The Red Sox won again last night, dominating the Twins 13-2. It was a satisfying win in just about every way except for one: the team got no contribution from Sandy Leon, who rested on the bench. Casual fans might not have even noticed; Leon is not exactly a household name. If he keeps playing like he has, though, he just might be, at least from Providence to Bangor.
Sandy Leon is baseball’s most unlikely story over the last two months. A pudgy catcher, he entered 2016 a 27-year-old AAA player, respected for his defense but without a major league future if he didn’t improve on his career .187 big league average. This year, though, in his 69 at-bats, he’s hitting .435 and slugging .725. He has already quadrupled his career home run total and in the process leapfrogged Christian Vazquez, the 25-year-old widely considered the Red Sox’ future at catcher. (Blake Swihart, the team’s other young catcher, dabbled in the outfield then got hurt.)
There is, of course, no chance Leon hits .435 for the season. It’s quite possible, though, that he continues to be a valuable part of a dangerous Red Sox team. In fact, great teams often rely on help from surprising sources. Call it the Sandy Leon Factor.
You don’t find the Sandy Leon Factor in one-game wonders like David Tyree (sorry, fellow Patriots fans, for bringing that up) or in true breakout stars – Draymond Green in the 2014-15 NBA season for example. Players with the Sandy Leon Factor flash real talent for a season or two but can never become long term stars. Rather, it is the category of truly unlikely contributors who nevertheless make a big difference over a relatively short time. Am I just making up a category to praise Sandy Leon? Yeah. But the Sandy Leon Factor has existed long before Sandy Leon himself was legging out triples at Fenway.
The 2007 and 2013 World Series champion Red Sox both got a lift from a player who fits the description. In 2007, it was 31-year-old Japanese import Hideki Okajima, signed for two years and $2.5 million just as the Sox were negotiating a massive deal for the overhyped Daisuke Matsuzaka. Daisuke wasn’t great, but Okajima was a dominant reliever all year, managing a 2.22 ERA and an All Star nod. In 2013, Daniel Nava, a 30-year-old with just 428 career big league at bats, was given a much larger role and hit .303 with a .385 OBP.
A number of other recent World Series champions have benefitted from the Sandy Leon Factor as well. The 2001 Diamondbacks had Byung-Hyun Kim, one of the youngest players in the category, a stud at 22 and out of the majors by 29. The 2005 White Sox had All Star pitcher Jon Garland. The 2006 Cardinals had slugger Chris Duncan. The 2008 Phillies had shutdown reliever Chad Durbin. The 2010 Giants had Andres Torres, a star outfielder for the briefest of moments. The 2014 Giants had reliever Jean Machi.
Images courtesy of Timothy Tai/The Boston Globe, Winslow Townson/Associated Press and Getty Images and Christopher Evans/The Boston Herald