Within a three year period, San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval transformed from a batter struggling to get the ball out of the infield in the Low-A South Atlantic League to an offensive force in the majors.
It’s hard to remember now, but a 19 year-old Sandoval hit a tepid.265/.309/.322 with Augusta back in 2006. He swatted just one homer in 438 AB, while walking about once a week (4.7 BB%). Prior to the 2007 season, Baseball America didn’t include Pablo in San Francisco’s top 30 prospects list.
Since then, Sandoval has pummeled pitchers.
The switch-hitter turned in a .287/.312/.476 triple-slash in the High-A California League in 2007. There were still plenty of skeptics, however. Sandoval split his season between catcher and first base, but his bulky 5-11, 245 pound frame kept most scouts from envisioning him as anything more than a first baseman.
He made plenty of contact (13 K%) and posted a .190 ISO, but that power output came in a circuit that favors offense. And, Sandoval continued to display an alarming lack of plate discipline (3.8 BB%). BA still didn’t include Pablo in San Fran’s top 30 prior to 2008.
In ’08, Sandoval assaulted the Cal League and the AA Eastern League for a combined .350/.394/.578 line. He showcased unprecedented pop (.228 ISO), while punching out just 12.2% of the time. Pablo’s BABIP was an enormous .375, and he drew a free pass just 6.4%. But that sort of batting blitzkrieg from a guy just old enough to buy a drink tends to garner attention.
Sandoval reached San Francisco in August, and proceeded to hit .345/.357/.490 in 145 PA. He posted a .145 ISO, while whiffing just 9.7% of the time. Pablo made contact with 92.9% of pitches within the strike zone, compared to the 87.8% MLB average.
To say that Sandoval was a liberal swinger would be a massive understatement. Pablo took a cut at a jaw-dropping 53.8% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (25% MLB average). He was in a whole new tier of hackery. Sandoval’s O-Swing% dwarfed the competition. Among batters with 140+ PA in ’08, the closest competitor was Vladimir Guerrero, at 45.5%. When you make Vlad the Impaler look downright conservative by comparison, that’s saying something.
Sandoval entered 2009 as an intriguing fantasy option, given his position eligibility at catcher, first base and third base.
Pablo was in some respects a polarizing player, however. Those sanguine about his future saw a guy in his early twenties with superb hitting skills and plenty of thump. Others painted a more pessimistic picture, seeing a player headed for the low end of the defensive spectrum with limited strike-zone plate discipline. Maybe he was just a switch-hitting Randall Simon.
In 2009, Sandoval silenced his critics. In 633 PA, Kung Fu Panda creamed pitchers for a .396 wOBA and a .330/.387/.556 line. Spending most of his time at third base, Pablo compiled +34.9 Park Adjusted Batting Runs, ranking 20th among all batters.
Sandoval slugged 25 homers, with a robust .226 ISO. He obliterated fastballs (+1.60 runs per 100 pitches), curveballs (+3.14) and changeups (+3.78), while being a mere mortal against sliders (-0.53).
While Pablo was far from being some beacon of discipline at the dish, he did show modest improvement in working the count.
As you might expect, opposing pitchers saw no reason to give Sandoval many pitches in the zone. Just 40.5% of Sandoval’s pitches seen crossed over the plate, the lowest rate in the majors by far (Kendry Morales had the second-lowest Zone%, at 43.7). While Pablo still lunged at outside offerings often, he did lower his O-Swing% to 41.5.
To be sure, San Francisco’s paucity of other offensive threats had something to do with Sandoval’s walk rate going from 2.7% in 2008 to 8.3% in 2009. Pablo was issued 13 intentional free passes this past year. His unintentional walk rate did climb from 1.9% in ’08 to 6.2% in ’09, though. Again, baby steps.
Sandoval has a career .356 BABIP at the big league level. Using the Expected BABIP tool from The Hardball Times, we get an XBABIP of .316.
While we’re only dealing with 700-some AB’s here, that would make Sandoval more of a .290-.300 hitter going forward, as opposed to the .330-type guy on display so far. Given the additional power Pablo displayed in ’09, as well as his modest strides in controlling the zone, I think he’s a good bet to eclipse .300.
Sean Smith’s CHONE projections for the 2010 season are out. CHONE has Pablo batting .312/.356/.502 next year, which equates to a wOBA of about .373.
While it’s wise to expect some regression from Sandoval in 2010, he’ll still be a highly valuable fantasy option. He won’t be eligible at catcher anymore (just three starts in ’09), but Sandoval will still qualify at both infield corners. Just 23 years old, Kung Fu Panda is here to stay as an offensive threat.
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