Panda month-by-month:  What the fudge?

I had the pleasure of taking in one of the Giants vs. Braves games in Atlanta last week sitting next to THT’s own Studes. When Pablo Sandoval came to bat, Studes asked me the obvious question, to which I, as a close observer of the Giants, should have some manner of reasonable answer, namely: just what the heck is going on with The Panda?

After all, he hit 330/387/556 last year as a 22-year-old, and while one might expect that particular torrid pace a bit difficult to sustain, a thudding drop all the way to 268/325/382, which is where Sandoval is through yesterday’s games, was hardly what anyone expected.

The answer I gave Studes, the stock answer I give to everyone who asks (and I get asked this question with increasing and depressing regularity), is that The Panda doesn’t appear to have the tremendous bat speed he wielded last year. He’s been especially vulnerable to the high fastball, fouling off pitches he used to be driving with power. And one look at this ballplayer will suggest the likely reason for the loss bat speed: his weight, which is egregious. It would seem awfully hard to get around on the high heat when you’ve got that kind of belly in your way.

But here’s the thing: the weight explanation would be a lot more persuasive if Sandoval were noticeably heavier this year than he was last year. But he isn’t.

Moreover, one would think that whatever it is about Sandoval that’s different this year than last would have manifested itself at the very beginning of this year—or perhaps even toward the end of last year. But it didn’t.

Let me show you some numbers to explain what I mean.

Here’s Pablo Sandoval’s batting performance month-by-month, ever since he arrived in the majors in mid-August of 2008, though July of this year:

Month          PA    H   2B   3B   HR   BB   SO    BA   OBP   SLG   OPS BAbip   ISO
Aug 08         58   22    4    1    1    1    6  .393  .397  .554  .950  .420  .161
Sep/Oct 08     96   28    6    0    2    3    8  .315  .333  .449  .783  .317  .134
Mar/Apr 09     80   23    5    1    1    3   12  .307  .350  .440  .790  .355  .133
May 09        100   29    9    1    2    5   12  .309  .350  .489  .839  .338  .180
Jun 09        109   37    9    0    8   13   16  .394  .459  .745 1.203  .403  .351
Jul 09        110   31    7    1    5    5   17  .298  .327  .529  .856  .313  .231
Aug 09        105   33    7    0    5   10   12  .355  .419  .591 1.010  .364  .236
Sep/Oct 09    129   36    7    2    4   16   14  .321  .403  .527  .930  .337  .206
Mar/Apr 10     97   32    7    1    3   10    8  .368  .433  .575 1.008  .382  .207
May 10        120   26    7    1    1    6   19  .234  .275  .342  .617  .269  .108
Jun 10        105   22    4    0    2   10   11  .234  .305  .340  .645  .244  .106
Jul 10        106   22    6    0    0   10   19  .232  .302  .295  .597  .286  .063

Here’s what strikes me about this: The Panda’s performance in the first month of 2010 was tremendous, right in line with his hottest hitting of 2009. It wasn’t until May of this year when the bottom just suddenly dropped out, and he weirdly has sustained his lousy May 2010 performance with dreary consistency through June and July—a level of performance vastly lower than any he’d presented in any month of his prior career.

We see that when Sandoval arrived in the big leagues, he was immediately a very high-average hitter, but with limited power and virtually no strike zone discipline. But over 2009, he sustained the lofty batting average, while adding substantial power, and an increasingly healthy walk rate as well.

Through March/April of 2010, he was keeping up that across-the-board excellence. Only in May did he suddenly encounter a disastrous evaporation in both batting average and Isolated Power. The drop in BAbip has been particularly stunning. He’s still drawing a few walks, but not nearly enough to make up for the complete loss in production when he swings the bat.

So, I don’t know. His weight might very well be a significant problem, but the fact is that Sandoval didn’t suddenly gain a ton of weight on May 1, 2010. But whatever his problem is, it seems to have arrived with extraordinary suddenness in May, and it doesn’t seem to be in any mood to go away.

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  1. Braves Fan said...

    Could it have anything to do with his divorce? Yogi Berra once said “90% of the game is half mental.”

  2. Steve Treder said...

    It certainly could.  Outwardly, Sandoval has continued to present his jovial, upbeat personality, but who knows what he might be going through privately.  He’s still a very young man, and managing life’s stresses is often an extremely difficult challenge, even for star athletes.

