He was ready for an unexpected opportunity in 2008.
How did Pablo Sandoval, a player just promoted from single A, with 184 PAs in AA, get his big break? It was all about lack of depth. The Giants’ backup catchers were not ready for the Majors.
On 1 July, Steve Holm, the backup catcher since spring training, got sent down to AAA. For the next six weeks, the Giants struggled.
About 14 August, the Giants decided they needed a new plan because:
- In the prior 20 games, they averaged 2.75 runs per game.
- Their season win-loss record was 50-70.
- They were in fourth place in the NL West.
The Giants called up Pablo Sandoval to play catcher (86.1 innings), first base (121 innings), and third base (85 innings). He was ready!
- In the next 20 Giant games, Sandoval hit 6 RBIs in 73 PAs, with a team average of 4.30 runs per game.
- In Giant games 21-40, Sandoval hit 16 RBIs in 75 PAs, with a team average of 4.55 runs per game.
Why is Pablo Sandoval a fan favorite?
Let’s look at several ways to understand his appeal to fans.
Fans noticed his presence and respect from other players. Presence is important for two reasons: because it shows that a player owns his performance, and because it energizes his teammates. Respect is important for two reasons: it is an important prerequisite for building trust and teamwork, and because a respected player can focus 100% on playing baseball.
“Pablo speaks for himself, just the way he comes in, his professionalism, what he adds in clubhouse, the presence has, the respect he has from everybody. And he can still hit. He’s kind of what you’re looking for. He’s a guy who can sit around and stay ready.” — Brian Snitker
“No situation’s going to be too big. Not only in that role, but in the clubhouse, too. This guy is awesome to have on your team.” — Brian Snitker
An incredible play happened. It happened in his second month in the Majors, on September 19. He was near second base when Bengie Molina hit a hard groundball towards him. He froze so the ball could pass between his legs and into the outfield. Pablo Sandoval ran around third and towards home. Although the throw was offline, the ball got to catcher Danny Ardoin a split second before Pablo Sandoval. When the catcher stretched out for the tag, Pablo Sandoval spun his body around and over the tag with his arms stretched back. His agility was a wonderful sight to behold. He touched home plate, safe!
He has a cool nickname, Kung Fu Panda! Because of the incredible play, Barry Zito gave a nickname to Pablo Sandoval. An animated movie, Kung Fu Panda, is about animals who talk and act like people. A panda named Po dreams of being a martial art fighter when reality is that he is in his family’s noodle business (could be a future nickname for the minor leagues). Unexpectedly, he was chosen to be the dragon warrior. He trains hard and is well prepared to fight when opportunity arrives. Kung Fu Panda is a cool nickname! For fans, that’s a huge plus.
Makakilo! For a baseball writer, that’s not at all bad for a nickname. I grabbed my opportunity to move to Makakilo, Hawaii. My baseball writing started shortly thereafter. Let’s get back to Pablo Sandoval.
Fans love his comeback story. After enjoying rookie success in 2008 and 2009, he struggled in 2010. In 2010, he was on the bench for some postseason games.
He responded by improving his skills, both offense and defense. Then in April 2011, he broke his hamate bone – just another obstacle to overcome. It was a great comeback.
- In 2011, his 14 DRS at third base ranked 2nd in the Majors. And his defense passed the eye test – videos of his best defensive plays are impressive.
- His batting improved – his OPS+ improved from 99 to 155. While his plate appearances fell by 24% due to injury, his homers increased from 13 to 23. And that was followed by greater success the next season.
Fans love a player who achieves great success at the highest level. In the 2012 postseason, Pablo Sandoval hit 6 homers and 13 RBIs. In the World Series, which his team won, his OPS was an unbelievable 1.654. He was the MVP for the World Series.
Fans love homers and RBIs. Over his career, Pablo Sandoval hit 632 RBIs, which ranks 35th among active players. His 51 sacrifice flies ranks 13th among active players.
Players who are part of the team’s success story have great appeal. There is a statistic, cWPA, which measures by how much an event/play increases the team’s chances of winning the World Series. In addition to postseason plays, plays during the regular season have impact, albeit a smaller impact. That explains why a superstar like Nolan Arenado has a smaller cWPA than a fan might expect.
“It’s not a “fair” metric in that not all players get the same opportunities (or even anywhere close to the same opportunities),…” — Daniel Marks
“Just as single-game win probability added (WPA) measures how a player impacts their team’s chances of winning a game, cWPA measures how a player impacts their team’s chances of winning the World Series.” — Baseball Reference.
The following graph includes this season’s starting third basemen in the NL West, plus Pablo Sandoval who previously played third base for the Giants and Nolan Arenado who previously played third base for the Rockies. For each player, the chart shows three things relevant to being a fan favorite:
- His total cWPA, which is proportional his circle’s area. Larger circles mean higher cWPA.
- Whether batting, fielding, or a mix accounts for most of his cWPA.
- Whether postseason, regular season, or a mix accounts for most of his cWPA.
Most fan favorites are in the upper right corner of the graph, although a noteable exception is Nolan Arenado. Pablo Sandoval is in the upper right corner - for that reason, and several other reasons, he is a fan favorite.