Red Sox: Pablo Sandoval earning his spot with impressive spring

Mar 7, 2017; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) looks on from the dugout prior to the game against the Washington Nationals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 7, 2017; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) looks on from the dugout prior to the game against the Washington Nationals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

A strong spring training performance has been a tremendous step toward putting Pablo Sandoval back in the good graces of his team.

Expectations were understandably low for Pablo Sandoval entering camp, but the maligned third baseman has been one of the most pleasant surprises for the Boston Red Sox this spring.

Showing up in shape was the first step toward convincing his critics that he was taking this opportunity to win back his starting third base job seriously, but there were still concerns about whether Sandoval would be able to produce enough to warrant a spot in the lineup. Based on his dismal debut season in Boston, followed by one almost entirely lost to injury, there has been little evidence to suggest he will.

So far this spring, Sandoval is doing everything he can to prove otherwise. He’s hitting a robust .333 with an .818 OPS, along with a homer, a pair of doubles and seven RBI. The batting average would be more eye-catching if he weren’t tied for 12th on the team, although most of the hitters ahead of him have barely played. Only five Red Sox hitters have a higher average than Sandoval this spring with at least 20 at-bats.

He’s even been surprisingly capable in the field. Sandoval has flashed some leather on several occasions this spring and has yet to commit an error.

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Spring stats are always taken with a grain of salt given that the competition often includes fringe players and prospects that aren’t quite ready for the big leagues. It’s always going to be a small sample size, but Sandoval does lead the team with 33 at-bats. It’s clear that the Red Sox are giving him every chance to prove himself in camp and thus far he’s taken advantage of the opportunity.

While we should remain hesitant that Sandoval has returned to form, these encouraging results are in stark contrast to last spring when he hit .204 with a .639 OPS in 49 at-bats and lost his starting spot to the hot-hitting Travis Shaw. He made no more than a cameo appearance in April before a shoulder injury ended his season, depriving him of the chance to reclaim his third base role.

Shaw’s bat quickly cooled off and by the second half of the season the Red Sox were shuffling through replacement level options at the hot corner, collectively producing the lowest OPS in the American League at the position.

With Shaw shipped to Milwaukee and top prospect Yoan Moncada dealt to Chicago in the Chris Sale trade, Sandoval enters the season with little competition at third base. The Red Sox are counting on him to perform due to a lack of appealing alternatives. Nobody expects him to live up to his salary – that ship has sailed. He doesn’t have to return to the All-Star caliber production of his prime years in San Francisco either. He simply needs to provide his team with an adequate option to start at third base. Avoid being the worst third baseman in the league and that’s already an upgrade over last season.

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Based on how he’s looked so far this spring, it appears he’s poised to at least provide above replacement level production – something he’s yet to do in a Red Sox uniform. However, with all the positives we’ve highlighted about his spring performance, there are some reasons for concern.

Sandoval has yet to draw a walk this spring and he’s struck out 10 times. As poorly as Sandoval has performed in recent years, he’s never been considered strikeout prone, with a solid 13.4% strikeout rate for his career. Only 24 hitters in the majors had a lower strikeout rate than that in 2016. His track record shows he doesn’t draw a ton of walks, but his 7.0% career walk rate at least puts him near the middle of the pack.

The uncharacteristic strikeout rate will inevitably drop, yet the walks remain a red flag. Sandoval’s BB% declined in three consecutive seasons prior to last year’s lost season, down to a brutal 5.0% in 2015 that marked his lowest rate since his rookie season in 2008.

Eventually he’ll draw some walks, even if by accident. The question is if he’ll return to his mediocre career rate or continue to decline toward the bottom of the barrel. His batting average will rise when the strikeouts dip, but his on-base percentage will be limited without more patience at the plate.

Sandoval isn’t out of the woods yet when it comes to redeeming himself in the eyes of Red Sox Nation. His production this spring is a solid start, with more positive signs than negative so far.

Next: Red Sox players out of options

He may never again be the player the Red Sox thought they were signing and that’s fine. At this point we’re merely looking for him to salvage enough of his value by providing the team with a serviceable third baseman.