Remembering Pablo Sandoval
(originally written 11/29/14)
On the heels of a record-setting 2014 postseason, Giants 3B Pablo Sandoval became ex-Giants 3B Pablo Sandoval. He's gone cross-country to Boston, and left a crater-sized void in the Giants lineup—and clubhouse—and retail profits (those Panda hats ain't cheap.)
I personally thought he'd stay, and even if he didn't, I grossly undervalued what the Giants would lose. Here's hoping Red Sox fans appreciate him the way I didn't.
We Giants fans remember 2008 as a major transition year for our franchise, on and off the field. It began on Day One, when Spring Training opened without superstar Barry Bonds on the roster after a brilliant—if at times weary—15-year run. It ended with a new top boss, Bill Neukom.
Aaron Rowand, late of Philadelphia, was brought in as the anti-Bonds—a likeable leader to whom jogging to first base ranked slightly below vivisepulture on the acceptability chart. Much like Barry Zito the year before, the Giants overpaid for Rowand's services largely to make a splash during an otherwise quiet winter.
On March 31, San Francisco trotted out this season-opening lineup against the Dodgers (pitcher excluded):
Dave Roberts (fading) - LF
Rich Aurilia 2.0 (fading) - 1B
Randy WInn (miscast batting 3rd) - RF
Bengie Molina (cleanup by default)- C
Ray Durham (fading)- 2B
Aaron Rowand (grossly overrated)- CF
Jose Castillo (released by then-awful Pittsburgh)- 3B
Brian Bocock (overmatched rookie fill-in) - SS
Needless to say, the Dodgers shut the Giants out on five hits. By the start of 2010, six of those eight were no longer in the major leagues. By the end of 2011, all eight were finished.
The stats belie the struggles of San Francisco's O. Yes, there were streaks of competency. And John Bowker's callup provided a short-lived lineup jolt.
More often than not, however, the Giants endured periods such as their three-game series at New York in which they tallied nine total hits (and no, the Mets hadn't opened cavernous Citi Field yet) or their 12-game July/August stretch without a single homer.
In fact, Molina led the team with 16 all year. Hitting coach Carney Lansford was ultimately fired.
You're being told this because in order to understand Pablo Sandoval's impact on the Giants, you have to realize how ineptly SF performed against quality pitching. If opposing hurlers executed...game over.
The Panda, as he came to be known, changed all that in a short amount of time.
After he came up in August, it didn't take a 3-1 meatball or a hanging curve for a Giant to hit the ball hard. I can remember watching Pablo attacked with backdoor sliders and actually being startled when he hit them hard! The '08 Giants just didn't do that often. Sandoval could beat a tough front-door sinker, a 94-mph heater at the letters, even a nasty ankle-high splitter. It was awesome to watch.
Aside from the emerging Tim Lincecum, the Giants were a wasteland and there just wasn't much reason to watch. Worse—there was little reason to hope. Sure, we fans heard about some Buster guy on the horizon with franchise player potential, but even if he didn't crash and burn like so many can't-miss guys do...he was still two years away.
In the meantime, the Giants found Pablo.
Originally a catcher—remember that?—he eventually settled in at third base. He was a short, chunky switch-hitter from Venezuela who played with spirit and fire, but also a big goofy smile. He belly-flopped into bases. He dove for every ball within his reach. He even blew bubbles as he made diving stops in the field!! Who was this guy?
All of that becomes trivial if Sandoval couldn't produce, though—but he could. In 2009 he laid the smackdown on opposing pitching to the tune of a .330 average (2nd in the NL) along with 25 homers, 44 doubles, 90 RBI and a .556 SLG. I hated Shane Victorino already, but that hatred increased five-fold after he edged Sandoval in the Final Vote for an NL All-Star spot.
One year later, weight issues, off-field problems and defensive woes sapped his production to the point of being benched in the 2010 postseason (almost unfathomable today given his brilliance in the 2012/2014 playoffs.)
Sandoval got it together on both sides of the ball over the next two seasons. And even though he lost 1/3 of both seasons to separate broken hands, he secured All-Star nods both years and ended 2012 as the World Series MVP on the strength of a three-homer Game 1.
Accolades and gaudy stats are nice, but you can't measure everything about an athlete from the back of his baseball card. For most of my Giants fanship, the Giants were closer to soft than not.
I always point to an incident between Shawn Estes and Steve Finley in 1996 or 1997; Estes drilled Finley (presumably accidentally) and Finley glared menacingly at Estes and animatedly chewed him out. Not only did Estes basically curl up into a ball, but none of his teammates dared involve themselves.
During the Sandoval era, if you wanted to get at a Giants pitcher, you had to go through him. Which no one to my recollection has been dumb enough to try. Remember Matt Kemp inching toward Lincecum after a 2010 drilling? Sandoval was ready and waiting to spear Kemp if necessary. Ditto when Victorino took offense to a Ramon Ramirez (intentional) plunking in 2011.
WAR won't measure that. Teammates and coaches do. And now that Pablo is gone, who will fill that toughness void for the Giants? It won't be Posey, who actually wept on the field when the Giants clinched both the NLCS and World Series (he admitted to the former and I saw the latter.)
Sandoval's pedestrian power numbers have to go up moving from AT&T to Fenway. And when he gets a hold of them, they go far—he was one of very few men to homer over Triples Alley at AT&T, and only Bonds has more "Splash Hits" than Sandoval's seven (he was robbed of at least one other by a flagpole or spray cannon; I forget which.)
Still, Red Sox fans: you won't be getting the next David Ortiz in Sandoval; don't boo him for being a step below.
You will get a guy who never takes a play off, will stand up for his teammates, will own up to his mistakes, will catch most anything he can reach, and can carry a team for a month when he gets hot—though he might not heat up until he's familiar with the entire AL.
He will either show up to camp heavy and slim down during the season, or he'll show up to camp light and puff up during the season. At times, his airmailed throws and (lack of) selectivity at-bat will frustrate you—believe me, when he tapped those 3-1 outside changeups back to the mound in a close game, we fans nearly missed Pedro Feliz.
But he'll play to win every night, and you'll love him as much as we did.
I just wish it hadn't taken visions of a hot corner combo of Joaquin Arias and Nick Noonan in 2015 for me to realize what we Giants fans had in Pablo Sandoval. If he's still a Red Sock in 2017 (cough Adrian Gonzalez cough Carl Crawford), I will stand and cheer Pablo loudly when the Sox pass thru San Francisco.
Some will be angry he left. I'll choose to be happy he was here at all.