The Giants remarkably won the World Series in 2010 despite the horrific season of their young star, Pablo "Panda" Sandoval. Panda finished off his stellar 2009 season with a mammoth, 448-foot, slightly opposite-field blast at spacey Petco Park in San Diego. It seemed to put an exclamation point on his arrival as one of the games future stars, to solidify his spot among Hanley Ramirez and Evan Longoria. Unfortunatley, despite the echoing success of the Giants' season, Pablo's was one to forget.
No, Pablo didn't win Rookie of the Year honors in 2009, but that's only because he narrowly eclipsed the cutoff in his 2008 cup of coffee. He also didn't even make the All-star team, but that was only thanks to a snub by Charlie Manuel. Come to think of it, that opposite-field double in the NLCS must have felt oh-so-good.
Despite the success, the Giants sent him off to the widely covered "Camp Panda" after the 2009 season. The goal: learn to eat better, work out, and maintain a healthy playing weight to sustain him through 162 games - the number he's striving to play, and not a game less. It seemed to be going well, and the reports were that he'd lost approximately 15-20 pounds. But after his camp, he headed to Venezuela for Winter Ball and returned huskier than at his departure. But, let's face it, he was hugely successful in 2009 despite not having the prototypical, lean and powerful body that many ballplayers have. Did it really matter?
In March and April of 2010, he was the same old Pablo. He hit .368 with an 1.008 OPS, and people began to wonder if he could not only win a batting title, which seemed obvious after coming in second in 2009, but also take MVP honors. AT&T Park was littered with Panda hats, the HD screens blinding with "Pandamonium" signs. He wasn't yet a star on a national stage, but that day was rapidly approaching while in San Francisco it had long ago arrived. He was an unstoppable force, a meteor with unlimited propellant. Then May arrived.
Pablo finished May with a .617 OPS. But that was likely just a blip on the radar, an anomaly. Then June came. He finished June with a .645 OPS. Then July came. He finished July with a .597 OPS. In August he rebounded to post a .907 OPS but again plummeted in September and October with a dreadful, career-worst month while hitting to a .587 OPS. Soon after, he was benched in the playoffs for a combination of shoddy defense and offensive ineptitude. His fate as either a flash in the pan or sophomore slumper was sealed. Let's hope it was the latter.
So what happened? On the one hand, Brian Sabean was quick to point out that it was wrong to market Sandoval the way they had. Perhaps he was right. Sandoval was coming off of an outstanding season, he seemed to have all of the baseball ability a kid growing up in Venezuela could dream for. But he was also just 23, a pup. Also, he was going through a divorce. I won't venture a guess on exactly how that might affect an athlete, but I'll submit it probably doesn't help much. For ordinary people, working desk jobs and not under the bright lights of stardom and celebrity, the fracturing of a husband and wife can be devastating. Draw your own conclusions. And then there was the weight.
In aggregate, it simply became too much. But there's hope. With the arrival of catching prodigy, Buster Posey, as well as the early success of Madison Bumgarner and the likely promotion of Brandon Belt, Pablo can likely sit back, relax, and let it all happen naturally. Instead of being expected to be the only difference-maker in an otherwise mediocre lineup, as was pretty much the expectation in early 2010, he can work his way back to being a middle-of-the-order run producer in 2011. And here is a sample of other ballplayers who have slumped in season two, only to rebound mightily.
Here is what Geovany Soto did in his first three full seasons:
Another example, this from Carlton Fisk:
And finally, we have Willie Mays and his sophomore slump, also known as the Korean War:
Let's pay particular attention to Soto and Fisk, both catchers as Sandoval once was, because Mays' sophomore season was rough, but also a small sample and most notably, interrupted by the war. Both Soto and Fisk had outstanding rookie seasons, taking home Rookie of the Year honors, only to tumble in their sophomore seasons. Then, in year three, they returned to their ways of being outstanding players.
Let's take a look at what Sandoval has done so far:
Will his year three look like that of Fisk and Soto? I can't really say. But it might. Bill James projects him to post a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .372, well above league average and much closer to the .396 he had in 2009 and far away and above the .314 of his 2010 season.
Pablo isn't going to suddenly start walking 10% of the time, so if you're hoping for such an event, don't hold your breath. His success literally weighs on his ability to put the ball in play often, spraying the field with hard contact. He's shown an ability to do that. In 2008, he posted a .384 average on balls in play (BABiP) in High-A ball. He then posted a .345 in AA, and finally a .356 over 154 plate appeances in San Francisco. In 2009, he continued to do that and finished with a .350 BABiP. But in 2009, his season ended with just a .291 BABiP. If he can get back to something near .350, all will fall back into place.
A lot is riding on Pablo. If he doesn't rebound in 2011, the Giants' left side of the infield could be a disaster. Miguel Tejada is a comparable player to Juan Uribe, but he's getting extremely old for the position and his range will be limited. And Pablo was well below average at the hot corner in 2010, so in order for the left side to be just adequate, he'll need to improve his defensive range as well. Among the many things to keep an eye on in the coming season -- Can Huff continue to be an impact player? Will Lincecum return to Cy Young form? Can Madison Bumgarner be an impact starter? -- this will perhaps be the most important. The Red Sox signed Carl Crawford, the Nationals Jayson Werth. But if Sandoval returns to form, he'll have been the best acquisition of all. He's still owed roughly league minimum, and no draft pick was forfeited for his services. And this is especially important considering the deep draft pool scouts expect this June.