13 February 2011

Countdown to Scottsdale #2: Pablo Sandoval, 3B

I sing the song of Pablo Sandoval, the Kung Fu Panda, the loveable rolly polly ball of athletic goo, who flew high as a kite in 2009 and came crashing back to earth in 2010, but never lost his smile along the way. The Giants haven't sent a homegrown position player to the All-Star Game since Matt Williams in 2006 — prior to 2010, the last time the National League won the Midsummer Night's Classic Type Thing. But we came awful close in the Summer of '09, and with good reason. The day baseball exhaled for the All-Star Break, Panda was hitting .333 with an OPS of .964. He had 102 hits, 24 doubles, 15 homers, and 55 RBI. He was in the top 10 of every offensive statistical category that didn't involve speed. But as a virtually unknown sophomore hot corner man playing on the edge of the world at McCovey Cove, he didn't win enough Brownie points with coaches or voters to merit an invite, despite our best efforts.

That didn't deter the Panda from lighting up the National League in the second half, nearly lifting the Giants to a Wild Card berth through the will of his generous spirit. He was just as good by the numbers after the break, hitting .327 with a slightly slimmer .919 OPS, 20 doubles, 10 dingers, and 35 RBI. But you could see his waistline beginning to expand, and in a bitter dose of irony, his regression began during his All-Star vacation, when he returned to Venezuela and pigged out on mama's home cooking. Any serious eater knows what it's like when you swell your gut with goodness and don't keep feeding the beast. You get the feeling that your stomach is eating itself. You're hungry all the time, even after an average-sized meal. You start to snack. A lot. You cut back on time spent keeping track of your body, and eventually, your body betrays you.

Panda's body betrayed him in the Spring of 2010, when he very easily could have lost his job to Mark DeRosa, had the latter not taken an early trip to the D.L. He came out of the gates hot, and all the banter was about his eyesight, which allegedly was much-improved by offseason corrective surgery. Oh, those were the times, when we talked about the dude's eyes. But once he started flailing at anything anywhere near the plate, once he couldn't catch up to the high fastball, once those five-hole shots started getting by his glove which had been so money, we all knew something was up, and like a trending topic on Twitter, Pablo's gut became Public Enemy Number One. And there was no letting up on the topic the remainder of the season.

It got so bad at one point, KNBR callers were demanding Bochy and Sabean send the kid back to Fresno to "wake him up." Meanwhile, fans on the opposite end of the fringe were spending the summer thinking every two-hit game, every home run, every run-scoring double was the end of the slump, the beginning of the Return of the Panda. But the sequel never came out. Hell, the damn thing never even made it to the editing room. Pablo had a very decent August (.312, .907, 6 HR, 16 RBI) but fell completely off the map in September (.207, .576, 1 HR, 4 RBI) to the point that he was benched more often than not down the stretch. He ceded playing time to Mike Fontenot and later Juan Uribe in the postseason, but when he wasn't in the game, he was never far from the top step. If you watch each of the four on-field celebrations, he's right there in the first wave to hit Brian Wilson each and every time.

There's no telling what had a greater impact on Sandoval's under-performance in 2010 (whether his eyes where bigger than his stomach). And while we can't go inside his head to see through his peepers, the things we can see portend of very good things indeed. Let's hope he keeps it off. Nothing less than the Giants' chances of another postseason run hang in the balance of one man's scale.

Thanks, Panda.

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