    Of course the whole thing might simply be a wicked case of randomness, but the longer it goes on, the less plausible that explanation becomes.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    So here’s an incomplete list of plausible explanations.

    -Weight finally caught up to him (perhaps in the form of fatigue leading to slower reactions and/or slower swings)
    -off-field distraction
    -pressing at the plate/shaken confidence (the low BABIP and ISO tell the tale of a power hitter who’s swinging at bad pitches and not doing anything with them)
    -lingering minor injury (any number of seemingly minor ailments could really handicap the swing of a player his size)
    -What else?

  4. Matt Lentzner said...

    The plate discipline stats don’t seem to support your hypothesis. He is making contact about the same rate as last year:

    2009: 82.6%
    2010: 83.3%

    Slight improvement, but probably not significant.

    What has changed is his O-Swing and Z-Swing numbers.

    2009: O-Swing: 41.7% Z-Swing: 83.0%
    2010: O-Swing: 44.1% Z-Swing: 76.6%

    So he’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone and taking more in the zone. This would suggest a decrease in his ability to identify pitches, or put another way, he’s getting fooled more often. It’s possible that he’s cut down on his swing to compensate since his contact rate has stayed the same.

    Why did this happen? Maybe his vision has deteriorated. Maybe he’s being pitched to differently and hasn’t been able to adjust. And just maybe he’s distracted by personal issues. Although I’d rule out they first two before I’d recommend a psychologist.

  5. Steve Treder said...

    “The plate discipline stats don’t seem to support your hypothesis.”

    I wasn’t aware that I had a hypothesis.

    Anyway, here’s the important thing:  since I wrote this little thing yesterday afternoon, Sandoval is now 4-for-6 with a double, a triple, and a home run.

    Why the hell didn’t I write it back in May?!?

  6. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    I think divorce and the consequences is the best explanation specifically for Sandoval, though off-field distraction is also part of this because the rumor is that the divorce was precipitated by a young man yielding to the temptations readily available to young rising baseball stars.

    Last three games:
    3 for 5
    2 for 5 with double
    2 for 3 so far with triple and HR

    And it has been reported (tweeted really by Hank Schulman) that both the double and triple (415 feet) would have been homers in most parks:

    He appears to be recovered and ready to make pitchers look silly again.

    Why I have not gone for first explanation:  Pablo is very athletic despite how he looks like.  I understand why people just look at him and assume the worse. 

    However, I was convinced that his body belies his abilities when he first came up:  he scored twice on close plays at home, and basically he maneuvered perfectly to touch homeplate without being tagged out, the defense was perfect but Pablo slid the right way to avoid the tag twice, in a week.  Once I could accept as fluke but twice in a week, perfect slides that is textbook examples of how to slide, I knew that he is like a modern day Babe Ruth in that the big body hides an athlete underneath.

    The third one – pressing – was plausible, but doesn’t really explain how he went from killing pitching to suddenly couldn’t hit anything (April to May).  A hitter don’t suddenly start pressing like that, it would be gradual and, in particular, would not have started after a month where his OPS was over 1.000.  Don’t make sense at all. 

    The injury was a possibility, that would explain the ups and downs, with re-occurance of the injury, and even why he recovered after the ASB.  That wouldn’t really explain why the Giants just kept him out there all that time and not DL him, particularly in the June-July stretch, unless he was lying to him the whole time.  And I would think the Giants would be on the look out for any sign of injury, testing for things.

    I guess you can add that somehow the league finally found something that somehow spread across the league almost instantaneously, like when Babe Ruth was found to be tipping off pitches, I think with his tongue.  And that the ups and downs since has been adjustment back and forth.  Still, other than Joe Charboneau, I can’t really think of anyone who went from stud to dud so suddenly, and that was over an off-season, while Sandoval’s happened literally overnight, in the change from April to May.

  7. Brad Johnson said...

    Again, this is all supposition, anything that’s remotely plausible.

    I wouldn’t dismiss the injury explanation just because he wasn’t DL’d. Plenty of players play through injuries of various severity without there being a word to the public. Chase Utley is my go to example here, he played through a large chunk of a season with a bad hip labrum that only he and the club really knew about. The only reason there was any suspicion that he was hurt was because he had that un-Utley like 0-27 streak at one point.

    That’s an extreme example of course…

    As for the pressing, I think it fits more neatly than you give credit. Players don’t start pressing when they’re going well, but what if a player has a random slump where his BABIP drops .100 points from his career norms and he doesn’t hit 3 homeruns he normally would have. Suddenly you have 234/.275/.342 in May with a .108 ISO and the player is wondering, what do I have to change to fix this. Maybe the answer was nothing, maybe it was bad luck and he made changes that temporarily made him a worse player.

