The Pablo Sandoval Dilemma

The San Francisco Giants currently sit comfortably in a playoff spot in the National League. They are but 3.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West race. Only two teams in the NL have more wins than the Giants’ 62.

And yet, the Giants are probably not a great team. They project to land square in the middle of a Wild Card dogfight. They are either the worst good team in baseball or the best bad team in baseball. Sometimes they look the part, other nights their lineup betrays the mediocrity lurking within.

In my mind, these key traits of the the Giants are reflected in two of their best-known players, Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval. Brilliant at times but perplexing at others. While Lincecum is quickly becoming a beloved enigma, Sandoval is a little tougher to figure. He’s not what he once was or what he might have been, but he remains a vital contributor to the Giants’ success.

But he is perceived as such? You can watch Sandoval play and see an overweight ballplayer happy to swing at any pitch thrown between his eyebrows and shoe tops. You see a hitter with his best years behind him, a guy with wild swings in his production and an injury-risk unable to stay on the field.

Or, you see a non-superstar but still quite good third baseman about to hit free agency. You see a player in just his age-27 season. You see a switch hitter with real pop. You see a middle-of-the-order hitter for two World Series winners. You see one of the best defensive third baseman in the game this year.

Your thoughts on Pablo Sandoval can say a lot about you. In his own way, the Kung Fu Panda is a window into your very soul. The flaws and shortcomings in his game are easy to pick up, but too much time spent pointing them out misses his value, both to the current, playoff-aspirant Giants and as a free agent.

The “real” Sandoval is some combination of the two. More than anything, you have one of the most interesting free agent cases in recent memory. Few players reach free agency in time for their age-28 season, and few third baseman hit the open market with the sort of earning power Sandoval possesses.

Below is a list of third baseman to sign free agent contracts longer than three years since the year 2000.

That’s it. That’s the whole list. Chone Figgins barely belongs on said list but he’s included for posterity. It’s a short list. There might well be a new name added to that list come this winter, when both Chase Headley and the Giants starting third baseman figure to test the waters. The idea of Sandoval earning a lucrative contract with this kind of term might seem crazy, considering the ups and downs during his time in SF.

There is no lack of teams that Sandoval could help next year, though the team with the most pressing need might be the team he’s helping right now. He is putting together a now-typical Sandoval season, boasting a 120 wRC+ with 14 homers. He does the same things he always did, swinging at more pitches than just about anybody.

As Sandoval puts his rough April further and further in the rearview mirror, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine the Giants, notoriously loyal to their “guys”, letting Sandoval walk with only a compensation pick coming back. Given Sandoval’s youth and productivity, it should be a no-brainer for him to remain in San Francisco. But his size, injury-woes, and approach are big red flags.

The biggest challenge is sliding Sandoval into a box that best encapsulates his performance. Though he plays the same position as Aramis Ramirez while putting up similar power numbers and K/BB rates, Sandoval’s a free swinger to such an extreme that he renders most comps pointless. A less powerful, switch hitting Josh Hamilton?

Because he is so unorthodox, it is natural to wonder when the clock might strike twelve on Sandoval’s ability to produce at the big league level. And though his numbers aren’t what they were during his breakout years (2009 & 2011), he remains one of the top ten third baseman in baseball. His numbers have leveled off over the last three seasons, producing close to 120 wRC+ with solid power (.150 ISO in a park that works hard to keep such numbers low) while remaining the same swing-happy maniac he’s always been. This is who he is now, and it is nothing at which to sneeze.

As Jeff Sullivan showed earlier this season, Sandoval swings at more pitches when he’s feeling good and seeing the ball well. The more he swings, the more he hits. Right now, he feels good and he’s swinging at everything and hitting everything, with almost as many extra base hits (10) as walks or strikeouts (12) over the last month. He’s doing his part to keep the Giants near the top of the NL West and in the playoff race.

The more he gives them, the higher he drives his value and the harder it becomes to let him walk. As noted at the top, few noteworthy third basemen get to free agency. Pablo Sandoval is certainly noteworthy – both to San Francisco and the third base market. Don’t be surprised if you see Headley sporting one of these hats this winter.

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Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

75 Responses to “The Pablo Sandoval Dilemma”

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  1. Steve says:

    It’s not hard to let someone walk when you know you’ll be overpaying them for multiple seasons in order to keep him. Why bet against aging curves?

