Friday, December 24, 2010

Pablo Sandoval: '10 just a sophomore slump?

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.


  1. Good points, and I think Pablo is a likely candidate for a bounceback season in 2011. I'm not sure what the Mays comparison proves given the sample size and mitigating circumstances, which you rightly noted. Also, I think you listed the wrong war (it was Korea).

  2. Hey Dan -- you are correct about it being the wrong war (and it not being a great comparison). I realized it was the Korean War (and fixed it) while enjoying some chinese food at a mall in Seattle - it was an easy-ish fix with my iPhone. I considered removing Mays but decided not to; it fascinates me how different life was back then, and how a ballplayer could lose prime seasons because they were drafted into the war -- or even chose to join as was the case with Rapid Rob. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Really nice article! At the beginning of 2010, no one could ever have imagined the Giants winning the World Series with little help from the Panda, but they did. I for one believe Pablo can come back strong in 2011. I consider myself the biggest Pablo at AT&T park. I told him at the 2009 Fanfest I was going to grab his first Splash hit and I did on 7/30/09, splash #49. I also grabbed three Panda HR's he hit this year including Splash hits #54 and #55. I had to swim for #55 on 9/30/10, but it was worth it! Go Giants! Go Panda!!

  4. This was a good read; even in that first month Panda wasn't quite right. He was singling and not squaring balls up like in '09. I was most surprised at his total inability to throw, which worsened as 2010 wore on. He'll get more chances; there's too much youth and talent there for the Giants to give up on him. But Panda's gotta do his part.

  5. Dave: That's awesome that you have grabbed a few of his splash hits, hopefully you will get a few more yet! I think Pablo's success (or failure) has everything to do with how bad he wants it and little to do with his god-given talent.

    Skillzilla: You're right, virtually all of his skills eroded in 2010, even his defense. It's hard to know what was going on physically and emotionally. It's often easy for bloggers like me, those who lean heavily on stats, to look at the stats and draw conclusions. But, in the end these guys are people, not robots. They're flawed regardless of how great they appear at times.

  6. I think Pablo will match his Bill James projections. He's already supposedly lost weight, he won't have to deal with the divorce/fire/etc., and his BABIP was relatively low in 2009 -- although that could have been the product of decreased speed (I doubt it though). His walk rate won't suddenly increase, but I don't think it's out of question that he can start drawing walks at a decent clip. Vlad Guerrero, whose notorious for high O-swing%, has posted BB rates of 10+% before. I think Pablo could, one day perhaps, post walk rates of 10-12%. His walk rate hovered around 8% from 2009-2010, which is highly respectable. I doubt he'll have a walk rate of 10+% next year, but I think it's highly possible in the near future.

  7. Julian: You're right -- his walk rate did hover around 8-9% for a time. Him posting a 10% probably isn't as impossible as I may have made it seem. That being said, him reaching his potential as a middle-of-the-order bat will have everything to do with his ability to do better on balls in play. I've almost zero doubt the speed had nothing to do with it, it's not like he was a speed guy like Figgins and had a leg injury. I'm pulling for Panda. He's a great young player, and should he turn it around the Giants' offense will instantly go from hovering around league average to easily at league average, if not exceeding it. I think his BABiP was pushed down mostly because he was swinging AT EVERYTHING. It was almost as if he were giving at bats away by swinging at pitches even HE couldn't square. He wasn't driving anything.

  8. Sandoval was a victim of over-coaching in 2010. Eat this, not that. Wear these goggles. No, wear these glasses. Try the contact lenses. Stop blowing bubbles. Swing at this pitch. Don't swing at that pitch. Bad Panda! Baaaaaaad Panda! No wonder Sandoval slumped. Dude is not Tony Gwynn, and never will be. See pitch. Hit pitch. Who gives a flip if it is not a strike? Trying to turn an intuitive hitter into a analytical hitter did not work. His brain gets in the way of his swing. Let the Kung Fu back and the Panda will be back.

