Friday, April 30, 2010

Panda Progress? Sandoval's Improvement at the Plate from 2009 to 2010

Say what you want about the Giants offense: they can't drive in runs, they don't have enough power, their players fantasy-wise are about as enticing as the idea of Mo'Nique doing a spread for Playboy magazine. (In actuality, I really like Mo'Nique as an actress; I just want to see her clothed...she's not my type body-wise.)

I understand as a Giants fan the sentiment. However, while you can say those things about the Giants' overall offense, you certainly can't say those things of one player:

Pablo Sandoval.

On paper, the progress Sandoval has made at the plate has been incredible.

First off, I know some people at first glance may not be too impressed with his overall numbers. While his batting average (.373), OPS (1.031) and wOBA (.448) are incredible, the obvious statistics don't jump at you. He has only three home runs and nine RBI (granted RBI are kind of hard to get when you have Edgar Renteria and Aaron Rowand batting ahead of you, but for now, let's use the stat), and he has gotten lucky with a .389 BABIP (which is not sustainable if you consider the league average is .296 currently).

If you look at the whole profile this year though, and especially look at where Sandoval was as a hitter at this time last year, the progress he has made is as obvious as a Goodfellas picture in an Italian restaurant.

Here are Sandoval's splits during the month of March/April the past two seasons.

2009: .307 average, one home run, six RBI, three BB, 12 SO, .350 OBP, .790 OPS, 0.25 BB/K , .341 wOBA, 1.94 GB/FB, 5.9 percent HR/FB, 10.4 wRC.

2010: .373 average, three home run, nine RBI, 10 BB, eight SO, .441 OBP, 1.031 OPS, 1.25 BB/K, .448 wOBA, 1.38 GB/FB, 11.5 percent HR/FB, 20.1 wRC.

Sit with those numbers for a second. They definitely put a wrench in all those naysayers' arguments who felt Sandoval going into last year was nothing more than a glorified Randall Simon.

As you can see, Sandoval has improved in every statistical category from this time last year. Three numbers jump out the most: the BB/K ratio, the GB/FB ratio and the HR/FB ratio.

In terms of the BB/K ratio, Sandoval has made an incredible adjustment at the plate in terms of patience. At this time in 2009, Sandoval was known for swinging at pitches at his head (and sometimes making contact with them).

That hasn't been the case anymore. His walk percentage has improved and sits at 10.8 percent going into today's game against Colorado (his walk percentage was only 3.8 percent last year).

Yet the strikeout percentage and BB/K ratio, despite the improvement in walks, is still extraordinary. A guy who has a BB/K ratio over 0.50 is a solid player. A guy who has it over one? Chances are that isn't sustainable in the post-Bonds era unless his name rhymes with "Cool Hose". Nonetheless, it is still noteworthy (if temporary) considering the kind of hitter Sandoval was when he first broke into the league in 2008 (when his BB/K ratio was projected in the 0.40-0.60 range because of his lack of ability to take a walk in the minors).

What has been the reason for the decreased strikeout percentage? Sandoval is swinging less this year, but is making better contact.

Here's the evidence: his O-swing percentage (swinging at pitches outside of the strikezone) is 39.2 percent (down from 41.8 percent last year) and his swing percentage is 51.8 percent (down from 58.2 percent last year). However, he had made better contact on pitches in and out of the strikezone (77.5 and 90.9 percent, respectively, totaling a 84.5 percent contact rate; in 2009, those percentages were 75.2, 87.7 and 82.4 percent, respectively).

A lot of Giants fans, including myself, said that if Sandoval wanted to be less like Jeff Francoeur and more like Pujols or Miguel Cabrera, Sandoval was going to have be more disciplined at the plate. He has done that since last year, and especially since June of last season when his BB/K ratio was over 0.80 every month except for July (when it was 0.29).

When you look at the GB/FB and HR/FB ratios, they aren't exactly impressive either at first glance if you compare him to Cabrera or Pujols. Yet Sandoval, who primarily is known for hitting balls on the ground, has certainly gotten better in terms of putting the ball in the air, and putting some power behind it.

If you examined his HR/FB ratios last year, he sported a 5.9 and 7.4 percent HR/FB ratio in the first two months of play (closer to Eugenio Velez to be frank). The problem? He just hit too many balls on the ground. His groundball rate was 53.2 percent and 53.1 percent the first two months of play, and his line drive rate was under 20 percent and his flyball rate was under 34 percent both months in 2009.

This year has been a slightly different story. While his line drive rate could be better (17.3 percent), his flyball rate is up (34.7) and even better, he is making those flyballs count as evidenced by his HR/FB ratio (11.5). And, if Sandoval can break out in June, August and September/October this season like he did last season in those categories, then Sandoval not only will be a legitimate All-Star, he will be an MVP candidate by the end of the year (an "Inglorious Basterds for Best Picture at the Academy Awards" longshot candidate, but candidate nonetheless; it's hard to compete with Pujols).

Sandoval is far from perfect. His O-swing percentage is still far too high (despite his ability to make contact outside the strike zone, swinging out of the strike zone just makes pitcher's jobs easier) and defensively he hasn't show much improvement in 2010. He has committed three errors this year and his UZR/150 currently stands at negative-22.7 at third base. While he still can improve, it probably would be in the Giants' best interest in the long-run if Sandoval moved to first.

(Though that is certainly hard to do with Aubrey Huff blocking him there...curses "veteran" status! Brian Sabean organizes this team like a Baltimore stevedore union...sorry for "The Wire" reference; it couldn't be helped.)

Despite those negatives, as a Giants fan, you have to be happy with where the "Panda" is at in terms of his career. He is still incredibly young (only 23 years old) and he has shown a strong ability to improve his hitting skills and approach from month to month. If he continues that progress, he'll make it easier for Giants fans to forget about Barry Bonds and the Rowand contact (not completely of course).

There still is a long way to go this season for Sandoval and the Giants. However, it will be important to pay attention to him as the season continues. With Huff most likely a guy that will underwhelm in the cleanup hole, and so many questions concerning this Giants lineup (How long will Nate Schierholtz carry this hot streak? Will John Bowker play? Can Freddy Sanchez be the "All-Star Sanchez" pre-trade?) Sandoval not only will be counted on to carry this team offensively, but even more so than last year.

Judging by this first of month of play, he certainly is capable of doing it.


  1. hersheythegreatMay 1, 2010 at 8:42 PM

    When are people going to stop worrying about Pablo's fielding at 3rd. he may not be Jimmy Davenport, that will tell you how old I am, but he does a good job at 3rd and will just get better.

  2. Sandoval has some athleticism for his "size" but if you look at what he has done so far in two seasons playing third, it isn't good.

    This year he is the seventh-worst third baseman defensively in MLB according to UZR (minus-1.1). Last year, he was the sixth worst third baseman according to UZR (minus-4.8).

    I don't think Sandoval is a clunker with the glove completely. I just believe he is very inconsistent, both with the glove and arm. Considering his inconsistency, and considering his weight, I just believe first base would be the best option in the long-run for him (according to UZR he is an above-average defender at first) and the Giants.