Monday, March 14, 2011

Pablo Sandoval is lighter, but is he better?

Jeff Sullivan at SB Nation recently pointed out that this March isn’t the only March where Pablo Sandoval has lost a bunch of weight.

First off, while many claimed Sandoval had leaned out some last spring training, our eyes were telling us something different entirely. Perhaps, instead of admitting then and there that “Camp Panda” was a failure, the Giants figured they could get a handle on him once again considering they’d have their hands on him (figuratively speaking, folks) all day, every day… or most of it anyway.

But here’s the portion I’m interested in:
It’s important, though, to remain reasonable. Sandoval may bounce back in a big way at the plate. He may improve in the field, too. Being in better shape can’t possibly hurt him. But the last time he lost a lot of weight he went on to struggle, and that’s something people have to keep in mind. That Pablo Sandoval’s eating wheat bread now doesn’t automatically mean his numbers are going to go up, because while his weight was probably an issue, it was never his biggest problem. Sandoval’s biggest problem has always been that he’s way too aggressive, and unless he’s suddenly able to deduce more proficiently what’s a ball and what’s a strike, he’s unlikely to re-establish himself as a star.
I can sympathize where Jeff is going, but I don’t necessarily agree. No, I can’t because I don’t think Sandoval’s ability to re-emerge as a young star in the National League weighs on his plate discipline any more than Carlos Gonzalez’s plate discipline (or complete lack there of) weighs on his ability to remain one.

In 2009, Sandoval’s unintentional walk rate was 8.21 percent. In 2010, it was 7.63 percent. If you want to know exactly how many walks the difference was, I’ll tell you (I’ve looked it up): five. That’s right, Sandoval walked just five fewer times in 2010 than he did in 2009 (and in 17 fewer plate appearances).

We might also take a look at his pitches per plate appearance. In 2008, he saw just 3.10 pitches per plate appearance. He did improve that in 2009 to 3.44, and perhaps that’s why he was so successful. But if he really was being too aggressive in 2010, wouldn’t the data tell us that? In 2010, he saw 3.43 or virtually exactly the same number as he had in his breakout 2009 campaign.

To be fair, I think a question worth asking is, given that he was seeing roughly the same number of pitches in both seasons, whether or not Sandoval was swinging at the right pitches. Unfortunately, that’s a very difficult one to answer. And if what I’ve been reading about pitch location data is true, it’s far from reliable. In fact, it’s probably nearer to worthless.

So, with the limited data I have at my disposal, I’m leaning towards this: the real difference in the outstanding, chubby version of Sandoval and the crummy, chubbier iteration from 2010 was more likely his average on balls and play and power.

2008 was the season Sandoval actually broke out in professional baseball. He’d been extremely young for each league coming up through the Giants’ system, but in 2008 he was no longer showing it. He started the season in Advanced Single-A and hit .359 with 12 home runs and 98 hits in just 301 plate appearances. That earned him a promotion to Double-A, where he hit .337 with another eight home runs in 184 plate appearances. In those stops, his batting average on balls in play (BABiP) was .384 and .345, his isolated power (ISO) .238 and .211.

Those auditions earned him a cup of coffee in the show. While his ISO dipped, his BABiP kept steady at .356, allowing him to hit .345 in 154 plate appearances. That cemented Pablo as a mainstay in a lineup that previously contained basically zero upside.

The following season, 2009, Sandoval just kept on lighting up the league and finished with a line of .330/.387/.556 (batting average/ on-base percentage/ slugging). His BABiP remained very high at .350 and his ISO spiked to .226 as he hit 25 home runs, 44 doubles and five triples. That was good for an outstanding weight on-base average (wOBA) of .396 and some deserving MVP votes.

In 2010, the hits stopped falling and the fly balls were no longer leaving the yard. His average on balls in play plummeted to a pedestrian .291 and his ISO fell to .140. This could have been the result of a few things. One of them could be that he simply was lucky in 2009 and the law of averages was returning him to neutral luck. Another is that he was very unlucky in 2010. My last guess would have to be that he had a decline in skill, that his ability to sting the ball all over the yard and drive it over the padded fences had diminished. Maybe that had to do with him being too heavy and his bat too lethargic, maybe it didn’t.

But Sandoval was a really good hitter in 2009 without tremendous plate discipline. What’s more, his 8.21 percent walk rate was actually pretty decent. In 2010, his rate of 7.63 percent was still decent. It was all of those balls that were landing in gloves and not a) rolling around in the outfield grass or b) landing in lucky fans’ gloves (or the drink at McCovey Cove).

I suspect his future will hinge on his ability (or inability) to make hard contact to all fields and do a lot better on balls in play, which is a skill we know hitters have a heck of a lot more control of than do pitchers. Also: whether or not he can start driving the ball to the tune of a 200+ isolated power.

The plate discipline will help some, sure, but hitters don’t tend to make significant strides in that area and it’s not the be all and end all -- my apologies to those that misinterpreted Moneyball. It certainly won’t be what I’ll be paying close attention to.

Lastly, the papers are telling us (again) that Sandoval lost a lot of weight, but this time our eyes are too.

Stats used are from FanGraphs


  1. Loved the stats, fangraphs does a great job with those.

    You seemed to carry on a bit to much on the analysis for me. But it's my first time reading your writing and am just voicing my opinion (look, if I thought I could do better, then I'd be the one writing articles--so I'm not trying to bash you).

