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2021 Braves player review: Pablo Sandoval

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Sandoval struggled for the Braves but was part of one of the big trades that sent them to a World Series title.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

After joining the team for the postseason in 2020, Pablo Sandoval returned to the Atlanta Braves in 2021. He made an impact with his bat early in the season and then was part of a pivotal trade that helped push the Braves to a World Series win.

How Acquired

Sandoval originally signed with the Braves in September of 2020 as they looked to help solidify their bench for the postseason. He was a free agent again at season’s end but opted to stick with Atlanta by agreeing to a minor league deal in late January that included an invite to Spring Training. He went 16-for-40 at the plate during Grapefruit League play, winning a bench spot on the Braves’ Opening Day roster.

Expectations

The hope was that Sandoval would be a solid bench option with some power. Sandoval had had a mini-resurgence in 2019 with the Giants, so his bench spot was at least somewhat predicated on something like that (.331 xwOBA, 110 wRC+, .239 ISO in 2019) compared to his 2020 (.288 xwOBA, 57 wRC+, .048 ISO). Still, the expectations were pretty much a replacement-level bench option, maybe slightly above if he could carry over some of the resurgence he showed in 2019.

2021 Season results

Sandoval didn’t waste any time making an impact, slugging three pinch-hit home runs in his first eight at-bats. Unfortunately, that is where the positives end, unless you count his part in the “panda hug” home run celebrations that became a nightly occurrence on the broadcast and social media. After homering on April 15, Sandoval hit just .154/.276/.200 with one home run and 22 strikeouts over his next 76 plate appearances. The Braves traded him to Cleveland on July 30 in exchange for outfielder Eddie Rosario and cash. The deal was largely a salary dump from Cleveland’s standpoint, but Rosario would play a big part in Atlanta’s late season surge.

Pablo Sandoval 2021 Stats

Gms AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ wOBA xwOBA
Gms AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ wOBA xwOBA
69 .178 .302 .342 12.8 29.1 78 .291 .300

What went right? What went wrong?

By all accounts, Sandoval is a high character guy and a solid clubhouse presence. He came up with some timely power early on but simply wasn’t able to sustain it. Given his lack of production after that hot start, it was a minor miracle that he stuck on the active roster until the Trade Deadline.

Road to the Title

Oh, but those homers! Sandoval didn’t just hit a few homers early on, he hit some real game-savers. On Opening Day, he hit a game-tying two-run homer that gave the Braves their first runs of the season. (The Braves still lost.) Six days later, in a seven-inning doubleheader, he again hit a two-run homer, this time to break a 0-0 tie, which led to the Braves’ first win of the season. Fast forward another eight days, and he came through huge again, hitting a go-ahead three-run homer that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead — A.J. Minter coughed up the lead but the Braves walked it off. And while he really didn’t do much after that third week of April, he managed one last hurrah with his final homer of the season, a game-tying two-run shot off Hector Neris that tied the game with two outs in the ninth:

That homer alone, despite coming in May, had 0.32 percent cWPA. In fact, all four of Sandoval’s homers for the Braves had a cWPA of at least 0.18 percent; three moved the in-game win probability needle by 40 percent or more, with the other being a swing of a bit under 30 percent.

Overall, Sandoval finished with 0.87 WPA on the season, sixth on the team among hitters. That’s mind-boggling when you think about it, given that he only put up a 78 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR overall. Talk about making it count.

Outlook for 2022

Sandoval is now 35 years old and the end appears to be near, if it isn’t already here. The universal DH might help, but he is facing an uphill battle in returning to a major league roster. He’s compiled -1.6 fWAR in 511 PAs going back to 2015, when he first left San Francisco... but who knows? Maybe he’ll sprinkle some more improbable WPA swings from his bat to whoever gives him a shot next year.