BOSTON — When Pablo Sandoval tore the labrum in his left shoulder last April, he went to see Dr. James Andrews, one of the foremost orthopedic surgeons in the country. When Sandoval wanted to lose weight last summer, he sought help from a licensed dietician.
So when the time came in the offseason for the Boston Red Sox third baseman to diagnose his swing, he couldn’t fathom a more expert consultant than the only hitter since 1967 to win a Triple Crown.
Miguel Cabrera would meet Sandoval in Miami at the home of mutual friend and hitting coach Paul Casanova, a former major league catcher. They would talk hitting, then head to the batting cage in Casanova’s backyard to take their cuts.
“I learned a lot of things, like trusting your hands and don’t think too much,” Sandoval says. “That’s what I’ve been doing with my right-handed swing. [Cabrera] is a great person. We’re friends. He looks out for me.”
At this point in the story, we would like to tell you that Sandoval is reaping the benefits of Cabrera’s input, that all those sessions with the Detroit Tigers star turned Sandoval back into the All-Star he was with the San Francisco Giants.
But that isn’t the case. Not yet, at least.
Entering Monday’s annual 11 a.m. Patriots Day game at Fenway Park, the switch-hitting Sandoval is 6-for-42 (.143) with one double, three home runs, 10 strikeouts and three walks. Batting right-handed, his weaker side of the plate, he’s 0-for-10 with one walk and just two balls hit out of the infield.
It’s a minuscule sample size, to be sure, and Sandoval has had some bad luck (he’s batting only .100 on balls in play). There’s still plenty of time for the story to have a happy ending. For now, though, Sandoval has done nothing to quiet rumblings that he should abandon switch-hitting or play only against right-handed pitchers, scenarios that manager John Farrell insists he isn’t ready to fully explore.
Cabrera stresses the need for patience with Sandoval, but it has never been in high supply in Boston. And with the righty-hitting Josh Rutledge getting closer to a minor league assignment in his recovery from a strained left hamstring, the Red Sox might soon have a platoon partner for Sandoval.
“We have to remember that [Sandoval] did not play for almost a year,” Cabrera said during the Red Sox’s recent four-game series in Detroit. “Let’s hope that Boston will trust him. Hopefully fans will also have a lot of patience and support him 100 percent, because he’s a great player and a player who can help his team win.”
That’s what the Red Sox bargained for when they signed Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million contract after the 2014 season. He won three World Series with the Giants and built a reputation as a clutch playoff performer. And after touted third baseman Will Middlebrooks fizzled, they were desperate for an upgrade at the hot corner.
But Sandoval has been a train wreck. Among his Boston lowlights: Getting benched for one game in 2015 for using Instagram in the clubhouse between innings, losing his job to upstart Travis Shaw in spring training last year and popping a belt buckle on a swing last April.
Sandoval missed all but the first week of last season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Yet the Red Sox traded Shaw (to the Milwaukee Brewers for reliever Tyler Thornburg) and top prospect Yoan Moncada (to the Chicago White Sox for ace lefty Chris Sale) on the same day in December, leaving Sandoval all but unchallenged at third base.
There were encouraging signs in spring training. Sandoval arrived in shape and, inspired by the birth of his son, vowed to restart his career at age 30. He also took better swings, at least from the left side of the plate, and appeared far steadier defensively.
And then the season started.
“Everything is there, you know? I feel good. I’m healthy,” says Sandoval, whose defense has mostly remained sharp. “It’s tough that you don’t get results, but you have to keep working hard, do everything you can to be better every single day.”
Sandoval has always been an aggressive hitter, but Farrell believes he has taken that approach to its extreme. Through Saturday, Sandoval had swung at 61.1 percent of the pitches he’d seen, the second-highest rate in the majors this season behind San Diego’s Yangervis Solarte (61.2), according to FanGraphs. On pitches that were deemed to be outside the strike zone, he had swung a major-league-high 47.8 percent of the time.
Cabrera describes Sandoval as a “complete hitter” with “a really lively bat.” But he also notes that Sandoval has a tendency to get himself out early in an at-bat by being overly aggressive.
Sandoval went 2-for-4 with a home run April 7 in Detroit, then went 0-for-11 with one walk over the series’ final three games. He says he got “some more tips” from Cabrera before the Sox left town.
Could Sandoval stand to be more selective at times?
“I need to get a little more patient and get a pitch to hit,” he says. “Sometimes I have to calm down myself a little bit more in situations that I have opportunities to drive in runs.”
For now, those opportunities are still coming with regularity. But if Sandoval doesn’t begin producing, he might find himself on the bench in June when Cabrera and the Tigers visit Fenway Park.
Marly Rivera of ESPN Deportes contributed to this story.