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    • Anthony says:

      In recent memory, San Francisco has re-signed or extended Scutaro, Pagan, Pence, Affeldt, Lopez and Lincecum either just before the season had ended or to a free agent contract. They like to keep their guys- Cain, Posey and Bumgarner have had nice extensions too. I also believe they re-upped Huff after the ’10 WS to a 2-year deal.

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      • Panda Friend says:

        Or just give him a one yeAr test contract. Not the biggest risk in the World.


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        • Anthony says:

          They don’t have a track record of standing firm and not giving players longer term, unwarranted security. Why would Sandoval let them do it to him? Panda has two titles, two 5-win seasons and is having a very productive walk year, and is a career Giant. He’s their best third baseman in awhile; there’s no reason he shouldn’t expect what Hunter Pence got just a year ago.

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        • Jason B says:

          I wouldn’t think the two titles carries much weight in a contract negotiation; they didn’t resign Zito after his 7 year, $1.8 trillion (give or take) deal expired.

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        • Dean says:

          Panda isn’t Walter Alston. He will demand 5 years and 100 million dollars. A one year ‘tester’ would be great, but he will NEVER be in a better position to max his position than after 2014. He would be an idiot to take one year.

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        • Tommy Kelly says:

          He is NOT going to settle for a “one year test contract.” He has already made it clear he wants a “Hunter Pence contract” (five years, $90 million) and if he does not get it from the Giants, he will go somewhere else.

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    • KCDaveInLA says:

      If Pablo could keep his weight under control, he should be reaching his peak years…but fat guys tend to get fatter. (One reason I did a Mr. Burns-like “Excellent” when the hated Tigers signed Prince Fielder…then did a Homer-like “D’OH!” when they got the excellent Ian Kinsler for him). Doesn’t bode well when combined with the unique pressure of third base (hit like a corner outfielder, field like a shortstop). I would be afraid of giving him more than 3 years.

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      • Babe Ruth says:


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      • Go Nats says:

        Dude, Pablo is ont of the top defensive players in the game. So although he looks fat, he does not play fat at all!

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        • fat fat says:

          He IS fat. Listed at 5’11” and 240. Which means is is really 5’9.5″ and 265.

          Unless you are Mr. Universe, you ain’t 5’9.5″ and 265 and muscular.

          And yes, I know what real athletic people are. Three of my friends in HS played on the University of Michigan basketball team and one of my friends ran 10.5 in the 100m in HS. A lot of people that have broken 10 for the 100m ran 10.5 in HS; if he weren’t lazy he could have been one of the fastest men in the WORLD.

          Jahvid Best was the fastest HS guy in California and ran a 10.35 if memory serves…10.5 was the best time for Michigan our year.

          Denard Robinson, the guy that everybody said was so fast, was like a 10.9 in HS.

          But I digress, that cat is FATTT.

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        • bmarkham says:

          @ fat fat

          The point is that it doesn’t matter if you still move well. Jhonny Peralta has a gut too, but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the best SS in the league while in his 30’s.

          As a Cards fan I wouldn’t mind seeing them open up the wallet for someone like Sandoval and moving Carpenter back to 2B, but Wong hasn’t been bad either and has 5 more years of cheap control so it wouldn’t make much sense unless they also were moving Wong for some value elsewhere on the roster.

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        • Preston says:

          @bmarkham it does matter because it effects how you’re going to age. He’s putting more stress on his body at that weight, he’s already had injury problems. At some point those injuries cause your skills to erode. A team that signs him should expect him to have an abnormal aging curve. Johnny Peralta having a little gut is not the same as having 40 extra pounds on your back and knees all day long.

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      • Bartolo Colon says:

        Getting fatter doesn’t necessarily mean getting worse at baseball.

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        • Ivan Grushenko says:

          No, but it does mean putting more stress on your knees and legs. It might mean getting less durable.

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  2. Lenard says:

    Welcome to Fangraphs, but I was not ready for those deep thoughts on what my opinion of the Panda says about me as a person.

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  3. Tom says:

    I think he ends up signing with Boston on a 3 year deal with a high AAV. Bogaerts is back at SS, Middlebrooks is a bust and Cecchini and Marrero are not major league ready, if they ever will be. It’s really the only hole in their everyday lineup for 2015 and they have a ton of money to spend.

