June 19, 2009
Grabbing Pablo Sandoval
Today I want to go into detail discussing a player who has recently become one of my favorites to watch. Pablo Sandoval was a hot topic of conversation yesterday during my chat, and there were many questions about him still left in the queue that went unanswered; I also had a few e-mails sent my way afterwards, so it's clear that this is someone that people want to talk about (many among you are in keeper leagues). The questions were mostly centered on his future performance, and whether he would be able to improve on this season, or if he was going to fall apart due to his lack of plate discipline. We'll take a look at both of those things and see what we can conclude from his numbers.
Sandoval's bat exploded in the minors in 2008, as he hit .359/.412/.597 at High-A before earning a promotion to Double-A, where the hits just kept on coming (.337/.364/.549). He walked in 7.8 percent of 301 his plate appearances in the lower minors, which was more than double what he had managed the year before; following his promotion, however, he dropped back down to just 4.4 percent, and relied entirely on his bat for value. Still, he didn't strike out much to begin with, and actually did so less often once he hit Double-A (10.9 percent against 13.0). This trend continued as he was promoted to the majors and plopped into the Giants' lineup: Sandoval hit a surprising .345/.357/.490, with a walk in just 2.2 percent of his plate appearances, with punchouts in 9.1 percent.
Two major concerns were attached to Sandoval, however, since he wasn't going to catch, and was instead going to play at a corner for the Giants. While his batting average was impressive, he had not shown an inkling of patience-in addition to the low rate of free passes, he saw just 3.1 pitches per PA, which is Randall Simon territory. His power, though visible in the minors with Isolated Power figures of .238 and .211 in 2008, fit in more with that of a middle infielder while in the majors, as he finished at the .145 mark. PECOTA was not concerned for the 22-year-old switch-hitter, projecting a weighted mean of .289/.329/.455, and a 90th percentile projection of .323/.362/.531. Both of those lines show some of his plate discipline from the minors carrying over to improve his major league line (5.3 and 5.6 percent walk percentage, respectively), as well as boost his power output (ISO marks of .166 and .208).
Sandoval is just 60 games into the year, but his line is very similar to PECOTA's most optimistic forecast. He is currently hitting .330/.373/.536, with walks in 5.5 percent of his plate appearances and a .205 ISO. He's become more patient, which is the kind of thing that turns someone with Sandoval's contact skills into a dangerous hitter. While in 2008 he swung at more than half of the pitches he saw that went outside of the strike zone (53.8 percent), this season he has cut it down to 46.2 percent. While that's second in the league among qualifying players, behind only teammate Bengie Molina, it's still a significant improvement. The result is 3.5 pitches per plate appearance, which isn't great, but it's no longer at the very bottom of the league either; that honor once again goes to Molina.
Sandoval makes a lot of contact with those pitches out of the zone as well, which is why he has been so successful with this approach. He ranks 18th among qualifiers in the majors with contact on 77.7 percent of pitches swung at out of the zone. This puts his overall contact at 83 percent, 74th in the majors. He's striking out a little more this year, which is probably just a side effect of letting a few at-bats run longer. Pitchers have also begun challenging him later in at-bats now: he saw first pitch strikes in over 70 percent of his plate appearances last year, and is down to a more league-average 58.9 percent this season. This may be partially due to his hitting .345 with a .621 slugging percentage on first pitches last year. That success has carried over, as he's hitting .350 with a .600 slugging percentage on first pitches in 2009. Starting him out with a ball on the first pitch hasn't helped either, as he's hit .398/.459/.682 following a 1-0 count. The only times that it seems like Sandoval struggles at all is when he is behind in the count with two strikes, but good luck making him sit still long enough to get there.
A little plate patience goes a long way with Sandoval, and his aggressive approach looks to be at the center of his success. Will he turn into more of a power hitter, though? There's nothing wrong with a .200 ISO, especially not from a 22-year-old who plays his home games in a park that leans toward pitchers. The power Sandoval does have comes from his ability to pull the ball-as a righty, he has hit .571/.571/1.214 on pulled balls in play, and as a lefty, he's hit .441/.441/.941. He hits the balls to all fields though, as you can see in this chart courtesy of ESPN's Inside Edge:
He likes to go the other way and up the middle from the left side, and also often goes the other way to the outfield from the right side. He doesn't have a lot of opposite-field power, which is probably why he doesn't rack up a higher overall ISO, but he does hit for high averages in those spots (.368 from the left and .375 from the right). You basically have a hitter who sprays the ball to all fields, can go deep with regularity when he pulls it (six of his eight home runs have been pulled, with the other two going up the middle), but is just as capable when he goes with the ball and drives it the other way for a base hit. You could potentially get him to hit for more power if he sat on a few more outside pitches and waited for one he could pull, but there's also the chance that this will screw with his batting average and leave him as less valuable than he was already.
Given Sandoval's natural skills with contact and the few adjustments he has made for this year, I can see him continuing to put up some high-average years with just enough plate patience and more than enough power to go along with his numbers. Fantasy-wise, that makes him a great option, as he won't have an empty batting average and should be hitting somewhere in the middle of the Giants' lineup. You may not be able to use him as a catcher in your league next year, which is a shame given how his line looks, but worry not, as these are more than adequate numbers at third base.