that in the much higher number of grounders and infield popups he’s hitting so far this year compared to previous years. He’s also whiffing more this season; combine that with his aggressive plate approach, and you get swings like these — the lowest and furthest outside swinging strike of the year by a right-handed hitter (at just under a foot and a half off the plate):
Even though he’s posted only 48 plate appearances as a righty in 2015, it seems like it finally might be the year that something gives for Sandoval in regard to hitting from the right side. He has been the worst regular right-handed hitter in baseball since the start of 2013, and it’s not particularly close. With that said, what happens when hitters give up trying to hit from their weaker side?
The Red Sox already have one example in Shane Victorino, who ditched hitting from the left side in favor of duty as a full-time right-handed hitter in 2013. Strange things happened to his numbers: His walk rate cratered while his strikeout rate shot up, but his power enjoyed a huge boon. What’s fun about wondering how Sandoval would perform as a strict left-handed hitter is that we don’t have a great understanding of what it would look like — he could start walking more, or striking out more, or start hitting more home runs, or all of the above.
That brings us to a final question: When is it worth abandoning trying to switch-hit? There are two main issues in finding an answer: the lack of experience most switch-hitters have against same-handed pitching, and the small number of players who have ditched the switch. It’s easy to think that a hitter would start producing much like he does from his strong side in all of his at-bats, but switch-hitters might be less effective than a non-switch hitter against same-sided pitchers simply due to the fact that it is foreign to them, at least in the early stages of the transition.
By the numbers, Sandoval has passed the point at which he shouldn’t at least temporarily experiment with hitting lefty at all times. With his non-existent production as a righty — and the Red Sox reeling — there’s just no downside to it. My hunch tells me, however, that moving from switch-hitting to hitting from one side isn’t a simple one-to-one transition, and there could be adjustments and growing pains before Sandoval feels entirely comfortable digging in as a lefty against a left-handed pitcher. Even with Sandoval batting left-handed against lefty Phil Coke in Sunday’s game, I doubt we’ve seen the very last of Sandoval from the right side; old skills are hard to let go of, and new ones are even harder to build.