Pablo "The Kung-Fu Panda" Sandoval has helped re-energize Bay Area baseball fans this season. After a 2008 campaign that had its moments (thanks to Tim Lincecum and his Cy Young season) but was otherwise lifeless, Sandoval and his free-swinging, pudgy-frame, massive-dip-in-lower lip ways have been a hit at AT&T Park.
Along with the one-two punch of Lincecum and Matt Cain, Sandoval has helped the Giants become winners and relevant again in the National League West.
However, despite all of Sandoval's successes so far this season, I can't help but feel skeptical about the "Panda" in terms of what the future holds for him.
Before the All-Star break, I wrote an article questioning if Sandoval could become "The Man" on this Giants team for years to come. I wondered if he could have the same kind of impact as a hitter on this team that Albert Pujols has for the Cardinals or Manny "I'm a Mountain" Ramirez has for the Dodgers.
A lot of people felt he was going to become "The Man" easily. Some felt that Sandoval was "The Man" already.
I, on the other hand, am not so sure he can become one unless he works on one thing: His patience at the plate.
Sandoval has a unique style as a hitter that echoes superstars like Vladimir Guerrero—if it's in the strike zone, he's swinging (whatever the count). It's the kind of approach I'm sure hitting coach Carney Lansford loves, even though it has produced disastrous results with some of the other players on the squad (cough...Bengie Molina...cough).
Statistically speaking, you can't argue with Sandoval's approach this season. In 100 games, he has 16 home runs, 64 RBI and a .327 batting average.
Additionally, he also has a .374 OBP, a .551 slugging percentage and a .925 OPS.
So judging by those stats, my argument is moot, right? I'm sure people will say: "He gets on base, he gets hits, he drives in RBI, what else do you want from the guy?"
When I'm talking about plate patience, however, I'm not pointing out that he's not getting on base enough, not drawing enough walks or swinging at too many balls out of the strike zone.
What I'm suggesting is that he needs to work on making better decisions when it comes to deciding which pitches to swing in the strike zone.
Look, I understand when Sandoval swings at questionable pitches with two strikes. A protective swing is what a hitter has to do when you're one strike away from getting sent back to the bench.
Yet Sandoval's propensity to swing at those questionable strikes early in the count, and when the count is in his favor, is something that he needs to change.
The reason I advocate this is because Sandoval has incredible power. I know you can't judge it solely by his home run stats (he only has 16, which is still best on the Giants team by the way), but if you have seen some of his home runs this year, you can understand what I'm saying.
When Sandoval takes one out, they aren't ducks or "Wow that barely got out of there" home runs. Each one he gets a real hold of is mashed with the kind of authority that echoes Pujols and Prince Fielder from Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, Sandoval too often settles on swinging at the first strike he sees, and that is usually not something he can put power behind. Sure, I like to see him get hits and like to see him get on base, which is important considering our team OBP is the worst in the league.
However, I also get disappointed when he is only able to hit a "ground ball with eyes" on the first pitch.
If he was just a little more patient, and laid off on questionable pitches early in his at-bats, he could work into more advantageous counts, and he could get more pitches in his "happy" zone where he could really put some serious juice (no steroid reference intended) behind the ball.
Now, I'm not saying it isn't possible with Pablo.
In the beginning of this year, Sandoval had problems staying away from those high pitches away from the strike zone. He has aptly learned to lay off those now. His patience has improved, and it isn't impossible to think that it will continue to improve as he continues to see more and more big-league pitching (after all, he has only played 141 games).
Sandoval is a special player that has great hitting ability as a switch-hitter, a trait that adds more to his already tremendous value. His averages are very similar from both sides of the plate, and that makes him a nightmare for opposing managers when it comes to what pitcher to bring in to face Sandoval in the late innings.
That being said, unless Sandoval is able to hone his patience at the plate, and learns to lay off those pitches early in the count that will only allow him to hit singles, all of his amazing traits will be wasted. He won't fully utilize his power, and he'll forever be compared to Randall Simon (as many Pirates fans have noted) rather than Pujols (whom Willie McCovey compared Sandoval to in Spring Training this year).
I'm not bashing or giving up hope on the "Panda." He may be one of my favorite players since Matt Williams. In addition, I think the year he has had this season may be a stepping-stone for future success, and is not just a "flash in the pan" like some doubters might think.
However, Sandoval is not "The Man" just yet. He is close, but not quite in that upper echelon.
Once (or, as much as I hate to say this, if) he improves his plate patience, next season and beyond, he will become "The Man" for this Giants team. And...
Well...let's just say I hope you're not a Dodgers, Padres, Rockies or Diamondbacks fan.