In 2011, will Pablo Sandoval be worth his weight in gold?
"I want to control my body. Not like last year." -- Pablo Sandoval
"My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours, until you let go of the illusion of control." -- Master Oogway
Pablo Sandoval has never been what you'd call slim. Certainly, when your teammates' nicknames for you are "Kung-Fu Panda" and "The Round Mound of Pound," you probably don't need to be worried that the strong winds in San Francisco are going to blow you off the field of play.
But when it comes to explaining how Sandoval can go from finishing seventh in National League MVP voting in 2009 to being benched for nearly all of the World Series in 2010, most people are quick to point to his weight as being the thing that, dare we say, tipped the scales toward a decline.
Over the course of the 2009 season, Sandoval reportedly weighed at least 270 pounds, meaning he had gained about 25 pounds from his listed 245 when the season began. Clearly, it did not affect his performance at the plate during the year, but when he reported to camp in 2010 -- still overweight and out of shape despite having been specifically asked to take better care of himself -- the team was upset.
The San Francisco Giants did their best to get Sandoval back down to 250 pounds by Opening Day of 2010, and to say that he met that goal and kept his weight there for the entire season would probably be a bit of a stretch.
When it comes to the drop-off in offensive production, the facts are irrefutable. Despite an almost identical amount of opportunity in 2010, his numbers plummeted across the board:
But does that mean the weight was necessarily to blame? After all, it's not like Sandoval wasn't knocking the cover off the ball in 2009, as his batting average kept pace with his increasing girth. Plus, a look at the distribution of balls the third baseman put into play seems to suggest he wasn't doing anything different in terms of the way he swung his bat:
Sandoval put the ball in play in nearly the identical fashion in both seasons. Yes, he did swing at a few more bad pitches in 2010, and put a few more of those pitches into play, but not nearly enough to account for a 62-point drop in batting average and a loss of 12 home runs.
However, that's not to say Sandoval hadn't lost a step or two thanks to the added pounds. Last season, he led the NL by grounding into 26 double plays, well more than twice his 2009 total. Additionally, legging out hits was simply more difficult for Sandoval in 2010, as he had only eight infield singles, half as many as in the previous year. Turn those extra eight outs into hits and you're looking at a .282 batting average, and perhaps the frustration level would not be nearly as high.
What makes sense to me is that it was more likely a mental breakdown that caused Sandoval's decline rather than anything physical. He did have plenty of extra baggage to deal with in 2010, in the form of a divorce and being unable to see his daughter for the first half of the season.
He left the team in July and traveled to Venezuela. At the time, he had six home runs and a .263 batting average in 372 at-bats. Upon his return, things seemed to get immediately better, and from July 28 through the end of August, he hit .306 with six home runs in 124 at-bats -- and if anything, he was gaining weight in the interim, not losing it.
One last thing to consider as the culprit here for Sandoval is not his weight, but rather his "wait" -- as in, how selective he is in the pitches at which he offers. Here are his numbers over the past two seasons when ahead in the count, as opposed to being behind:
Certainly, most hitters will have more success with a favorable count, but consider that in 2009, Pablo Sandoval saw 280 more pitches when behind in the count than when he was ahead, and the vast majority against right-handed pitching. In 2010, Sandoval didn't handle left-handed pitching nearly as well as he had the year before, and overall, he saw 315 more "behind" pitches than ahead. (Compare that number to the 244 difference for Carlos Gonzalez, 145 for Miguel Cabrera, 120 for Joe Mauer and 55 for Albert Pujols.)
Sandoval's discipline problems at home plate clearly worsened in 2010. His discipline problems at the dinner plate didn't enter into the equation.
This spring, the word out of Giants camp regarding Sandoval is incredibly positive, with the news of around 40 fewer pounds in the Round Mound. He's been making the plays in the field that he didn't make late last season, which led to his benching.
"I've increased my speed," Sandoval said on the team's official website. "My bat speed feels stronger. My arm feels better." Meanwhile, batting coach Hensley Meulens echoes my theory on what the Panda needs to fix at the plate, saying that "at times he's still swinging at balls out of the zone" and that he needs to work on his patience at the plate.
However, what concerns me amid all this optimism is an article from The New York Times that quotes Sandoval in regard to his weight issues: "I feel great. I feel everything has gone well and I feel the speed is there and the movement." That same article reports that Meulens has been working with Sandoval about being more selective at the plate.
Why does that concern me? It's because that article ran on March 13, 2010. Look where all that optimism got us last season.
Regardless of the number on the scale, until Sandoval can lose his wild-swinging habits, he's going to continue to be the batting-average anchor that dragged your fantasy team down toward the ocean floor last season.
So should you draft Sandoval? I recommend that you wait.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.