Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Panda" Fluke? A look at the Projections on Sandoval

After looking through some projections of some San Francisco Giants position players for next season, I was interested by some of the projections concerning the Giants' budding star, Pablo Sandoval.

On Fangraphs, the projections are varied concerning the "Kung Fu Panda". According to Bill James and 109 fan projections, the outlook for Sandoval in 2009 is quite optimistic. BJ projects the "Panda" to hit .327 with 24 home runs, 97 RBI, and have an OPS of .934 and BB/K ratio of 0.66 (a three point improvement in terms of the latter). The fans are equally generous, perhaps even more so on run production end. They project Sandoval to hit 26 home runs and drive in a 110 RBI along with a .323 batting average, .905 OPS and 0.63 BB/K ratio.

However, while those two projections are very comforting for Giants fans, two other projections on Fangraphs, CHONE and Marcel, are actually very pessimistic of Sandoval's future in 2010.

CHONE does project that his batting average will remain high (.323), but unfortunately, that's the only real good sign in their projections. They project that Sandoval will dip in his run production numbers and will only hit 17 home runs and drive in 71 RBI in 2010. Furthermore, they project his OPS to drop to .883 and his BB/K ratio to fall to 0.44.

(Granted, CHONE makes these projections on the thought that Sandoval will only play 138 games, which I think is preposterous due to the fact Sandoval is getting slimmer--or at least trying to--and is only 23-years-old)

As for Marcel, they don't give him much more slack. They only project two more home runs (19) and four more RBI (75) than CHONE. The BB/K ratio and OPS projections from Marcel are a little more generous than the ones from CHONE (0.59 and .918, respectively), but they still are low in comparison to what James and the fans project.

So why do CHONE and Marcel don't give Sandoval much slack? I think there are sticking a little TOO closely to some factors in terms of evaluating Sandoval.

Factor One: Sandoval is too wild a swinger

Sandoval doesn't walk an incredible amount (as evidenced by his 8.3 walk percentage a year ago) and does have a poor tendency to swing out of the strike zone (he swung at 41.5 percent of pitches thrown outside the strike zone, second only to Bengie Molina who had a percentage of 43.9). However, Sandoval's contact rate of pitches outside the zone is 75.2 percent, which goes to show that despite Sandoval's free-swinging nature, he is able to back it up somewhat because he can hit pitches that may be swinging strikes for other guys on the squad.

Furthermore, Sandoval did make some progress in terms of plate patience in the last two months of play. In the first two months, Sandoval had only eight walks combined. In August and September/October (seriously, you can't consider October a month; there is only a week of regular season play), Sandoval accumulated double-digit walk totals (10 in August, 16 in September and October), and drew 13 walks in the month of June before hitting a skid in July where he only had five. Granted, Sandoval won't be challenging Nick Johnson for the walks-leader any time soon. However, Sandoval is getting more selective at the plate, and we may see him more refined in terms of his plate patience in 2010, especially after those promising walk numbers in August, September/October.

Factor two: AT&T Park is a death trap for hitters

This is a true fact, and it takes a different kind of hitter to succeed in AT&T Park. Are you going to see guys put up Raul Ibanez-esque numbers like Ibanez did in Philadelphia last season? Of course not. However, good hitters will still succeed in AT&T despite its dimensions. After all, how do you explain Rich Aurilia's 2001 or Barry Bonds? (Well...probably steroids I guess, but let's just ignore that for now).

That point seems to be the case in Sandoval's favor. Despite AT&T Park's notorious "Pitcher-friendly" reputation, Sandoval put up better numbers offensively at home than on the road. While the numbers weren't that much different in a lot of categories (he hit only one more home and four more RBI at home), the numbers tell a different story in one big category: OPS. At AT&T Park in 2009, Sandoval had a 1.012 OPS. On the road, he only posted a .877 OPS.

Therefore, while AT&T won't exactly be the place for him to hit 40 home runs, the idea that the ballpark will keep him under the 20 home run mark is somewhat ridiculous. Sandoval is a proven hitter in San Francisco, and he will only get better as he continues to feel more comfortable at AT&T Park.

Factor three: Sandoval's supporting cast will kill his stats

This point I partially agree with. While the Giants upgraded offensively (that is of course if you consider Aubrey Huff, Mark Derosa and Freddy "Limp Away" Sanchez upgrades...I will concede and say 'yes' for the moment), the team is still far from being a Murderer's Row by any measure. Thus, Sandoval, much like last season, will have little support behind him, not to mention guys on base when he comes to the plate.

Therefore, I believe Sandoval will struggle in one category: RBI. I don't think he'll hit over 100 mainly because the Giants a.) still have a lineup that will accumulate one awful OBP (compounded even more by Bengie Molina's return) and b.) the Giants' leadoff spot is still undetermined (seriously, Aaron Rowand is a prime candidate...ouch).

So, anyone banking Sandoval to eclipse the century mark in RBI probably should think again. That being said, any of other Sandoval's categories, such as OPS, batting average, home runs, hits and BB/K ratio, shouldn't be affected by the Giants' mediocre lineup. If anything, Sandoval could help OTHER guys on the team because chances are pitchers will pitch around him come Opening Day, knowing that he is the Giants real only legitimate threat. Sandoval will get on base, and guys like Huff and Derosa will get the opportunities to drive him in (whether or not they DO drive him in of course is a different story).

There really is a lot to like about Sandoval next year, and in my mind, the CHONE and Marcel Projections underestimate his ability a little too much. Will Sandoval be the second-coming of Albert Pujols like Willie McCovey coyly implied last season? Probably not (or at least not by next season), but Sandoval will still prove in 2010 that 2009 was no fluke.

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