The most powerful memory many Tigers fans have of Pablo Sandoval is when he hit three home runs -- two off Justin Verlander -- in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series. Sandoval was named the World Series MVP that year, and he is currently playing in his third Fall Classic in the last five seasons. After the season ends, Sandoval will be a free agent for the first time in his career.
Who is he?
Sandoval is another one of those players that has seemingly been around the game forever. Granted, he has seven big league seasons under his belt, but Sandoval only turned 28 in August. He was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2003 and debuted in August of 2008. He quickly put his name on the map, hitting .330/.387/.556 with 25 home runs and 90 RBI in his first full season in 2009. He hasn't quite matched those numbers in any of his last five seasons, but is still a career .294/.346/.465 hitter. A third baseman by trade, Sandoval has also played a handful of games at first base in his career.
Why should we care?
While Sandoval's 2009 season was the best of his career, he has still been a great hitter in one of the most oppressive pitcher's parks in baseball. He has a career .811 OPS, but his OPS+ (which is adjusted for park factors) is 123. Sandoval has hit over .300 twice, with just one season below a .275 average. His .170 career ISO is also very good, especially when you consider how high his batting average is. Sandoval is a switch hitter, but provides most of his power from the left side of the plate. If the Tigers do not re-sign Victor Martinez, Sandoval could provide the same left-handed power while also not being useless against left-handed pitching.
Part of Sandoval's success stems from putting the ball in play. While he seems like a prototypical slugger, Sandoval only strikes out in 13.1 percent of his plate appearances, and has a solid 7.3 percent career walk rate. This doesn't mean that he is selective, however. Sandoval swings at everything. He swung at 48.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, the highest figure in baseball. His 59.5 percent swing rate also led all hitters. While this all seems rather damning, Sandoval has whiffed on 9.6 percent of the pitches he has seen in his career. To put that in perspective, Miguel Cabrera's career whiff rate is 9.8 percent.
Sandoval's bat is the big draw here, but his glove and athleticism would provide the Tigers more flexibility than if they signed a full-time DH. Sandoval is a league average defender at third base, if not slightly better. He has been worth +9 defensive runs saved over the past four seasons, and his career UZR at third base is 10.5. He has also played some first base in his career, something that the Tigers may sorely need in early 2015. Sandoval, Nick Castellanos, and Miguel Cabrera could rotate between third, first, and the designated hitter slots, giving the Tigers more flexibility than a full-time DH like Victor Martinez.
Why should we stay away?
Outside of a pair of excellent seasons, Sandoval has not been the offensive force that the Tigers have seen in head-to-head matchups. Four of his six seasons have resulted in a sub-.800 OPS, and the park factor adjustments calculated into OPS+ may overestimate the impact of AT&T Park's poor hitting conditions. Sandoval also has a .771 career OPS on the road, with a paltry .328 on-base percentage. While Dodgers Stadium and Petco Park are also pitcher's parks, one might expect a bump in production when the Giants get away from their home park.
Speaking of splits, Sandoval's platoon splits aren't all that encouraging. He crushes right-handed pitching, but the switch-hitting Sandoval has a career .708 OPS against lefties. Only 18 of his career 106 home runs and 45 of his 192 doubles have come against left-handed pitchers. He also struggles to draw walks and strikes out more often against lefties than righties.
While I like this idea the more I think about it, I don't think the Tigers will make any moves to jeopardize Nick Castellanos' role as the starting third baseman after just one season. Sandoval could slide over to first base or the designated hitter slot, but other teams will be looking to pay him as the power hitting third baseman that he is. Sandoval will likely be overpaid this offseason, and I don't know if the Tigers will sign a blank check to anyone not named Victor Martinez this offseason.