    I like the idea of a slimmed down pablo. I would absolutely hate to see such a young man gain weight and continue to downslide, I am definitely routing for him to return his '09. I believe that his '09 season was above his head for his first significant playing time in the bigs. He's never played AAA ball, but his power was very good in '08 in the minors. I feel comfortable projecting .280/20/80. But he still have tons of potential and as you mentioned is still only 24 years old.

  2. Hi Rory, I have to agree with Anonymous. Way too much analysis. If I were a CPA, I might be able to lick my chops while reading this, but only a very small handful of people delve into the stats like this. That's one of the reasons I do not spout sabermetrics on my blog. I know there are a ton of readers who just want to know about the players themselves -- what they're up to, how they're feeling, etc. For most people, home runs, batting averages, stolen bases, earned run averages, and strikeouts are satisfactory. All this stuff about ISO and wOBA? Trust me, the BBWAA doesn't look at that when considering MVP or Cy Young votes. I enjoy your blog because your writing style is good. But, personally, I prefer a good novel to a calculus text book.

  3. Reading this gave me a headache, geeze maybe it was also something to do with the lunar calendar.
    Well maybe in 2010 opposing pitchers saw him as the only legitiment threat in the Giants lineup and really studied his tendancies and had an answer for him that he could not adjust too???

  4. I have done far too much calculus in the process of getting my MA in economics and this is no where near that. At worst this is addition and subtraction.

    (I mean if dug into how linear weights were derived there would be some multiplication and division but none here.)

    So come on people this isn't anything hard!

    The main point of your post (or at least what I took away) was that the weight loss is nice but what is really important is that he starts squaring up the ball better.

    Let me try to simplify and break this done.

    Hard contact = more hits and more extra base hits and he goes back to a good player, Weight loss =/= necessarily mean this but we can hope.

  5. I appreciate reading the mathematicians do their thing and I appreciate the more personal analysis as well. Heck, ask the sports books: people bet both ways as well.

    As for me, I like to think that since the guy stopped eating so much Cap'n Crunch (oh, sorry that was C.C.), he's in better shape and is going to have a better season. I actually have Sandoval above the average expert rankings because of it. I saw him make a play at 3B the other night that I know he couldn't have made last year with the extra 40 lbs.

    That being said, the Panda is still 5' 11" and 230 pounds. He still could drop a few more to maximize his fantasy baseball status.

  6. Sounds like I need to clarify my comments from this morning (8:47 AM).

    It isn't that Rory's analysis was "too hard" (it's not). Like Scott said, it's addition and subtraction we're talking about here.

    My point here was simply that not everyone delves as deep as others into the sabermetrics, me being one of them.

    As a Six Sigma Lean/DFSS black belt, I know firsthand about the importance of good data. As a die hard fan of San Francisco Giants baseball and as a casual reader, on the other hand, -- I wasted $140 last Christmas on a Kindle I thought would help me read more -- I find it difficult sometimes to stay focused on the content.

    Again, that's just me. Right brain dominance.

    I applaud Rory for doing such in-depth homework and interpreting it into meaningful insight and I am sorry if my comments offended anybody (I saw some nasty shit on Twitter). Keep up the good work, Paap.

  7. Awesome write-up. Pablo's BABIP during his minor league stint(s) and his 2008-09 MLB yrs seem to indicate a player who could or should best the .300 BABIP standard. .350 may be high, but I don't see the .330 range being out of the question given what one observes from the "eyeball test".

    I was looking thru FanGraphs WAR rankings for 3B the other night, and discovered that Pablo's 2010 season actually ranked him #17 at 1.9WAR. If the health is improved, I do think you can expect a better defensive showing (although he wasn't really as bad as some perceived) which would push him into the 2+WAR range even w/out an improvement offensively.

    What I found most interesting about the 2010 3B WAR ranking was that of the top-25 candidates, Pablo was the youngest by at least 2 full yrs.

    Given all the factors and some relatively slight upticks, Pablo is a LOCK for 3+ WAR this yr and even 4 WAR looks pretty attainable provided he splits those '09-'10 season figures of BABIP and ISO.

  8. Billiam, I completely agree. I think he can hit to a .330 BABiP. I've watched this kid playbevwry day, and when he's right, he's incredible. He can drive almost any pitch to any field, and do this both left and right-handed.

    He was fat last year... He was exhausted constantly. This game is exhausting when you're in shape.

    Also, he had some fluky stuff going on... For example his home/road splits. They just didn't make sense.

    I expect 3+ WAR. I wont be one bit surprised if he has a huge year. I really won't

  9. I still think you take a joke of a lineup in 2009, have one guy really stand out as a clutch power hitter, who are they gonna key on the next year, not Renteria ? I think Panda got game planned or at least focused on, but being a decoy for an improved lineup did not hurt the Giants in 2010, they did afterall win the WS.

  10. are we all forgetting the fact that panda was going through a divorce? idk about you guys but thats pretty harsh for anyone i remember he missed a few days because he went back to resolve some issues and also are we all forgetting that his mom almost died in a san bruno wildfire? i would think all these reasons would affect anyone in the world no matter who you are.....another thing knowing panda had a huge year teams obviously learned to gameplan against panda(i.e. he will always chase a high fastball) teams didnt know that in 09 but they did in 10 so until panda learns how to layoff the high fastball i dont expect to see numbers like 09 again i expect maybe a 290-300/15-20/65-80 from panda in '11 and improved range and defence