  9. I posted the previous comment under Anon...

  10. gfanfrom65: Could be. I don't think anyone can say definitively what went wrong, just that it did, terribly. It did seem like the goggles thing was odd. It did seem like maybe they should have let him just do what he does. Instructing him not to blow bubbles seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but I see your point. Most of what you mentioned, though, may well have been a contributing factor.

  11. Off topic: Lincecum fined for negative drug test

  12. R.A. yes, the bubbles comment was more for dramatic effect than actual analysis. You seem handy with stats. Some of the metrics I am curious about are ones that specify the where, how, and why his production dropped. The GDP total jumps out. My questions would be: was he swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone than in '09? Was he failing to square up pitches because pitchers expanded his zone a bit, or was he rolling over the same pitches he had crushed the year before? The two splits that really jump out are his platoon splits .779 OPS vs RHP, .589 vs LHP and his home/away .901/.565 OPS. The platoon splits reversed from '09's OPS .914/1.028 while the home/away was more like an exaggerated drop from 1.012/.877. Is there any quantifiable indication that teams found a hole in his swing from the right side? Or more generally, is there a way to demonstrate that he was pitched to differently in '10?

  13. gfanfrom65: Good questions. If you go to, you can see his O-swing% under "palte discipline." O-swing = out of zone swing %, while z-swing = in the zone - meaning a strike - swing percentage.

    You'll notice that he swung at about 3% more pitches out of the zone in 2010 from 2009, which is a problem. Also, you'll see that his in the zone swing % went DOWN, by over 4%. What this is telling me is that he's not picking up the ball, and truly doesn't know when to swing -- when it's a strike -- and went not to -- when it's a ball. Another thing to keep an eye on next year is his ISO (or isolated power). It went from .145 in his stint in '08 to .226 in '09 then back to .140 in '10. A lot of that had to do with his HR power (or lack there of). His HR/FB (home runs per fly ball) also went down from 7.7% in '08, to 14% in '09 to 7% in '10. He did really well in his '08 stint not because he was hitting the ball out of the park, but because his line drive rate was nearly 26%, and line drives result in hits most often. It's hovered around 18% the last couple of years, which is more realistic.

    But if you look at Pablo's rates from '09 to '10, they aren't all that much different. In some ways, he may have been just a bit unlucky. But he also didn't seem to be driving the ball as well, resulting in a reduced ISO and fewer HR. Isolated power (ISO) is basically a statistic that gives you the power component, or amount of extra bases, by stripping out the batting average, meaning singles, from slugging percentage.

    As far as the splits go, they're perplexing. It's very common from a player to hit better at home, and that's regardless of the park. They feel more comfortable, the crowd is more encouraging (obviously), and so they just hit better. But to have the H/A platoon splits Pablo had doesn't make any sense.

    Left and right handed, split-wise, I don't know. He didn't seem to have a good swing righty last year, and that often happens because they don't work at it as often, because they face fewer lefties. In terms of what he did in the minors, I'm not sure, but that would give us more pieces to the puzzle. I'd be far from shocked if he was a more accomplished hitter left handed, which is common. It seems sometimes a right handed swing is added to repair huge struggles verus left-handed pitching, something many lefty hitters face.

    Pablo has some things to work on. It's one thing not to tell him to be patient to the point that you're taking away his greatest skill, but it's quite another to endorse his swinging at anything slopped up there with wreckless abandon. One way or the other, he's got to learn to identify pitches better. Or, at the very least, learn pitchers' tendancies and know when a strike is likely coming, and strike then.

    I don't know what his true line drive rate ability is, or really how many of his fly balls are going to leave the yard. But I know that another year of experience and getting into better shape can't hurt.

  14. JEEZ -- I should have just written another post with THAT response.

  15. Thanks R.A...but...Ouch!...swinging at more pitches outside the zone AND not driving balls in the zone sounds like a pretty bad cocktail. Maybe staying out of winter ball in Venezuela and away from all their yummy street vendors, attending a cutting edge training facility, getting past his divorce, and presumably not having his mom's house blow up again will get him back on track. The amazing part of your analysis is that Sandoval was effective at all given the decline in both his power and patience/discipline metrics. It really is a testament to type of numbers he put up between '08-'09.

