Why Pablo Sandoval's 3 home runs were even more impressive than you know

Christian Petersen

We knew we were watching something incredibly special and unlikely in Game 1, when Sandoval hit three home runs against the Tigers. But it's hard to overstate just how unlikely it was.

There are two ways to think about Pablo Sandoval's three home runs in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series.

One way is to think of them in the context of Pablo Sandoval's greatness, both generally and as a power hitter.

Before we explore that notion, a bit of historical context is probably in order. Just in case you missed it. Before Wednesday night, a player had hit three home runs in one World Series game only four times.

In Game 4 of the 1926 World Series, Ruth hit three homers against the Cardinals.

Almost exactly two years later -- again in Game 4, and again against the Cardinals -- Ruth did it again.

In Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs against the Dodgers.

In Game 3 of the 2011 World Series, Albert Pujols hit three home runs against the Rangers.*

* Yes, the timing's been odd. Two years between three-homer games, then 51 years, then 34 years, then ... one year. At this rate, it's either going to take another half-century ... or Delmon Young will hit three home runs in Game 2.

Does Pablo Sandoval thus take his place alongside The Babe, Mr. October, and Prince Albert among the game's all-time greatest hitters? Hardly. Sandoval's obviously been an outstanding hitter when he's been healthy. But he's not exactly a superstar, except maybe in San Francisco and points south. Sandoval's performance in Game 1 doesn't tell us that he's a premier power hitter like Ruth and Jackson and Pujols.

Really, it's more interesting than that. Assuming that you equate interesting with surprising. Because what those other names really tell us is just how surprising Sandoval's Game 1 really was.

Before Wednesday night, there had been 107 modern World Series, American League vs. National League: every year since 1903, except for 1904 and 1994. In those 107 World Series, there were 624 games played (including three ties).

Granted, a number of those games were played before it was really possible to hit three home runs in one game. So let's lop off everything that came before 1920, when (not coincidentally) Babe Ruth destroyed the single-season record by hitting 54 home runs. From 1920 through 2011, 530 World Series games were played.

In four of those games, a player hit three three home runs.

Four times in 530 games. Once in every 132 games.

That is one fact that made Sandoval's three home runs incredibly unlikely.

In 1926, Ruth hit two homers off Flint Rhem, and one off Hi Bell. In '28, Ruth hit two homers off Bill Sherdel, and one off Pete Alexander.

In 1977, Jackson hit one homer apiece off Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa, and Charlie Hough.

In 2011, Pujols hit one homer apiece off Alexi Ogando, Mike González, and Darren Oliver.

That's an even dozen home runs, and arguably one off a legitimately great pitcher: Alexander, who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame. But while Alexander was still a fine pitcher in 1928, he was 41 years old and far from the peak of his powers. You might reasonably argue that none of those dozen home runs were hit against a truly outstanding pitcher. Justin Verlander, on the other hand, is perhaps our most outstanding pitcher. And Pablo Sandoval hit two home runs off him.

Another fact: For six months, the Giants simply did not hit home runs at AT&T Park. Over the whole season, 81 games, the Giants hit 31 homers at home. Their opponents were slightly better, hitting 53 homers in San Francisco. The total, though ... San Diego's Petco Park is famous for making life difficult for power hitters. There were 109 home runs hit at Petco Park this year. There were 84 hit in AT&T Park.

One more fact: Pablo Sandoval's Isolated Power this season was .164. Isolated Power (ISO) -- which is simply slugging percentage minus batting average -- is a better measure than slugging percentage of a player's power, because it takes all the singles out of the equation.

Babe Ruth was in a land of his own, with .365 and .386 ISO's in 1926 and '28. Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols were also immensely strong hitters, with Jackson at .264 and Pujols at .242. These are the sorts of numbers that would, if pitchers knew them, strike fear into their hearts.

If Sandoval had played enough this season, his Isolated Power would have ranked roughly 75th in the majors, right in line with Ian Kinsler, Dan Uggla, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kyle Seager. He hit 12 home runs in 108 games.

Which isn't to suggest that Pablo Sandoval is merely a singles hitter. But he was, before Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, absolutely nobody's idea of a big-time power hitter.

It's highly unlikely that any player will hit three home runs in a single World Series game. What makes Sandoval's performance incredibly unlikely is that almost everything was going against him: He isn't really a power hitter, he was facing one of the greatest pitchers, and he was hitting in a ballpark that, for some months, had been an incredibly difficult place to hit a home run.

Yet somehow he hit three of them. And I still don't quite believe what we just saw.

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