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    • MrKnowNothing says:

      Why would he take just three years?

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      • Anthony says:

        It depends on what AAV he feels he can get on the open market, but I think Headley is a better fit for Boston. I think Sandoval signs that 5/90 deal with SF that Pence originally got last year.

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      • Anthony says:

        They’re one of the teams with the best set-up going forward. Capable big leaguers (Vazquez, Napoli, Pedroia, Victorino, Cespedes, Ortiz, Uehara) combined with loaded prospects (Betts, Bogaerts, Cecchini, De La Rosa, Webster, Ranaudo, etc.) and tremendous future payroll flexibility. They’re legitimately in the best position going forward.

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        • Tom says:

          Typical Bahston..over-valued prospects and aging stars. If they think it will “be better next year”, they have another “think” coming.

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  4. Tom says:

    actually I guess Headley makes more sense for them.

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    • Mr Punch says:

      The Sox brought in Beltre and Cameron when their lineup was excessive selective/passive, and AJP because they (thought they had little choice, but Sandoval really isn’t their kind of hitter (plus they have a free swinger in Cespedes). I’d be very surprised to see them go after him.

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  5. Miles says:

    So I tried to see if there was a player comp for Sandoval. I looked at hitters who played during the same time (his first full season, 2009-now) and had played a similar amount of playing time (minimum 2500 PA.)

    Sandoval has seen by far the fewest pitches in the strikezone: 36.4%. Number two on this list is Josh Hamilton at 39%. Pablo’s o-contact rate is at least 10 points higher than most other hitters who’ve seen less than 44% strikes over that time. He comes close to Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera and James Loney with an 80% o-contact rate, but those players have ~5.3% sw-strike rate compared to Sandoval’s 9.7%.

    Sandoval makes about as much o-contact as these players, but swings at far more balls out of the zone. He also makes less contact in the zone, ironically. This is going to be, justifiably, seen as a huge pitfall by teams looking at signing him.

    Sandoval could off-set his plate discipline issues by consistently hitting more HRs. In 2013, he looked a lot like Loney with a .131 iso compared to Sandoval’s .138. But 2014’s HRs will push him ahead of that mark and closer to a comp of: Melky Cabrera (at the plate, not in the field) who makes less overall contact. This year’s .isos: Sandoval .159 Cabrera .165

    Yeah this was probably pointless to read, but I wanted to see if I could prove something with stats. Cheerio.

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    • Richie says:

      Thank you for the work, actually. I appreciate it.

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    • lesmash says:

      Keep in mind that, as far as home parks go, Toronto is a heckuva lot easier to hit in than San Fran. AT&T park is murder on lefties, isn’t it? Sure, Pablo is a switchy, but most of his reps still come from the left side.

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    • D says:

      Well is it his strike zone is much bigger than pitchfx’s because he is much bigger??

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  6. Thanks, Comcast says:

    Unimportant yet slightly interesting fact: Sandoval’s current 2014 BABIP (.301) is identical to what he posted in 2012 and 2013.

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    • Lemmer says:

      His batted ball profile is remarkably similar from 12-14; LD/GB/FB are each within the same ~1.5 percentage point range. Does that mean the similar BABIP is to be expected? No rhetoric or snark, I honestly don’t know.

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  8. Rexxy says:

    This qualifies as analysis these days? Has fangraphs gotten this soft?

    I hate to say this but Dave Cameron has ruined fangraphs for me in the sense that he is the only author I feel is qualified and noteworthy anymore. No offense to Drew Fairservice but Cameron is really the only reason to come to this site anymore. Sullivan is ok if you aren’t on a cellphone and trying to load 25 gifs per post.

    Just my 0.5 cents worth.

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    • Morton says:

      .5 cents? Really pinching pennies there.

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    • southie says:

      well a) you’re a dick and b) sort of correct

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    • MrKnowNothing says:

      Here. I’ll do Dave’s version. If you go back the best few years with panda, and ROS this year he grades out as worth 3.7 WAR. Round it up to 4 for our purposes. A win is worth we’ll say $7mm now.

