Back in 2009, Pablo Sandoval wasn’t just a portion of the Giants’ lineup, he was the Giants’ lineup. Their second-best hitter was Fred Lewis, who was pretty much placed on the DL with a phantom injury the following spring before getting shipped to Toronto for a scuffed bottle cap.
Pablo finished second in batting behind a superb season from Hanley Ramirez with a .330 average. He got on base nearly four of every ten times with a .387 on-base percentage (OBP) and slugged .556, good for a .943 OPS and .396 weighted on-base average (wOBA). I think some other fielding-wizard shortstop named Miguel Tejada hit a bunch of doubles, too, but Sandoval smacked 44 to pair with 25 home runs – the last an opposite-field behemoth to beat the Padres on the final game of the season – and even managed to accidentally walk a decent-ish 8.2 percent of the time. At .226, his isolated power was pretty swell, too.
With that, Giants fans were pretty confident they’d soon have a Real Life Middle-of-the-Order! Posey was arriving soon and heck, two legimate hitters ain’t bad – it beats hitting Bengie Molina cleanup, anyway. Instead, Sandoval blew up like Violet Beauregarde and yada, yada, yada… was eventually losing playing time to Mike Fontenot and then Edgar Renteria by the time the playoffs came around.
But before that happened, Sandoval was again raking last April. He hit .368 in that wonderous month before the Great Crash with 3 home runs and a 10.3 walk rate. His OBP and slugging were .433 and .575 for an oustanding 1.008 OPS and .437 wOBA. But with a .382 average on balls in play (BABiP) for the month, perhaps he was getting a bit of good fortune as well. And, perhaps an omen to the remainder of his season, he’d already tapped into 6 double plays before May rolled around.
Which leads a lot of people to say: “Hey, Pablo was a smoldering hot-lava rock last April, too, is he just going to crash and burn like he did a year ago?” I won’t pretend to the know the answer to that question, but I can tell you there are signs – beyond the dead-horse waistline narrative – that are different from his numbers exactly one year ago.
This April, the Kung-Fu Panda is delivering his damage a bit differently. For one, he’s already hit five home runs with over a week to go, when he only hit three through April last season. Because of this, he has an outstanding ISO of .276. It’s probably unrealistic to expect that to continue, but it’s nice anyway.
So how’s he done that? Well, so far, he has a 37 percent ground-ball rate compared to a 45.7 percent fly-ball rate. He’s essentially reversed his ground-ball rate – which is to say, that he’s doing exactly what Derek Jeter is not doing, i.e. hitting the ball in the air – with his fly-ball rate and on top of that, his fly balls are flying out of the park more often than ever. Currently, roughly 24 percent of his fly balls are leaving the yard.
So it’s no surprise that this season he’s only hit into one double play (h/t to Julian of Splashing Pumpkins), considering he’s not hitting the ball on the ground nearly as often.
And the pitchers, from a pitch selection standpoint, appear to be throwing him the exact same pitches with the exact same frequency as they did a year ago. Thus far, Pablo has done the most damage on offspeed – which probably portends to some legitimate patience – and he’s been below average on fastballs. He raked fastballs in 2009, and last season he was just barely above average. So it’ll be interesting to see if those hurlers with live fastballs begin to attack Pablo primarily with fastballs. Also, whether or not they’ll have continued success doing so.
Overall, he’s hitting .328 with a .400 OBP and slugging .603. That’s good for a .423 wOBA. And, unlike last April, he doesn’t have an outrageous BABiP. Which isn’t to say it’s not well above average, it is at .341. But when you consider it was .382 last April and certainly not sustainable, and that his career BABiP is .325, his .341 mark so far this season seems more reasonable and less of a red flag.
What’s also interesting to me, though, is that he’s striking out roughly twice as often. His 20.7 strikeout rate is roughly double what he’s done in his career. But just maybe, that’s a good thing. Why, you might ask? Because he’s seeing more pitches so far. In 2008 when he came up, he saw 3.10 pitches per plate appearance, which is wholly awful. With a mark 3.44 in 2009 he improved it quite a bit, but it was still basically terrible. And he duplicated that with a 3.43 mark last season. But thus far in 2011 it’s been 3.80, and that’s sort of something to behold with the Panda. Anything approaching four pitchers per at bat seems like miraculous progress.
Does this mean anything yet? I don’t know if it does. But I know that if he is somehow learning to be more selective, he might strike out more, but he may also take a few more walks and barrel up quite a few more pitches he simply wasn’t still in the box to see in 2010. You take the good with the bad and you hope for more of the former.
Here’s what I do know: Pablo is a career .306 hitter with a .358 OBP and .489 slugging percentage (.846 OPS, .359 wOBA). He’s done that in less than two and a half seasons – one of which was superb and the other utterly miserable. Please listen up, because this, I think, is also really important: he’s done this before even turning 25.
Most of the projection systems projected him to hit almost exactly that: his current career numbers. Call me crazy, but I think he can do better. This kid can really hit.
Without going into too great of deal about him defensively, UZR is so far viewing him as a slightly above average fielder. But that particular metric did so a year ago as well. He does seem more spry this season, there’s no questioning that. This can only help his overall value. He’s no Evan Longoria, of course, but isn’t doing a Jorge Cantu impression either.
Sandoval may not be unequivically back to where he was in 2009 – time will tell – but at least so far this year he’s different. And that’s probably a really good thing. A lot of really good things could still come.