Kung Fu Panda’s Punchless First Half

Last season, Pablo Sandoval was a one-man wrecking crew. The switch-hitting, ambidextrous free-swinger crushed pitchers for a .330/.387/.566 triple-slash in 633 plate appearances, good for a .396 wOBA and a 145 wRC+. With +34.9 Park-Adjusted Batting Runs during his first full season in the majors, Sandoval placed among the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard. He entered 2010 as a fantasy darling — according to KFFL, the Panda had an ADP of 37.

Sandoval’s pre-season projections expected some regression in terms of his power output (.226 ISO in 2009) and BABIP (.350), but owners still had every right to expect big offensive numbers:

ZiPS: .320/.368/.516, .383 wOBA, .196 ISO, .342 BABIP
CHONE: .325/.368/.526, .385 wOBA, .201 ISO, .348 BABIP

Yet, Sandoval’s lumber has been lacking. He’s got a tepid .266/.325/.387 line in 366 PA, with a .307 wOBA and an 88 wRC+. Pablo’s usually-thunderous bat has been -5.3 runs below average. What gives?

Little has changed in terms of his “plate discipline” numbers. Sandoval swung at 41.7 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone in 2009, and 43.8% in 2010. The overall MLB average for O-Swing has increased, likely due to the way that pitches are charted, but Sandoval’s O-Swing compared to the big league average hasn’t shifted much. His O-Swing was 166 percent of the MLB average in ’09, and 153 percent of the average in 2010. Pablo’s also making contact at about the same rate as usual — 83% (83.3% career average, 81% MLB average). His first pitch strike percentage is 63.4% (62.8% career average, 58% MLB average). Sandoval’s walk and strikeout rates are exactly the same as last year — 8.2% and 14.5%, respectively.

The big changes are in his BABIP and pop. Sandoval has always posted a high BABIP (.339 as a prospect, according to Minor League Splits) and, as the pre-season projections showed, CHONE and ZiPS expected another robust BABIP. Instead, Sandoval’s getting hits on balls put in play just 29.2 percent of the time (.292 BABIP). Has he been unlucky? The answer would appear to be yes. Pablo is hitting fewer line drives (18.6% in ’09, 16.1% this year) and is popping the ball up a bit more (7.9 IF/FB% in ’09, 10.2% in ’10). But even so, his expected BABIP, based on his rate of homers, K’s, SB, line drives, fly balls, infield flies and ground balls, is .314. For the rest of 2010, ZiPS projects a .326 BABIP from Sandoval.

The more peculiar development is his mild power production. The Panda has a .121 ISO, with just 5.6% of his fly balls leaving the yard (14% last season). Here’s Sandoval’s performance by batted ball type in 2010, compared to 2009:

You’ll note the downturn in his ground ball and line drive BABIP. But Sandoval’s power decline on his fly balls and liners hit has been dramatic as well. In 2009, he had a .528 ISO on fly balls, while the NL average was .371. This season, he’s got a .322 ISO on fly balls (.367 NL average). Pablo posted a .322 ISO on line drives in ’09, but just .153 in 2010 (the NL average is .256 both seasons).

The chances of Sandoval faring so poorly on balls put in play and hitting for such little power in the second half are remote. The Panda’s rest-of-season ZiPS calls for a .305/.357/.484 line, with his wOBA climbing to .366 and his ISO increasing to .179. CHONE projects a more potent performance — .318/.363/.511 (.193 ISO).

This would be a good time to buy low on Sandoval. I wouldn’t bet that a 23-year-old with a history of mashing has suddenly forgotten how to drive the ball.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


26 Responses to “Kung Fu Panda’s Punchless First Half”

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  1. BoSoxArsenal says:

    One thing ZIPS doesn’t know is how fat Sandoval has gotten…

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  2. Chris says:

    Sandoval is not really getting that unlucky this year, he was getting very lucky last year. As you said, most of his rate stats are pretty similar… it seems like some of those balls that got through last year just arent making it this year. The guy also hits a ton of ground balls. WIth his *ahem* speed, they were bound to translate into some more outs this year.

    I expect his HR rate to recoevr a bit, but let’s remember where he’s playing… he may bounce back a bit in the second half but he’ll never be anywhere close to the player he was in 09 again..

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    • quincy0191 says:

      Sandoval has pretty good speed, and great speed for a guy his size. I don’t know how much you watch him play, but I’m a Giants fan and I’ve seen how fast he is when he gets going hard. As for AT&T being a pitcher’s park, from what I’ve heard it’s neutral to slightly favorable to pitchers, and that big RF turns doubles into triples and outs into hits even if the park does prevent HRs somewhat.

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      • Chris says:

        even if he had decent speed for his size, guy’s his size don’t beat out groundballs very often

        My point about AT&T was that it dosen’t allow many hr’s, that comment was directed at his hr/fb ratio

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      • alskor says:

        “As for AT&T being a pitcher’s park, from what I’ve heard it’s neutral to slightly favorable to pitchers, and that big RF turns doubles into triples and outs into hits even if the park does prevent HRs somewhat.”

        Yes, and Sandoval was quite LUCKY with regards to that last season, where he had a 14% HR/FB. 5.6% HR/FB this year.

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  3. eldingo says:

    Said with the certainty of ignorance, there is more evidence backing up a higher babip than there is against it

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    • Chris says:

      alos, lets be honest, did anyone think a guy with such terrible plate discipline could sustain last year’s production? I sure didn’t.