      Now. He’s young so his aging curve won’t be bad so figure he’ll have two more years at 4.0 then the DC Special .5 drop every year there after. Seven years is a long time but he is abnormally young. Over those seven years he projects to basically $20 WAR. At $7m a win that’s a contract of $140 or $120 if you like $6m a win.

      Anecdotally, the latter seems more believable bc of his weight issues and gets him to an AAV of $17m.

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      • Baltar says:

        Nope. Dave said in a recent chat that Sandoval should be signed for 3 years at a high AAV.

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    • a eskpert says:

      Usually people go after Dave for being an arrogant prick, not for being so superlatively good as to devalue the other writers. Come on man, get with the program.

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  9. B N says:

    When I see Panda, I see a guy who goes through a two-year cycle:
    Year 1: Works out hard, plays well, great stats
    Year 2: Feels like he did a good job last year, doesn’t work out as much on the off-season, comes in overweight and underperforms for the first half of the year until he gets back into good shape.
    (Return to Year 1, now having something to prove)

    As a comparison, folks can remember Ryan Howard’s great season many moons ago that was followed by the “banquet tour” of honors where he showed up into the next season well out of ideal shape. I bet if you had good stats on his season-start weight and muscle/fat ratio, you’d see something along these lines. He’s a kind of dangerous guy to sign long-term: what if he decides he’s just not going to work out as hard anymore and balloons up? I’d want to have some sort of incentives that keep him pushing hard every year, if possible.

    The Pablo Sandoval you get depends greatly on how much you can keep him on-track in the offseason, methinks.

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    • B N says:

      Or, for that matter, in the on-season. In-season injuries are a particular threat: if he has to sit around and rest, he’ll be adding weight that will need to be “unadded” before he’s back at peak performance. Which is tough, because lord knows if I hurt my hand or my leg I’d want to spend some time grabbing some chicken and ice cream by the TV. But unfortunately, being a great MLB player with his metabolism doesn’t mesh with that kind of recovery program.

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    • dave says:

      I love Panda, but this guy is right. He’s inconsistent. You don’t reward for inconsistency. You don’t give $90 million to someone who can’t hit .300, can’t hit 25 homers, and can’t rake 100 RBIs. He MIGHT be able to do that, but you really think once he gets a contract he’s going to be motivated? The only reason he lost weight last offseason was he needed to do a contract drive. We give him a three-year deal and he’s going to be rolling into spring training wearing a moo-moo.

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  10. Noise for Winfield says:

    Great piece. Glad to see your work still has an outlet. FYI, I think you might be misusing “posterity.”

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  11. Danny C says:

    As far as 3rd baseman to sign a long extension since 2000 you left out Matt Carpenter at 6 yrs/52m (Club option for 7th yr)Is Panda more valuable than Carpenter?

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    • Drew Fairservice says:

      That’s an extension, I listed free agent deals only. Seems like more 3B go that route – Zimmerman, Longoria, Wright – rather than hit big money FA in recent years.

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      • bmarkham says:

        I’ve noticed this not just for 3B but also 2B and CF. Seems when teams have someone strong at those positions they prefer to keep them around. And you can see why, now the Giants are either going to have to pay full price for Sandoval for several years or risk that position being a hole for the next few years.

        That to me is why Matt Carpenter’s extension is a slam dunk, who also plays scratch defense at 2B. It’s going to be considerably hard for the Cardinals to have both a 3B and 2B better than what Carpenter projects for over the next several years.

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    • Aaron Schafer says:

      Free agent contracts, not extensions.

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      • Aaron Schafer says:

        And I see that was already answered between the time I opened this article and the time I came back a couple hours later and actually got around to reading. Carry on.

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  12. vlad guerrero says:

    he’s a good bad ball hitter, just not as good a bad ball hitter than me. his ability to avoid strikeouts isn’t quite as good and he doesn’t walk as well, but same general hitting theme. Ain’t in the same league athletically as I was so injury could shorten his career if he isn’t careful

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  13. cs3 says:

    I dont get it. The entire article is basically that while Pablo has flaws, the Giants shouldnt let him walk. It barely even mentions the other options the Giants would have to play 3B in the future.

    But then the last line in the article is “Don’t be surprised if you see Headley sporting one of these hats this winter” with a link to the Giants Panda hat, suggesting that… SF will sign Headley?

