What’s Killing Pablo?

July 7, 2010

Is it lefty pitching or his not being able to find a Fatburger on the road? You be the judge. After posting a monster 2009, Pablo Sandoval has been a huge disappointment to both the San Francisco Giants and fantasy owners alike in 2010. Keeping him for the cost of 12th round pick, I thought I was getting a steal, only to find that Panda’s kung-fu has looked awfully weak so far. So what on earth is happening that can make even the Giants faithful turn on S.F.’s favorite cartoon-character?

Base-running blunders aside, simply put, since a productive April, Panda has been awful at the plate.

I suppose we have to begin any discussion of Sandoval’s hitting woes with a look at his BABIP, since his biggest asset is his ability to make contact. In ’09, his first full season in the bigs,  Sandoval’s gaudy .350 average on balls in play lead to a .330 batting average, good for second in the league behind Hanley Ramirez. As of today, he’s currently mired with a .266 batting average, due to a BABIP that has fallen to .287. Meanwhile, Sandoval has actually seen an uptick in his contact rate (from 82.6% to 83.2% from ’09 to ’10) and a decrease in swinging strikes (currently 8.9% compared to 9.8% in ’09).

Panda is hitting the ball, he’s just not hitting it well.

Digging a little deeper, we find that Sandoval’s LD% has fallen from 18.6% in ’09 to his current 15.9%. Along with the decrease in liners, we’ve seen an increase in grounders, up to 46.2% now versus 44.9% last season, to go along with a marked increase in infield pop-ups: 10.5% now against only 7.9% in the previous campaign. His fly-ball rate has increased from 36.5% to 37.9%, but that hasn’t helped him get the ball out of the yard, as his HR/FB rate is down dramatically from 14% in ’09 to a paltry 5.7% today. Indicative of that loss of power, his ISO has gone done nearly .100 points, from .226 to a surprisingly anemic .127. For some perspective, that nestles him right between Howie Kendrick and Cliff Pennington in league-wide isolated power ranking. While I didn’t believe Sandoval would reach 25 jacks, like he did last year, I figured he’d blast about 20. Going into play today, Sandoval’s only hit 6 HR and none since June 15th.

The Panda has seen some pretty extreme splits so far this season and a lot has been made of Sandoval’s struggles against left-handed pitching. Batting from the right side, the switch hitter has gone 17-91 with 6 BB, 15 K and no HR, equaling a putrid .205/.253/.277 line. Those numbers are in stark contrast to the .379/.428/.600 marks he set last year, when he ate lefties like bamboo shoots. Against righties, he’s been more effective, going .288/.346/.433. He’s even brought down his K rate against righties by over 4%, from 15.9% in ’09 to his current 11.6% mark. Across the board those BB and K rates haven’t changed very much, in fact he’s actually cut down his K’s (8.2%BB/14.5%K last year compared to 7.8%/13.3% now), surprising when you consider his lack of production. Another interesting split are his home and road numbers. In the city by the bay, the Panda’s hitting .316/.374/.865. On the road however, Sandoval’s been a no-show, going .217/.271/.298.

So what’s my prognosis on the Panda? Well ZiPS says he’ll put together a 9 HR/41 R/48 RBI/.306/.356 line from here on out. I’d be as happy as Pablo at an all-you-can-eat buffet to see that and due to his past success against left-handed pitching, I believe he can exceed those marks. I would wager that those road numbers have to pick up well as the season wears on. He’s still young (he turns 24 next month) and I believe the best is still ahead for the talented hitter. If the Giants add a bat, which they have been discussing, that might give him a little bump as well.

I recently offered up Panda and a choice of Jaime Garcia, Kris Medlen or Jason Hammel to an opponent in my keeper league in exchange for either Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez or Jered Weaver (good move or bad?). I didn’t even get a response – this from a guy who was supposedly interested in the hefty third infielder, with Kevin Kouzmanoff holding down his CI slot. Obviously, I’m not looking to give Sandoval away, but in need of pitching help, I’d move him for the right price.

In the end though, the best trade may be the one not made, since I can see Pablo killing the ball in the second half and going a long way towards helping my playoff push. I have few high average hitters on my keeper squad and his ability to hit for average is something that I’ve been banking on all year. If I didn’t have him and needed CI help, I’d throw some offers out to his frustrated owner and see if he’s done his homework. All signs point to improvement, but that’s hard to believe when a player has looked so lost at the plate for two-plus months.

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