Thank you, Pablo Sandoval

Earlier today, I posted the October roundtable. The first question was pretty straight-forward: Who’s your 2011 Giants MVP?

…and the answer was unanimous: Pablo Sandoval. He was the obvious choice.

Entering the 2010 season, he was just 23 years old, and a career .333/.381/.543 hitter. Expectations were understandably high. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he fell off a cliff (figuratively speaking, of course). He had noticeably gained weight, and his performance had dropped off considerably.

It wasn’t entirely sudden — Sandoval had gotten off to a hot start in April, posting an OPS north of 1.000…but over the next five months, a heftier Sandoval proceeded to hit .250/.303/.378 while looking completely inept with the glove at third. Countless theories were posited: Sandoval was too fat to play well; his poor plate discipline had finally caught up to him; his divorce and other off-the-field issues were affecting him….the list goes on.

By the end of the season, Sandoval had sort of been tossed aside. It was as though the Giants had won the 2010 World Series in spite of Sandoval.

I tried to maintain hope though. I figured that: a) he was due for some inevitable positive regression; and b) the threat of being sent to Triple-A would be all the motivation needed to get him in condition. After hearing of his successful offseason conditioning, I was quite pleased, and pretty much assumed that he would be the same player going forward as he was in 2009.

He was even better though.

On offense, he was more-or-less a replica of that ’09 Sandoval. A little more power, slightly fewer walks, a lower batting average on balls in play — though all in a decreased run environment. Overall, he posted a 142 wRC+, just a few points off the mark (145 wRC+) he had posted a couple years prior. Among third-basemen in the majors with at least 450 plate appearances, not one hit better than the Panda.

On defense, though, the improvement was astounding. By Ultimate Zone Rating, he saved +12.3 runs with the glove this year, roughly a 12-run improvement from the previous year. By Defensive Runs Saved, he was worth +22 runs at third, roughly a 20-run improvement from the previous year. And Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) had him at +8.0 runs, a 14-run improvement on defense. He certainly passed the eye test too, displaying noticeable progress at third base — especially with regards to his range. He played Gold Glove caliber defense all season long.

In total, he racked up 5.5 wins above replacement. Despite missing 45 games due to injury, he was the Giants’ best position player by far. Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres took nosedives, Buster Posey was injured in that awful collision, and Carlos Beltran, of course, didn’t arrive until July. Amid the trainwreck that was the Giants’ daily lineup card, Sandoval was the only bright spot.

So here’s my appreciation. Thank you, Pablo Sandoval. On a team that displayed historical incompetence when it came to scoring runs, you were the only constant driving force. I can’t even begin to imagine how awful this offense would have been without you.

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