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      • Chris says:

        also*

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      • Vinz Clortho says:

        I dunno if you can call a walk rate over 8% “terrible plate discipline” at all, and combined with his perfectly moderate whiff rate he exhibits a very solid underlying set of hitting skills. He’s a confusing player to get a read on because of his fairly unique combination of body type and career arch. Last year it looked like he might be a guy like Pedroia, gifted with superior hand-eye coordination, good rates, and higher BABIPs. But his bat speed looks a tick slower this season and he seems to be in between on pitches. I’m sure the former is due to a better book on him this year, but he is still a young hitter as well. He doesn’t look much (if any) bigger this year than last and skill sets like his don’t disappear overnight because of physical breakdown when a guy’s 23. I’d still agree we’re likely to see some rebound from him in the second half.

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  4. D-Rock says:

    I’ve really thought about moving Sandoval for Billy Butler, who raked last year in the 2nd half and traditionally has got better in the 2nd half. (It’s to fill a CI spot).

    Any thoughts?

    BTW, good articles today, Dave.

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  5. Grant says:

    One year ago I suggested in a hypothetical scenario that a trade of Sandoval for Miguel Cabrera would be good for the Giants, in response to this I was widely lambasted, now I would like to point out how right I was.

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    • Christian says:

      You are still wrong. Cabrera still provides very little surplus value over his contract, while Sandoval has no difficulty doing that.

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      • baycommuter says:

        General managers are paid to win pennants, not to provide maximum surplus value over contracts… can u imagine Brian Cashman getting fired for not getting surplus value?

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  6. Agonizing says:

    Sandoval for Liriano or Nolasco? Or even Romero? This trade is about to go down… Liriano or Nolasco is a good return for Sandoval, yes?

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    • sweetness says:

      Liriano confuses the hell out of me. if i was on a team that needed to make up some ground in a league, he would be a guy worth the risk. but if your cruising at the top of the standings, Liriano has the potential to really mess with your era and whip.

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  7. Chris says:

    “I dunno if you can call a walk rate over 8% “terrible plate discipline” at all”

    7.5 career, and the ZIPS projection for this year, as well as the updated version for this year, are sub 8. In fact, no projection system had his walk rate above 8% this year.

    His O-swing% is downright awful at 43.8% this year… even if the pitches are charted differently this year.. it was almost 42% last year. he chases out of the zone too much, how can that even be disputed?

    Nothing dissapeared overnight… He got extremley lucky last year, he is getting slightly unlucky this year…

    I

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  8. djp says:

    It’s the curse of those goggles!

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  9. Luke says:

    I just dealt for Sandoval in a 12 team mixed league and I expect a rebound. I agree with Vinz that his bat does look a tad slower this season (I just watched him do relatively nothing against a horrible Brewers pitching staff last week, when everyone else raked). I disagree with those who have said that he can’t produce near ’09 again, because his minor league numbers say otherwise. Given his relative inexperience at the MLB level it is unfair to call his high BABIPs fluky and his 2010 BABIP the norm, especially considering that he has hit well more often than not at the MLB level. 23 yr old pure hitters with his skill set don’t just forget how to hit.

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    • Chris says:

      “His minor league numbers say otherwise”

      Huh?

      His career minor league numbers are 303/342/455. This is nowhere near as productive as his 09 season.. He just dosen’t seem to be that guy.

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  10. Jay says:

    Most of what I’ve noticed is pitchers figuring out that they can throw the ball at Panda’s shoulders and get him to swing. Can’t do much productive with pitches that high.

    He does look like he might be even bigger than last year too, but I’m not sure if it’s affecting him or not…

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  11. cs3 says:

    how can you talk about Pablo’s struggles this season without at least mentioning his righty/lefty splits?

    granted he only has 100 PA’s from the right side so far in 2010, but the fact that his OPS vs left-handed pitching is 200 pts lower seems absurd, especially considering that last year his OPS from the right side was nearly 100 pts HIGHER than from the left…

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    • Chris says:

      Well as you said, its a small sample. But you’ve mentioned it, now what? What insight should be gained from that?

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    • Bin says:

      Also worth mentioning: he’s going through a contention divorce these past few months. The succubus is sucking the life out of his soul and bat.

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  12. cs3 says:

    honestly, i have no idea. i thohgt it should at least be mentioned tho.
    but i wouldnt be surprised to see him sit much more often vs LHP.
    the giants as an organization dont really like to make even obvious changes, but even they *did* finally wake up and bench Rowan.

    and who knows, perhaps in the (not very near) future if he doesnt improve from the right side, a permanent lefthanded-only approach is a la JT Snow is called for?

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  13. Bob says:

    I know this is sabrmetric website and all but can’t you just look at him and see that he needs to drop 40 lbs? Google Killebrew, Kruk, Stargell, or anyone else that you want to bring up as a “heavy” guy and then look at Sandoval. He needs to find a salad bar and a treadmill.

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  14. Luke says:

    You make a good point, Chris. My thinking is that great contact hitters have ups and downs and Pablo is no different. Ichiro has hit .370 some years, and .310 during others. Until the sample becomes large enough to become reliable (is it 1500 PA? Please jump in and correct me if I am wrong…) we simply don’t know what he is other than a good contact hitter with poor plate discipline and sick raw hitting skills. As an owner, I hope they transfer into numbers but who knows. I can easily see a .320/.370/.480 ish season on the horizon just as easily as a dip in the other direction. The fact that his peripherals are consistent with his previous two seasons (aside from HR/FB%) suggest that it’s not a mechanical issue and that he just needs to improve pitch selection, like a number of others said earlier. I think I’d swing at everything, too, if I hit like he did during the first two years of my career.

    I did not know about the divorce thing, either…. perhaps all these stats are moot and that’s the real issue?!

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