The 2017 season wasn’t everything the Red Sox wanted. They fell short of a World Series run, but one of their biggest questions entering Spring Training was answered better than they could have hoped: Pablo Sandoval exceeded all expectations and won the third base job on his way to winning the 2017 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.
After a disastrous 2015 season, Sandoval missed nearly all of 2016 appearing in just three games. One of those was, of course, the exploding belt game:
After arriving in Fort Myers appearing out of shape, he lost a battle with a belt and public support, injured his shoulder, and missed the remainder of the season. With Yoan Moncada tearing up the minors it seemed like the Panda era had come to an end. However, once Moncada was shipped to the Chicago White Sox for Chris Sale, the door for a Sandoval resurrection swung wide open. Red Sox Nation was worried.
While photos of Sandoval began to appear and show the third baseman sporting a much trimmer figure ahead of ’17, morale among the fanbase was low. After all, Sandoval had been in decline even before arriving in Boston. Since his first full season in 2009, Sandoval failed to match his highs in batting average, OBP and slugging in addition to hits, homers, doubles and even runs scored and RBIs. In short, as a 30-year-old entering the 2017 season, optimism was limited.
A slow spring put the Panda in a loose platoon with super utility star Brock Holt to begin the season. During the spring, though, Sandoval looked at home at third base again for the first time in his Boston career. His surprisingly agile play was on display and his bat had some pop. With David Ortiz gone and no prospects close enough to challenge Sandoval, in-season expectations were mixed. But what choice was there?
By mid-April, no other option was needed. We didn’t know it at the time, but Sandoval would run off a 25-game hitting streak as his batting average soared into the .320s—where it would remain for most of the season. Amazingly, Sandoval didn’t win a spot in the All-Star Game but that was OK with Boston. After all, he hadn’t played in full season in over a year, why not let him take a few more days to rest and help his stamina over the remaining months?
This was good timing because Sandoval faded during the second half of July. With hours to go until the trade deadline, Red Sox Nation was looking for a miracle. Todd Frazier? Mike Moustakas? A reunion with Adrián Beltré? But the Red Sox did nothing.
And it worked: Sandoval bounced back in August and September to close out the season. Ending the year with 20 homers, a .305 batting average and .339 OBP gave the Panda his highest marks in years.
A walk-off in the ALDS finished the restoration of his professional reputation. Seven games with Cleveland once more left Terry Francona with the upper hand against his old club, but Pablo Sandoval was redeemed.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.