Prospect Retrospective: Pablo Sandoval, 3B, San Francisco Giants
A Giants fan asked me a couple of days ago how Pablo Sandoval was viewed as a prospect. Sandoval is a guy that I was wrong about. Let's take a look.
The Venezuelan Sandoval made his North American debut for the San Francisco Giants in the Arizona Rookie League in 2004, hitting .266/.287/.373 in 46 games, with poor plate discipline, although he was just 17. He wasn't on my radar at that point. That changed after he hit .330/.383/.425 for Salem-Keizer in 2005. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2006 book, noting his ability to hit for average. I pointed out the lack of walks, but also noted the low strikeout rate, a good marker. There were some questions about his physical conditioning and his defense, but the bat looked very interesting.
Sandoval struggled in 2006, hitting .265/.309/.322 in 117 games for Augusta in the Sally League. The extreme lack of power was a problem, and I had some negative scouting reports about both his bat and his glove, which knocked him back to a Grade C. I ended up cutting him from the book to save space, and at that point I didn't see much of a reason to think he was a strong prospect. He didn't make Baseball America's Top 30 Giants prospect list either, so I wasn't alone in that.
He rebounded with a .287/.312/.476 mark for San Jose in 2007, which got him back in the book. He showed considerably more power, but his walk rate remained tiny, just 16 in 401 at-bats. There were also significant questions about his defense at the time. . .was he a catcher? A first baseman? A third baseman? I rated him a Grade C.
In retrospect that decision was wrong and I think he deserved at least a C+ and probably a B- given his hitting at San Jose, even with the defensive issues. Although he didn't draw any walks, his strikeout rate was low, with 52 whiffs, and he was just 21 year old. In fairness, Baseball America still didn't have him in their Giants Top 30, but the signs of improvement were clearly there, and I count this as a "miss" for myself.
Sandoval had a breakout in 2008, hitting .350/.394/.578 between San Jose (68 games) and Double-A Connecticut (44 games), then making his major league debut and hitting .345/.357/.490 for the Giants. He exceeded rookie qualifications with 145 at-bats, so he wasn't in the '09 book. He would have at least been a Grade B+ at that point.
Sandoval has had some problems staying healthy, but he's been a valuable hitter three of the last four years, posting a career .303/.353/.490 mark, OPS+129, WAR 17. His defense, which was a question-mark in the minors, turned into a positive asset at third base.
Statistically, his career through age 25 is similar to Richie Hebner, Chipper Jones, and Jim Ray Hart among third baseman. Hebner was a very good player back in the 1970s. Jim Ray Hart was the Giants third baseman in the early 1960s, was outstanding early in his career but got hurt and faded quickly.
Don't scoff at Jones showing up on the statistical comps: through age 25, Chipper had a career OPS+ of 123, a bit lower than Sandoval's 129. Indeed, Chipper's WAR through the same point of his career was about 14 compared to Sandoval's 17. Of course, it is very unlikely that Sandoval will show the kind of longevity that Jones did.
Looking over this, the big mistake for Sandoval's rating as a prospect was the Grade C mark entering 2008. Even with the information available at the time, he deserved a grade a notch or two higher.