Sandoval is Giants' most valuable defender

Pablo Sandoval has been so good in the field that he can even make plays while blowing bubbles. AP Photo/Alan Diaz

If the San Francisco Giants do emerge as the top team in the NL West this season, Pablo Sandoval's defense at third base may be a difference-maker.

Some may find that odd, but if you disregard his girth, study the numbers and watch a little film, it makes sense.

The numbers

Sandoval dropped a considerable amount of weight prior to the start of the season and the dividends are apparent.

Most Defensive Runs Saved
2014 Third Basemen

Sandoval ranks third among third basemen with 10 defensive runs saved this season, trailing only Josh Donaldson and Nolan Arenado. His 10 runs saved are the most on the team.

This is not the first time that Sandoval has excelled in that category.

In 2011, he ranked second among third basemen in the majors and first in the NL with 15 defensive runs saved. But his total slipped to minus-5 defensive runs saved in each of the past two seasons, with added pounds perhaps playing a role.

"He came into spring training in better condition and that brings out his athleticism,” said Giants bench coach Ron Wotus on Tuesday. “Pablo is someone who has always worked extremely hard on his defense and he pays a lot of attention to detail. He's very athletic for his body type. He's always had the skills.”

Sandoval currently ranks fourth in out of zone plays (OOZ), a stat that can be found at Fangraphs. The past two seasons, he ranked 11th and 12th.

In other words, Sandoval is getting to the balls that others aren’t.

Film review

Baseball Info Solutions does video review of every play of every game, categorizing plays into 30 groups of good fielding plays (GFPs) and about 60 categories of defensive misplays & errors, providing the data to teams and media.

Good fielding plays for third basemen include things such as an outstanding diving stop that merits a Web Gem, starting a double play quickly, or cutting off a ball hit down the line to yield only a single instead of a double.

Sandoval currently has 46 good fielding plays and 15 misplays and errors.

His good play/misplay ratio of better than 3 to 1 is the best among third basemen. The next closest is Anthony Rendon of the Nationals at 2.2 to 1. The average third baseman has a ratio only slightly better than 1 to 1.

In fact, the only players who are better among regular second basemen and shortstops are Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Cardinals second baseman Mark Ellis.

Watch a little bit of the Sandoval highlight reel and the thing that jumps out is his reflexes. We're taking an educated guess here, but we'd wager that if someone kept track of the rate of a player's successful dives for balls to diving attempts made, Sandoval would be at the top of the list.

"His hand-eye coordination is off the charts," said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Alex Cora. "You can see that in how he hits balls over his head and balls in the dirt. His best tool on defense is that hand-eye coordination, because there's not a lot of time to read the angles of the ball coming off the bat at third base."

Sandoval leads players at all positions with 28 good fielding plays awarded for ground-ball outs on diving stops and charges on slow rollers. He’s also cut back on throw-related misplays and errors from 13 last season to only four so far in 2014.

A pitcher's best friend

Wotus noted that one advantage Sandoval has is that he knows the tendencies of his pitchers, since the likes of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have been with the team for a while. The Giants rank fourth in the majors in turning ground balls into outs (76 percent of the time) and that could be part of the reason.

"When the Braves had their run [with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz], they had the same pitchers going every night, and all their fielders seemed to know exactly where to be," Wotus said.

But the new guys have also learned that Sandoval performs better than he looks.

"I've been very impressed with him," Giants starter Tim Hudson told Jerry Crasnick earlier this week. "Because he's a bigger guy, you don't think he's very athletic by looking at him. But he's pretty agile. He'll get to balls in the hole and some balls down the line. He runs in on the ball pretty well, too. I've been pleasantly surprised with his range and how nimble he is at third."

He probably isn't the only one.