Trimmer Sandoval set for bounce-back year

Pablo Sandoval is having a nice start to the spring. He’s punched extra-base hits all over Arizona and smashed two home runs in 13 at-bats. We all know that that’s not important, but it’s damned hard to ignore, even for those of us who know better. Coupled with his offseason weight loss, I can dimly start to see a few people begin to make the connection between the two things.

At some point last season, Sandoval crossed that miserable and subjective line from “big-boned” and “husky” to “chunky” and “fatty fat fat fat.” While his waistline increased, his batting average decreased. And for a certain number of people, that’s the whole story. Got too fat, couldn’t hit anymore.

If you buy this simple story, it should be pretty easy to believe that Sandoval is heading back to repeat his excellent 2009 season. Reports vary on the extent of his weight loss, but it is certainly more than 20 pounds, so he’s approximately gone from Giant Panda to Red Panda. If you believe the fatness was responsible for the lack of hitting, then getting less fat should bring the hitting back, right?

Yeah, except who actually knows what caused Sandoval’s drop-off? His numbers were actually all pretty similar except for big drops in power and BABIP. It isn’t too hard to find examples of great hitters with boilers, and Sandoval certainly wasn't skinny in 2009 when there was nothing he couldn't hit. Plus, I just can’t quite wrap my head around the cause. How does extra weight stop you from driving and squaring up the ball?

The San Jose Mercury News’ Giants beat writer, Andrew Baggerly, has a theory that’s as good as any other, that the extra weight impacted Sandoval’s defense, which, in turn, made him press at the plate. I don’t know if this theory is correct, but it sounds pretty plausible to me. Or, it could have been a mental issue unrelated to his weight gain.

And that’s the problem. We can't really know what caused the terrible season, and it could come and go as it pleases, especially if the problem was mainly mental. If Sandoval were a 10-year veteran, we would be pretty well-assured that he has the mental fortitude to pull himself back up after a down season. But he’s a 24-year-old kid who rode a rocket to the big leagues and found success probably before he knew how to deal with it.

The projection systems all foresee a bounce-back year. Undoubtedly, if you had 100 seasons worth of young hitters with two seasons like Sandoval’s 2009 and 2010, the weighted average would be similar to the ZiPS projection of .295/.346/.475. But we have no idea if, say, the hitters who got really sad and lost confidence hit worse than that. In other words, projections are just that. But you knew that; it’s just that in this case, we have a player who may have more things that can trip him up than normal.

The weight loss is great. Apart from being good for his health, at the very least, it really should help Sandoval stick at third, important to both his fantasy and actual baseball value. But it’s just too easy to say better fitness translates into better hitting.

Otis Anderson writes for Bay City Ball, which is part of the SweetSpot blog network.