What to Expect: Pablo Sandoval
Last year I did a series of posts entitled “What to Expect” featuring players who’s 2010 seasons were difficult to project. The series featured Mark DeRosa and Pablo Sandoval, and I was horribly wrong on both counts. DeRosa missed a large majority of the season with wrist problems, so I think I deserve some leeway there. With Sandoval though, I was completely off base.
I had this to say about my expectations for 2010:
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not too much of a stretch to expect a season much like last year’s  with 5-8 more long balls and a better slugging percentage to boot. Think a chubbier Matt Williams who can switch hit.
So as you can see, I kind of screwed the pooch on this one. The Kung Fu Panda went in the exact opposite direction and regressed in every way imaginable. His power production and on-base abilities went out the door. Looking at BABIP and line-drive percentage shows us that he performed exactly as expected, so the problem wasn’t that he was unlucky. So then it becomes a question of what it was exactly that went wrong, and whether Sandoval is beyond help. I’m of the belief myself that he can be saved.
In Henry Schulman’s latest column, he details the considerable weight loss that Sandoval has undertaken this offseason. This is heavy 2010 Sandoval. Now compare that to the positively svelte Panda that showed up at a recent press conference. Much has been made about the need for him to shed those extra pounds in the offseason, but losing weight isn’t exactly the universal fix for a sub-par hitting performance. Schulman’s article also makes mention of something far more relevant:
His eyes have been a problem, and Sandoval told The Chronicle that on Thursday he went to an optometrist who will have him wear contacts in both eyes. Sandoval said he had been wearing a left contact only.
If you wear contact lenses you know as well as I do that wearing just one causes some serious depth perception issues, something that is just a little important when it comes to hitting a 95 mph fastball. Fangraphs has a system that rates a hitter’s ability to hit certain pitches, assigning a numerical value to how a player handles each offering from a pitcher in terms of runs above average. In 2009, Sandoval’s number against fastballs was 20.8, while he handled curveballs to the tune of 7.9 runs above average. In 2010, those numbers dropped to 2.2 and -8.1 respectively. While those are the most extreme examples, he saw at least a marginal drop against all other pitches as well last season.
When it comes to hitting a 95 mph fastball, a hitter has approximately two-tenths of a second to recognize a pitch, be cognizant of where it is in relation to the strike zone, and decide whether or not they want to swing. If you want to get a good idea of how small a time frame a hitter has to react, try playing this game that test’s your baseball reflexes. Now imagine trying to do this with one contact lense in. Bit of a tall order isn’t it? From 2009 to 2010, Sandoval was making approximately the same amount of contact (82.6% vs. 82.8%), but his infield pop-up rate spiked from 7.9% to 11.2%. His home run to fly ball ratio saw also saw a severe drop from 14% to 7%. In other words, his timing was out of sorts. When you lose depth perception, you lose timing, simple as that.
But now the Panda’s vision problems are solved. Henry Schulman tells us that Sandoval’s been working with Barry Bonds on his plate discipline in addition to taking part in a rigorous fitness program to lose weight. Steps are being taken to ensure that a repeat of 2010 doesn’t take place, as the Giants’ higher-ups hold their collective breaths. The organizations is well aware that a healthy, hitting, Kung Fu Panda would take the offense from “league-average” to “slightly above league-average,” a distinction that could make a world of difference in terms of taking some pressure off of the pitching staff.
With all this mind, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict a rebound out of Pablo Sandoval in 2011. Between working with possibly the most fundamentally sound hitters in the history of the game and getting his eyesight issues resolved, it’s hard not to hope for a .300/.360/.500 season out of the guy. Just keep him away the Red Ryder carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle (“you’ll shoot your eye out kid”) as well as the Krispy Kremes and everything should be great.