Sandoval’s unique talent

A week ago, Hanley Ramirez signed with the Red Sox, presumably to play 3rd base.  The price, while not exactly a bargain, was affordable enough for a big market team to make it a solid signing.  The next day, Pablo Sandoval also signed with the Red Sox, leaving at least one member of the Red Sox lineup without a position and many pundits scratching their chins.

Sandoval is a good player, and the Red Sox got him at a fair price, but it was a curious signing nonetheless.  Stacked offensively, the Red Sox weakness was their brittle, ace-less rotation, not a lineup featuring multiple promising young players.  On paper, Sandoval’s contract represented only a small upgrade to the expected production from an already capable offense.

Since the Red Sox are perceived as a savvy organization which doesn’t like to waste money on marginal improvements, various theories were advanced to explain Sandoval’s deal.  Maybe the Sox are setting themselves up for future trades.  Perhaps, because of the peculiarities of Fenway Park (in particular, the Green Monster), Sandoval represented a bigger upgrade than we might otherwise reckon.  Sandoval invites these explanations because he is a unique player in many respects.

I have my own hypothesis about Sandoval’s special value to the Sox.  I believe Sandoval’s idiosyncratic approach makes him an especially steady hitter, one who is nearly unaffected by the quality of the pitcher on the mound.  Some have suggested that Pablo Sandoval’s exceptional playoff statistics (.935 OPS) reveal this special ability, since even though the quality of opposition dramatically increases in the postseason, Pablo’s stats do not fall off commensurately.

However, Sandoval’s talent in this regard is hard to prove.  While Vince Gennaro proposed a similar idea years ago (even citing Sandoval as an example), the details of Gennaro’s work are private, done in consultation with an unnamed team’s analytics department, and may have hinged on valuable information that only teams possess (HitF/X).  Utilizing the playoff statistics isn’t good enough, because the playoffs are gardens of randomness and entropy where anything can happen.

Since there is not enough data with respect to at-bats, I turn instead to pitch level information.  The idea goes like this: we’ve all seen pitches which are just ridiculous, like this…

…and these pitches tend to be extremely difficult for batters to hit.  Whether by virtue of velocity, break, location, or all three at once, some pitches are just outright nasty and difficult for the batter to make contact with, much less productive contact.  These same pitches also tend to be thrown more often by good pitchers than by bad pitchers, because that’s part of what makes pitchers good. 

With PitchF/X information, we can diagnose each pitch based on its speed, break, and location.  Using this data, we can get a sense for how well a batter should do against each pitch, based on the composite value of the speed, break, and location of the throw.  Then we can compare how well the hitter actually did against the pitch, and see if the quality of the pitch tells us anything the hitter’s actual performance.

For most hitters, pitches that are especially hard-breaking, or fast, or located at the edge of the strike zone, are bad news.  On average, for every mile per hour harder that a pitch is thrown, a hitter is 1% more likely to whiff.  This escalates at the extremes of velocity, so that pitches thrown faster than a hundred miles per hour are upwards of 30% likely to be whiffed on.  Similar patterns hold for extreme horizontal or vertical breaks, like you might see with Clayton Kershaw’s curveball, and for pitches thrown at the edges of the strike zone.

Accordingly, for about 90% of hitters, the nastier the pitch is, the worse the hitter will do against it.  For most hitters, the relationship isn’t very strong (r~.1), but it is there, and statistically significant.  That leaves 10% of hitters who seem insensitive to the quality of the pitch.  Dial it up, and they do fine.  Throw a 12-to-6 curve painting the black, and they don’t mind.

Pablo Sandoval is one of the latter kind of hitter.  As far as he is concerned, any kind of pitch is a hittable pitch, no matter where or how it’s tossed.  Consider this 93mph sinker Brandon Finnegan threw at the outside corner in Game 4 of the World Series, which Sandoval promptly laced into left for a run-scoring single.  Sandoval is known as a “bad-ball hitter”, someone who can crush pitches even when they are far outside.  As Jeff Sullivan wrote, the Panda lacks a cold zone; there’s no place to put the ball that’s safe against him, not even down and away.

But this special ability of Sandoval’s to ignore the quality of a pitch isn’t solely related to his bad-ball hitting talent.  Even if you strip away location from the equation, Sandoval still rates well (in the top 30%) in terms of his ability to defy the nastiness of the pitch.  A lot of that ability comes from his facility for handling heat, which is extraordinary.  Whereas I noted above that most hitters tend to whiff more against harder-thrown pitches, Sandoval’s whiff rate actually decreases.

Nor is the Panda’s exceptional aptitude a one-year blip.  I also looked at 2013, a year in which the Giants failed to even make the playoffs.  Most hitters who did well in 2013 by this measure didn’t do as well in 2014, obeying regression to the mean.  But not Sandoval; he was every bit as ignorant of a pitch’s quality in 2013 as in 2014, suggesting a steady aptitude, and not a statistical oddity.

Of course, Sandoval is not alone in this capacity to ignore the quality of the pitch.  Others (in 2014) include Andrelton Simmons, Elvis Andrus (who Gennaro also identified), David Freese, and Gregor Blanco.  Another intriguing player on the list is recently-traded Ike Davis.  Davis was acquired by the re-tooling Athletics in exchange for international bonus slot money.  Like Sandoval’s contract, the trade for Davis was perceived as a “surprising” acquisition, given the A’s richness in left-handed 1B/DH types.  Perhaps, as potentially with Sandoval, there was an ulterior, playoff-focused motive.

However, most of these players, Davis included, aren’t nearly as good as Sandoval.  In a certain way, it makes sense that oftentimes bad hitters would be insensitive to the quality of a pitch, because it suggests that they are not taking advantage of meatballs down the middle as much as they should be.  That same reasoning applies to Sandoval as well, but whereas a lot of the other hitters fail to be productive as a consequence, Sandoval is still quite a talented slugger: about 20% better than the league average, depending on the year.  He might take a penalty from his idiosyncratic method, but it’s not enough to make him a bad hitter.

It’s this rare combination of attributes—quality hitting, combined with insensitivity to the opposition—that may have made Sandoval so attractive to the Red Sox.  Sandoval’s approach might make him immune to gamesmanship.  The best pitchers can’t dial their fastballs up in a high leverage situation to get a desperately-needed strikeout against the Panda, because he doesn’t mind heat.  Opposing managers can’t play matchups very effectively against him, because their specialist (with his unhittable out pitch) poses no more threat to Sandoval than the middle reliever’s soft fastball. 

In other words, Sandoval has no kryptonite, which doesn’t exactly make him clutch, per se, but may make him more effective than expected during the postseason, when the opponent’s average talent level increases.  Relievers like the Royals’ triumvirate and their insane velocities soak up a greater portion of the innings, consistently hurling the nastiest pitches.  Indeed, the average fastball velocity increased a full mile per hour from this year’s regular season to the postseason.  As Madison Bumgarner eloquently demonstrated, a great pitcher leaving nothing in the tank can be a formidable challenge in the playoffs, and a hitter who can only feast against mistakes can be neutralized against such a performance.  For a club perpetually in World Series contention, Sandoval’s unique ability to defy the quality of the competition’s pitches may have provided the extra spark necessary to force their hand and offer him a high-value contract, regardless of what other roster-juggling became necessary as a result.


Thanks to Pitch Info for PitchF/X classifications and other data.