This will come as a shock to anyone who's just traveled forward in time from 2017, but Pablo Sandoval might be an All-Star this year.
The San Francisco Giants have to send someone to the Midsummer Classic, and there is no brighter spot on their moribund roster than the Kung Fu Panda. Through 48 games, Sandoval is batting .299 with a .956 OPS. The latter equates to a 151 OPS+ that places him among the National League's top hitters.
Even more interesting is the Johnny-on-the-spot role Sandoval has played for the Giants. He only has 101 plate appearances because manager Bruce Bochy has preferred to bring him off the bench as a pinch hitter, with only occasional spot starts at third base and first base.
Regardless of his given assignment, Sandoval has excelled at the plate:
- As Sub: 1.029 OPS with 2 HR
- As Starter: .915 OPS with 5 HR
Sandoval, 32, also notched his second one-two-three inning as a pitcher in as many years against the Cincinnati Reds on May 6. Also in that game, he joined a small group of players who've mixed in a home run and a stolen base with a pitching performance:
A player like this would be fun to watch even if he had a perpetually frowny face and a blank-slate personality. But this is Pablo Sandoval, and his frequent smiles and infectious energy prove that he's as Pablo Sandovalian as he's ever been.
"I talk about Pablo a lot, but he's just a great guy to have on the club," Bochy said in April, according to Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic. "It's just his energy. He plays first and third. He can come off the bench. And now, right-handed, I'm fine with him facing lefties. That hasn't always been true."
The further beauty of all this, of course, is that the Giants are only on the hook for $555,000 of the nearly $20 million that Sandoval is pulling in this season.
The rest is on the Boston Red Sox, who must be flabbergasted at what's become of the investment they made five years ago.
It was in November 2014 that the Red Sox and Sandoval agreed to a five-year, $95 million contract. He was 28 at the time and a two-time All-Star with a 123 career OPS+. To boot, he was fresh off earning his third World Series ring with a .344 average in the postseason.
This was also a time when offense was down across Major League Baseball, and the Red Sox were stung especially hard by that. After averaging 5.3 runs per game en route to a World Series championship in 2013, they regressed to only 3.9 runs per game amid a 91-loss campaign in 2014.
But while all this allowed for an easy defense of Sandoval's deal, his notoriously aggressive approach and diminishing returns were real causes for concern. And apart from significant examples of weight loss here and there, it was no secret that he tended to carry an unmistakably round frame. Age and the pressure of playing in Boston threatened to make these issues even worse.
Sure enough, Sandoval showed up to spring training in 2015 noticeably out of shape, and he went on to struggle offensively (.658 OPS) and defensively (minus-11 defensive runs saved). According to Baseball Reference's wins above replacement, he was the American League's worst everyday player in 2015.
Sandoval then showed up in 2016 in neither better shape nor in a mood to be accountable, telling reporters: "I don't got nothing to prove." He ultimately didn't get a chance to prove anything, as shoulder surgery ended his season after he appeared in only three games.
During the winter of 2016 and the spring of 2017, a smidgen of hope arose from Sandoval's much-improved physique and red-hot performance in spring training. But when the games started to count, he was once again bitten by nonexistent production and poor health.
Come July 2017, the Red Sox—who had passed the task of running their front office from Ben Cherington to Dave Dombrowski in August 2015—had finally had enough. Sandoval was designated for assignment and cut loose even though his $95 million deal still had $48.3 million remaining on it through 2019.
Sandoval spoke of wanting a "new challenge" when he first arrived in Boston, and he even went so far as to take a shot at the Giants while also downplaying his exit from San Francisco.
"Not hard at all," he told Bleacher Report's Scott Miller of his decision to leave the Bay Area. "If you want me around, you make the effort to push and get me back."
A few weeks after he was let go by the Red Sox, however, Sandoval let the truth loose in an essay for The Players' Tribune:
"At the end of the day, I just never felt comfortable in Boston. It had nothing to do with the organization, or my teammates, or the fans, or the city. Everybody was great to me. I think it was just something that happens sometimes — you don't feel comfortable somewhere, or you don't fit in, even if you're in a place you chose to be."
Sandoval also wrote that he facilitated his return to San Francisco with a series of text messages to Giants front-office personnel. Since they had nothing to lose, the Giants obliged by bringing him back aboard.
They didn't get anything out of Sandoval initially in 2017, and even a better turn in 2018 still featured a torn hamstring and 0.1 WAR. Earlier this spring, it was indeed fair to ask if the Giants should even be setting aside a roster spot for him.
They did anyway, of course, and a decidedly happy and healthy version of Sandoval has yet to give them any cause to regret it.
If nothing else, what he's doing at the plate is legit. He's back to swinging aggressively after testing a more disciplined approach in 2018, and both his hard-hit rate and percentage of barreled balls—i.e., ones with ideal launch angle and exit velocity—suggest this approach is working better than ever.
What it all amounts to for now is a hell of a feel-good story. It might amount to more for the Giants if they're able to generate interest in Sandoval ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. He might fetch a prospect or two from a contender in need of a cheap, versatile slugger.
It's not a given that said interest will actually materialize. Buyers on the trade market will have sluggers aplenty to choose from, and they may be scared off by what happened to Sandoval the last time he left the safety of San Francisco.
But unlike the Red Sox five years ago, it would cost a team virtually nothing to take a chance on Sandoval. And this time, he'd be coming in with a hot bat and a better mindset.
"Never give up, man," Sandoval recently told Baggarly. "You never give up on your dreams. When you have the opportunity to play the game that you love, you have to take advantage of everything."
Perhaps he can stay in a good place, whether or not it's literally in San Francisco.