It’s time for the tried and true mystery player comparison. This style of looking at two players has been done to death, but I never claimed to be breaking new ground and, I think, it’s an interesting comparison. We’ll be taking two players, A and B, and examining a few of their numbers. Let’s take a look.
The successful early year(s)
Player A = 2 seasons, 787 PA, ages 21-22
Player B = 3 seasons, 1,728 PA, ages 22-24
When comparing our mystery players, we’ll probably want to weight Player B a little more since he accrued nearly 1,000 more plate appearances than Player A. However, when looking at the core components of a batter (power, walk-rate, K-rate, and BABIP) both hitters are strikingly similar. Player A walks a little more — 7.1% to B’s 4.2% — and hits for a little more power — ISO of .209 to B’s .175 — but both appear to be high average, high BABIP, contact-styled hitters. Both players have similar ages, too. Player A’s numbers are from his age 21 to 22 seasons, while Player B’s numbers are from his age 22 to 24 seasons.
The down year
Player A = 616 PA, age 23 season
Player B = 634 PA, age 25 season
The down years are eerily similar, no? The walk-rates and K-rates stayed nearly identical, but they saw a large drop in BABIP. Player A’s BABIP dropped 60 points and Player B’s dropped 52 points. Because of the large drop in BABIP, both saw their batting averages plunge. Equally concerning is that both saw their power drop from above average to below. Player A lost nearly 70 points in ISO and Player B lost approximately 40 points in the power department.
If you haven’t guessed the obvious, A is none other than Pablo Sandoval. Who is Player B you ask? Why that’s Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees. Over his first three seasons, Cano posted OPS+ scores of 106, 126, and 119 before dropping all the way to 86 in 2008. Since 2008, Cano has turned into one of the better hitters in the American League. His OPS+ in 2009 was 121 and in 2010 he posted MVP-type numbers with a slash-line of .319/.381/.534 (OPS+ 142). Before writing this post, I scratched my brain trying to think of an acceptable player comparison to Sandoval and I think Cano is a decent fit. Both profile as free-swingers — from 2008 to 2010 only Vladimir Guerrero and Delmon Young swung more than Sandoval, Cano ranked 16th — and both have better than average strikeout rates. Neither is a slap hitter and both were plagued by below average BABIPs in their down year. I think it’s encouraging that Sandoval’s strikeout and walk rates stayed nearly the same in 2010 as compared to his previous work in 2008-09. I would wager that Sandoval probably isn’t truly a ~.350 BABIP batter, but he should still have the tools to hit around .300 with average to above average power. All valuable things. And I’m the last person to jump up and down over ‘he’s in the best shape of his life stories’, but you can’t help to feel that Sandoval rededicated himself over the offseason. It’s hard to take that in any other way than positive.
It’s not that unlikely for younger players to experience success and then fall back to earth. In a quick (and admittly crude) Baseball-Reference search, I found a couple of players that were in Pablo’s age range that had early success, struggled, and eventually righted the ship.
* Jason Thompson, 1B – Between ages 21 and 23 he averaged an OPS+ of 121, but in his age 24 season he dropped to 98. He rebounded to post an OPS+ of 126 over the final seven seasons of his career.
* George Scott, 1B/3B – Scott broke into the big leagues in 1966 at age 22 and posted a 107 OPS+. He followed that season up with a 138 OPS+ effort in 1967, but he had an incredibly poor season in 1968 when he batted .171/.236/.237 (OPS+ 39). His playing time from that season (just 387 PAs) makes me think he was fighting injuries of some sort, but I couldn’t confirm anything in a brief Internet search. Scott posted a 95 OPS+ in ’69 and from 1970-77 he averaged a 124 OPS+. That’s a pretty amazing feat after his season in ’68.
A more detailed search could probably result in better comps (both in player-type and position). One thing that struck me as I was looking for comps for Sandoval is that his success between 21-22 is extremely rare. That’s a list full of some of the all-time greats with a bunch of solidly above average players. It’s hard to say how Sandoval will perform this season. However, his combination of early success and youth is an overwhelmingly positive point in his favor. A rejuvenated Sandoval could do wonders for the 2011 team.