Boston’s Bounce-Back Duo

The 2015 season didn’t go quite as planned in Beantown. A Boston Red Sox team that many expected to win the division — and perhaps have a nice playoff run — instead finished dead last in the AL East.

But they had their moments, and a 78-84 record isn’t exactly horrific. And now as we look forward, there’s still a lot of promise with this franchise, as indicated by their still-favorable No. 3 ranking in ESPN Insider’s MLB Future Power Rankings, posted Wednesday. Not only do they have the most talent among MLB teams in their minor league system, according to our survey, but they still have established, veteran, major league talent and are still in a very good position financially.

And you know who, according to our early FanGraphs projections, will key the Red Sox’s bounce-back 2016 campaign? None other than two of the three worst regulars in baseball this year: Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Let’s take a closer look at those two players from a historical context.

The History of Bounce Backs

In order to bounce back, you need to be good, then bad, then good again. If you define the biggest bounce-backs as the combination of the biggest swings in fortune, you can look back and find the biggest bounce backs since free agency was started. It turns out the patron saint of next year’s Boston Red Sox team is a famous Yankee. Scott Brosius found his way back, though, and so might Sandoval.

Name Total Movement Bad Season Bad wRC+ Good Season Good wRC+
Scott Brosius 154 1997 50 1998 123
Adam Dunn 131 2011 60 2012 115
Chris Davis 127 2014 94 2015 147
Aubrey Huff 125 2009 77 2010 144
Terry Pendleton 122 1990 60 1991 141
Ray Durham 119 2007 62 2008 118
Alex Rios 115 2011 60 2012 126
Darin Erstad 113 1999 70 2000 140
Kendrys Morales 106 2014 72 2015 131
Ted Simmons 106 1984 60 1985 103
Mark McGwire 103 1991 105 1992 171
Pablo Sandoval 103 2010 96 2011 149
Brook Jacoby 102 1988 78 1989 114
Bill Madlock 100 1984 70 1985 112
Jeff Bagwell 100 1995 140 1996 173

The stat used to sort this list — weighted runs created plus — takes a player’s contributions and weighs them according to each event’s value in the history of the league. Then it adjusts for park and league in order to give context.

So Scott Brosius was 30% better than league average when he was 29, in 1996, and then he was 50% worse than league average in 1997, before returning to 23% better than league average in 1998. In 1997, he was last in the majors among qualifiers in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average, so the Athletics traded him for Kenny Rogers. The next year, he was an All-Star for the Yankees.

The top 20 bounce-back players were 31 in their bounce-back season. Ramirez is 31 and Sandoval is 28. The top 20 bounce-back players averaged a 50-point jump in their wRC+ in their bounce-back year. Ramirez needs 40 points to return to his career average, and Sandoval needs 41.

Of course, asking them to bounce back with the top 20 best bounce-backs of all time might be a lot to ask. But the projections for Ramirez (120 wRC+) and Sandoval (104 wRC+) are more modest. If they hit their projections, Ramirez would rank 82nd all time in bounce-backs, right around what Alex Rodriguez did in 2007. Sandoval would rank 150th all time, right around what Jason Varitek did in 2007.

These bounce-backs are reasonable in the context of history, but how about given the particular histories of these two players?

The Players Themselves

Look back at the list above. Did you see that Pablo Sandoval has already had the 12th-best bounceback of the free agency era? It’s hard to tell if that makes him more or less likely to do it again. But we already showed that if Sandoval does bounce, his newest effort will be in the top 150. There are 18 other batters that have had two bounce-backs that big. Adrian Beltre has done it three times.

So Sandoval’s career has had some bounce to it. In his last bad year, though, he was near league average. And this bounce, because he’s older, will probably be smaller. That’s how age works.

There’s little hope if you look in the splits for last year, too. In 2015, Sandoval hit the most grounders, and pulled the least balls, and had the worst hard-hit percentage of his career. None of those things got demonstrably better int he second half.

You can say the same things about Ramirez. He hit the most ground balls, pulled the second-least balls, and had the third-worst hard-hit percentage of his career. He added the worst pop-up rate of his career.

He actually did undo some of that in the second half. He hit the ball harder and pulled the ball more, and hit fewer popups. The problem was that he also hit three ground balls for every fly ball, more than twice his career rate.

Injury has to be part of this conversation, and is probably the source of the strange numbers on Hanley’s profile. Sandoval didn’t go on the disabled list, but has famously struggled with his weight, and bigger players get hurt more and miss more time than smaller players. As they get older, they may miss more time, and bounce back less strongly from their bad years.

But in 2015? both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez will be reasonably close to their prime ages. They’ll be vying to do things that many others have done before. Sandoval has done it himself.

And asking for two players to bounce back in a legendary way on one team? It’s been done before. In 2012, Adam Dunn (second-biggest bounce-back) and Alex Rios (seventh-biggest) both had great years for the White Sox. That team spent 126 days in first place and then collapsed, finishing three games out of first place. Since the Red Sox scored the fourth-most runs in baseball without their two studs at their best, count this as good news for the team. They might challenge the Blue Jays’ vaunted offense in 2015.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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