SAN FRANCISCO -- If Pablo Sandoval ever is to win a Gold Glove award, now's the time.
The Giants third baseman has built a solid case to be recognized as the National League's top defender at his position. Traditional statistics as well as modern metrics reflect Sandoval's excellence.
As the Giants approach a three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies beginning Friday at AT&T Park, Sandoval leads Major League third basemen with a .980 fielding percentage, which has steadily risen during a 68-game errorless stretch. Former Pirate John Wehner and former Mariner Jeff Cirillo share the big league record of 99 consecutive errorless games at third base.
According to FanGraphs, Sandoval's 7.6 UZR (ultimate zone rating), a leading indicator of defensive prowess, is second among NL third basemen to Los Angeles' Juan Uribe's 9.0. But Uribe, a former Giant, has played only 78 games at third base compared to Sandoval's 113. On ESPN.com's list of defensive WAR (wins above replacement), Sandoval and Uribe are deadlocked at 1.3 in third place, with New York's David Wright (1.5) in second. The leader at 1.9, Colorado's Nolan Arenado would appear to be Sandoval's primary Gold Glove rival. Arenado also tops MLB.com's range factor list (3.23), while Sandoval ranks third (2.65). But injuries have limited Arenado to 84 games.
Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez checks in with a 3.07 range factor. But he falls short of Sandoval in games played (96) and fielding percentage (.925), not to mention his throwing woes, which have forced the Pirates to remove him as the everyday third baseman.
Then there's the eyeball test. Sandoval has made spectacular diving stops and impossibly quick, accurate throws all season against virtually every opponent. Surely he has left an impression among the coaches and managers who cast Gold Glove ballots.
"I've always seen him make good plays against us," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said last week. "He's really athletic and he's quick-footed. You may not think he is, but he is."
Moreover, Sandoval's defense seems to have met enough statistical standards so that the sabermetric component incorporated into the selection process will help rather than hinder his chances.
"I think Pablo gets the most out of his ability at third base. And that's saying a lot," said Giants bench coach Ron Wotus, who shepherds San Francisco's infielders. "There are guys who are quicker. There are guys who have more range. There are guys who have more athleticism and can get to more balls. But I don't think there's anybody in the league who gets more out of his ability at third base."
Sandoval's also batting a respectable .280.
"He hits well enough to win it," Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford said with a wry smile, referring to the widespread perception that most Gold Glove winners gain an assist in the voting if they're offensively productive.
Sandoval, 28, savors making a big defensive play as much as delivering a clutch hit.
"In one of those plays you can save the game," he said. "You might not do it with the bat, but you can do it with the glove."
Sandoval's defense formerly was suspect, at best. Giants manager Bruce Bochy benched him through much of the 2010 NL Championship Series and that year's World Series because Sandoval's subpar physical condition did not allow him to play reliable defense. Since then, Sandoval has improved so much on defense that Bochy removes him in the late innings only to rest him.
Sheer diligence has accounted for Sandoval's ascent. Jose Alguacil, San Francisco's coordinator of infield instruction who spends most of his time tutoring Minor Leaguers, has worked extensively with Sandoval during previous offseasons and in Spring Training. Alguacil has refined Sandoval's footwork, most notably by helping him develop an unerring first step, which is essential for defenders at any position. With Alguacil's assistance, Sandoval also has established a steady release point on his throws. Wotus makes sure that Sandoval continues to sharpen his fundamentals during the regular season.
The result has been unprecedented consistency from Sandoval on defense.
"Everything that's hit right at him, he's making the play. You can see that from his errorless streak," said Crawford, Sandoval's partner on the left side of the infield. "And then he's making a good throw every time. In the past he's kind of been a little erratic with his throws."
Reserve first baseman Travis Ishikawa, who recently rejoined the Giants after spending 2012-13 with other organizations, noticed a difference in Sandoval.
"He's making plays that I don't remember him making four years ago," Ishikawa said.
Wotus cited Sandoval's resolve.
"He's always worked extremely hard in the spring, but I think it's carried forward better this year," Wotus said. "He doesn't take many days off. He's always preparing himself defensively to play the game every day. He's always worked hard, but I think he has been a little more determined this year to have a good season."
Some might claim that Sandoval's impending free agency drives his effort. He has maintained that he's not focusing on that.
"I'm just trying to help my team make the playoffs. As far as personal goals, I just worry about making plays to save the game," he said.
No discussion of Sandoval would be complete without some reference to his fluctuating -- some would say expanding -- weight. But his nimbleness afield tends to silence such criticism.
"I think his range might be slightly better," Crawford said. "He's a pretty good athlete. I don't think people realize that."
Said Wotus, "He's better than you think at diving for the ball."
Sandoval initially entered the Gold Glove conversation in 2011, when he placed second to Philadelphia's Placido Polanco.
"Finishing second, that's a good job for me," Sandoval said, pointing out that he was primarily a catcher through 2008, the year he made his Major League debut.
Don't be fooled, Alguacil emphasized.
"Pablo is very competitive," Alguacil said. "When he wants something, he fights for it. He wants to be the best. He wants to win a Gold Glove for sure. He was disappointed when Polanco won it. He wants to accomplish a goal and I believe that he will do it."