A 95 mph chest-high fastball. Another 95 mph fastball, this one at the knees on the outside corner of the plate. A tumbling breaking ball headed for the dirt. These are the three pitches that Pablo Sandoval hit out of the park last night. It's very likely that no other player in baseball would've hit those pitches out of the yard, because no other player would've thought to swing at them.
Sandoval has a well-deserved rep for being one of the free-swingingest free swingers in the league. According to Fangraphs, Sandoval swings at 44.8 percent of the pitches he sees out of the strike zone (third highest among players with at least 400 plate appearances). Everyone loves a free swinger—Rob Deer's stat lines have a gregarious personality; George Sisler's seem fussy and anal-retentive—but everyone laughs at a free swinger, too. There's great slapstick in seeing Sandoval step to the plate, swing mightily at three pitches (two of which are thrown in the general direction of Tahoe), and then fly meekly out to center. In comedy terms, the pitcher is the straight man; Panda is the funny man.
You figured the same dynamic would obtain last night, with Sandoval stepping in against a truly dominant ace in Justin Verlander. In his first at-bat, Sandoval fell behind in the count 0-2, whereupon Verlander delivered a pitch that was never meant to be swung at, a fastball at the letters. Almost every other major-league hitter would have watched it sail by, understanding that Verlander was simply trying to set him up for the next pitch.
And yet there was Sandoval, uncorking a massive swing, somehow getting the sweet spot of his bat on the ball, and hitting the first home run that Verlander had surrendered all year on an 0-2 count. It was a swing that could only have produced a home run or a strikeout, and Sandoval is one of the only players in the league who would have dared try. The same was true for the pitches that Sandoval turned into his second and third home runs of the night. A good hitter, we're told, is supposed to spit on those pitches and wait for something in his zone. Not Panda. He took his ridiculous cuts, and hit his home runs. In the third inning, after Sandoval had deposited his fastball into the left-field bleachers, all Verlander could do was mouth, "Wow" in response, the straight man realizing he'd just been played for a mark. You had to laugh.