    Really weird way to end the article, considering the possibility was never even explored anywhere else in the write up.

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    • bmarkham says:

      Yes I have to say I am disappointed in the level of analysis in the article. No analysis of future value, no prediction of the type of contract he could get and from who.

      It seems like this should have been in instagraphs or something.

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  14. DT says:

    I’m not as fluent as all of you in advanced stats, but what’s wrong with the Panda?

    I root for the Nats and I would love it if they signed him for a 5/90 deal (let ALR walk, Zim to 1st, Rendon back to 2nd, Panda to 3rd – to the outfield in the last 2 years of the deal)

    I don’t know how his defense is but his bat is pretty good – last down year looks to be 2010. He’s noted to be a free swinger, so that may affect the running game but, maybe it’s just because the Nats strike out a lot, his K% looks pretty darn good and belies his reputation.

    Sandoval’s K% and BB% splits the difference between Zimmerman and Rendon, and his other hitting stats pretty much match up to them as well.

    Prior to the trade deadline Nats fans were discussing getting Adrian Beltre and most wanted the move. Beltre has a better bat but is significantly older (7 years), is on the remainder of a 5/96 deal and would cost prospects. Younger and no prospects means a 5/90 deal would seem cheap to this Nats fan.

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  15. J Peterman says:

    “And yet, the Giants are probably not a great team. They project to land square in the middle of a Wild Card dogfight.”

    Decidedly less interesting than a catfight, I should say.

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  16. Chris says:

    Couple problems I have with this article:

    1. Calling Pablo Sandoval an injury risk is unfair. 2 of his 3 substantial stints on the DL came from a broke hamate bone. This is a freak accident that happned to a bone one doesn’t even need. So both of those Hamate bones have been removed now.

    2. Pablo Sandoval listened to all of this nonsense and spent the first couple of months taking pitches. He was terrible. Some guys, Vladimir Guerrero comes to mind, are free swingers but manage to hit for a good average. Sandoval seems like this kind of hitter. If you take away those first 5-6 weeks of him trying to be somebody he wasn’t, he has had a very good season.

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    • KG says:

      This line.

      His BB% this year is a hair below Hunter Pence’s, and Hunter was batting leadoff for much of the season. Yet Hunter’s 5/$90 contract is looking reasonable about now. Also, Pablo’s career BB%, K% and OBP are all better than Beltre’s career numbers. The whole free swinger thing needs to be reassessed in Pablo’s case because for him it’s actually a very good thing.

      This, coupled with his age and superb defense, will really drive up his price tag, possibly out of the Giants’ range. Most likely landing spots would be with the Yankees or Dodgers, as they wouldn’t necessarily mind taking a gamble with his weight. Both teams have in the past. I’m guessing $120-$140m range, 6 or 7 years.

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  17. Rob Bob says:

    Sandoval is obviously using PEDs. Pretty sure all the Latin players do.

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  18. Louis says:

    San Francisco loves the panda. He’s extremely marketable. He has ups and downs but there just aren’t that many guys – free swinger or not – who can play the hot corner that well and hit. Who cares how much he swings, look at him: Everything about his body and athleticism is unorthodox. I’m not sure there is much difference in the power of his bat hitting a middle of the plate fastball or a fastball off his shoetops. Is there a stat for that (mph for pitches hit in different zones)?

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  19. Ruff says:

    I don’t know where to find it (have tried), but I’d like to see Panda’s line since mid-May. I bet it lines up with 2009 & 2011 numbers.

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  20. Taft ' s wild pitch says:

    “…the harder it becomes to let him walk.”

    Opposing pitchers feel the same way. Great pun.

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  21. Mike says:

    Too much is made of Sandoval’s free swinging. He still walks at a reasonable rate (7.5 career), albeit he’s down this year (6.6). Given that, it’s ironic that Fairservice mentions Aramis Ramirez in the same paragraph that he says, “Sandoval’s a free swinger to such an extreme that he renders most comps pointless”. Ramirez is an excellent comp, at least offensively.