  16. Pablo's numbers were not much worse than Jeter's last year. Jeter just signed for 17 million a year for 3 years. Jeter is 13 years older than Sandoval. Pablo has the better upside. Yankees, Jeter 51 million for the next 3 years. Giants, the Panda, for a little over 400 thousand next year. Which team has the better deal? Pablo is still extremely popular with the fan base, despite mirroring Tejada in the GIDP department. Now we have two big GIDP guys with Tejada. Oye!

  17. It seems obvious that Pablo is deciding to swing too early in the pitches trajectory to the plate. Bonds had such a quick swing that he could way deep into the trajectory before deciding when to swing. Those few milliseconds seem to make a big difference in pitch selection. Pablo is still young enough to learn from Bonds. Hire Bonds to work with Pablo.

  18. theprofessor24 -- I wholeheartedly agree with the upside comment, and that Pablo's is obviously the better deal. That said, I'm not quite sure why you're making the comparison. As for the Bonds comment, he couldn't hurt. I think Bonds could probably be one of the greatest hitting coaches ever if he could check his ego at the door. That being said, Bonds' batting eye, instincts, reflexes and quickness cannot be taught. They can probably be improved incrementally, but not drastically.

  19. I am of the school that gifted hitters seldom make good hitting coaches. They would have to have the patience of a saint when younger players are not able to simply "do it like I did....". A great player might not have the insight into what it means to really struggle, to question whether you truly belong, and all the other parts of the game that take place in the mind. I think a player like Mark DeRosa could make a good hitting coach, and frankly I wonder if his playing days are behind him coming off two wrist surgeries at his age. Say, that would make a great post....Top Hitting Coaches of the decade. Take out the top and bottom hitter on teams and compare their metrics before and after working with a specific hitting coach. Focus on a simple metric like OPS that accounts (somewhat) for different hitting styles. My guess is that no statistically significant correlations will be found. Just way too many variables. So I take it back. It would made a pretty boring post.

  20. Just read a great (if somewhat bitter) article on hitting coaches...13 Reasons Why Pro Baseball Can't Teach Hitting by Rob Ellis

  21. I believe that 2010 was just an off-year for Sandoval. In addition to the personal problems listed above, he also dealt with the custody issue with his young daughter, which also presumably caused him some anguish.

    And his ups and downs are even more pronounced, and yet encouraging, if instead of looking at his monthly stats, you look at them from high to low:

    Apr 05-Apr 28: .373/.441/.590/1.031 (.389 BABIP) (Divorce?)
    Apr 30-May 13: .115/.130/.173/.303 (.136)
    May 14-May 31: .333/.386/.476/.862 (.377)(custody battle?)
    Jun 01-Jun 19: .238/.329/.397/.726 (.236)
    Jun 22-Jul 11: .203/.250/.203/.453 (.250) (ASB)
    Jul 15-Jul 24: .270/.357/.405/.763 (.345)
    Jul 28-Aug 09: .267/.298/.333/.631 (.286)(Sign papers)
    Aug 10-Sep 09: .290/.327/.550/.877 (.291)(PGE)
    Sep 11-Sep 22: .130/.200/.130/.330 (.158)
    Sep 23-Oct 03: .391/.440/.609/1.049 (.381)

    Career before: .333/.381/.543/.924 (.351)

    There were clear periods where he was Panda-esque after his great April and where they clearly were associated with personal issues.

    In addition, it is greatly encouraging that he signed up with a professional fitness firm to get into shape instead of trying to do it on his own, when he has struggled with that issue on his own. The reports are that he has lost a good amount of weight already in November.

    This also shows his mindset, that vibe to be the best you can be, he has had that all his life, the urge to do what others say he can't, like playing SS when he's left-handed (he learned to throw right-handed, and well, he threw out a lot of runners trying to steal a base off him) or doing what others say his general body shape cannot do. The tenacity to get his mom to OK him signing a professional baseball contract.

    Lastly, regarding that comment about his April, I don't see how a month where his ISO is 209 can be considered a month where he got a whole bunch of singles.