    Or it could have been none of that.

    And when a player slumps for 3 months, 3 good games are not enough to declare him out of the woods.

  8. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    It’s all Studes fault, Steve, he waited too long to ask!  :^)

    Eh, just fate, no one could really say when he would snap out of it, he just happen to do it almost virtually after this was posted.  Notch it up to about as bad timing as one could ever hope to get.

    BTW, Steve, always have enjoyed your articles on the Giants, current and historical, thanks and keep up the great work!

    Lastly, per Matt’s comment, that jogged my memory on another possible reason, that being Sandoval being diagnosed with astigmatism during the off-season.  Turns out that last season, he really couldn’t see any of the pitches thrown to him.  Astonishing, no?

    The fear was that his adjustment to the glasses would affect his hitting, but the upside was that he should hit even better if he can now see the ball.  April suggested the latter, then the bottom fell out, so some wondered if maybe the contacts were bothering him.  But I felt that at worse, if there is no way to fix him up, just stop using contacts and/or glasses and have him return to how he was last season, at least until the news of the divorce came out.

    But just think how good he would be if he can combine his abilities to hit balls out of the zone well with being able to see the pitches clearly!

  9. Steve Treder said...

    “when a player slumps for 3 months, 3 good games are not enough to declare him out of the woods”

    Entirely true.

  10. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    I understand the reticence over 3 games, but 1) he’s been hitting much better for about a week now, not just 3 games, 2) he hasn’t hit like this since April, and 3) the divorce explains all the various ups and downs pretty accurately. 

    But yeah, can’t declare him out of the woods yet (I did note one step at a time), but if he’s doing something he hasn’t done since April, it’s perfectly valid to speculate that perhaps he has turned things around.

  11. Steve Treder said...

    Meanwhile, the bullpen has just coughed up a 4-run lead in the 7th and 8th innings.  The Cubs have now tatooed the Giants’ staff for 50 hits in just shy of four games.

  12. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Brad, I would agree with you regarding Utley and the DL (we Giants fan encountered something similar with Foppert until he went under TJS), but looking at his career record, I don’t see a season where his OPS was under .900 and if you are talking this season, he was still at .849 OPS. 

    If Sandoval was hitting over .900 or even .849 OPS, there would not have been a post like this now or over the past few months.

  13. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Almost anybody closely following the Giants know that Pablo is going through a divorce, which was finalized when he flew down to Venezuela for “personal” reasons the weekend after the ASG. 

    He’s clearly been on an emotional rollercoaster.  If you break it up even finer than a month, you can sort of see him ebbing up and down, lower and lower, then perking up:

    May 01-May 13:  .104/.120/.167/.287
    May 14-May 31:  .333/.386/.476/.862
    Jun 01-Jun 16:  .246/.333/.404/.737
    Jun 17-Jul 11:  .200/.253/.213/.465
    Jul 15-Jul 24:  .270/.357/.405/.763
    Venezuela for personal business
    Jul 28-Aug 10:  .300/.327/.360/.687, and he was one game away from a 13 game hitting streak. 

    And breaking up that last stretch further:

    Jul 28-Aug 04:  .259/.286/.333/.619
    Aug 05-Aug 10:  .348/.375/.391/.766

    Of course, very small sampling, but I think it shows that there are stretches where he is relatively OK as a MLB hitter and other times when he was pretty crappy.  Amazing the Giants won with him hitting like that and even better for their playoff chances if he can get over his emotional problems and focus on the ball like he did before.

    This past week is the best he has hit in any week plus stretch since the end of May, so hopefully he is finally getting over his problems, but with emotions you really don’t know when something triggers a downward spiral.  Just like with baseball in general, we will have to wait and see.

    But one step at a time, and he appears to have taken a step this week.

    And I basically agree with Steve’s assessment above.  That is the reason I have held onto hope that he will snap out of it at some point.  No way a hitter can totally handle pitching until April 30 of this season and then be totally crap without some personal reason, whether injury or, in his case, the divorce. 

    I first speculated that he caught Jonathan Sanchez’s cold that affected one of his starts then, as a flu would explain why his batting line fell to almost nothing for two weeks, but if he was that sick, why wouldn’t the Giants just sit him?  The divorce explained that.

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