    Sandoval (career): .296/.348/.471; .351 woba; 124 wRC+; 7.5 K%; 13.2 BB%
    Ramirez (career): .286/.344/.499; .361 woba; 118 wRC+; 7.2 K%; 13.8 BB%

    Ramirez has better power numbers (.213 ISO – .175 ISO), but a lot of that is likely due to ballpark effects. What’s going on here is quite common in analyses of Sandoval; there’s a sort of missing the forest for the trees effect — researchers tend to miss that while he is a free swinger, he makes a lot of contact and is also close to league average in walk percentage.

    In fact, since 2010, the league average walk rate is around 7.5, which, again, means that Sandoval has been about average at drawing walks (allowing, again, that he’s down in that category this year); he also strikes out about 5% less than league average (roughly 18-13). So, again, he may be a free swinger, but he makes contact and draws an average-ish number of walks. When one takes the wider — the full season/career view — the free swinging ends up a bit of a red herring; it both misleads with respect to expectations and distracts from more important results.

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    • jessef says:

      not that it necessarily invalidates your point but it bears mentioning that 1/5 of his walks have been intentional.

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    • D says:

      You left out the part where ramirez hits 35 HRs a year. Sandoval has never cracked 20, he profiles as a high bapip 15-20 hr guy

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      • KG says:

        1. .304 BABIP when league average is .299 is not high

        2. 25 HRs in 2009. 23 in 2011

        3. You left out the part where Ramirez hasn’t hit 35 HRs since 2006 and only cracked that number twice in his career

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  22. D says:

    I think he won’t get more than 4 years. Overly fat guys like him, Mo Vaughn, and the 2 Fielders do not age well.

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  23. McCovey Cove DAVE says:

    I have watched Panda since he first came to the Giants in 2008 and I have grabbed 5 of his 104 career HR’s including his first splash hit HR on 7/30/09. He was only 22 years when he hit his first splash hit HR and it seemed the sky was the limit for the PANDA!

    My read is that PANDA got his weight in check this year only because this was a contract free agent year. The lighter weight has allowed him to play some outstanding defense this year. But Panda is undisciplined and my prediction is weight will increase in the next few years no matter where he lands.

    I do think Panda will most likely end up with the Giants for a 4 year contract. The Giants are the kings of fan marketing and they do not like to lose a familiar name. That’s why the Giants resigned Lincecum last off-season for $17.5 M a year when his peak years where behind him. I am selfishly happy the Giants will retain Panda as he will hit me the occasional HR in McCovey Cove, but I believe the Giants will most likely overpay for his services. The problem with overpaying Panda is that the Giants are overpaying for much of its current roster. That’s baseball!

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    • searcher says:

      I just joined this site, so it’s interesting to see you here, Dave. From watching the Giants make a few money mistakes, (Zito, Lincecum, Arias, Scutaro…)I think even the FO is tired of the “pay the stars” routine. Panda sells tickets and hats, but I do not anticipate a four year deal.

      As a Giants fan, it is encouraging to see Pablo having longer at bats. Odd to say, but I think he might be giving a good example to some of the more recent additions to the squad. Maybe he will listen to what people are noting about defensive improvement correlated to under-control weight, accept a 3 year deal for good money and keep working on his career numbers. Or, there is always a weight clause option, though some lawyers don’t think that’s viable anymore (or so I’ve read somewhere). THEN, after that 3-4 years, he can think about a rich AL DH deal. Happy fishing!

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  24. Spa City says:

    What dilemma? Sandoval is a relatively youthful, quality defensive 3Bman (despite not looking like one) who is a reasonably good (albeit unorthodox) hitter.

    The Giants do not have a replacement handy and their lineup is not particularly good, so they need to either retain Sandoval or acquire a suitable replacement. A replacement would cost a lot of money or prospects – either way it would not be cheap.

    He is popular in SF and has marketing value to help offset his likely price tag (a la Big Time Timmy Jim’s contract).

    This is not a dilemma. Offer him a 5 year, $90 million deal and hope he takes it. If the cost goes to $100m, there is still a legitimate chance he is worth every penny. If the Yankees or Dodgers escalate it beyond that, sayonara to the Panda.

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  25. Ivan Grushenko says:

    Headley is also 2 1/2 years older. If I had to choose I’d probably stick with Sandoval. It’s not like Headley is any better right now. They’re both basically 3 WAR players, and one is 2 1/2 years older. Unless Headley is cheaper, I wouldn’t take him.

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