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.

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Seth Walder
Seth Walder

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