As the playoffs and award season gets underway, we want to take a gander at some players who had outstanding seasons in 2009 but whose teams ended up just shy of making the postseason and who will (most likely) not pick up any fancy trophies. Quite a consolation prize: a round of golf and a write-up on a low circulation sports blog.
Next up, Pablo Sandoval, as written by Drew Fairservice.
That Pablo Sandoval was the best offensive player on the Giants was, in and of itself, not much of a feat. The Giants offense was terrible bordering on will-to-live-crushingly bad. The brilliance of their pitching staff was offset and canceled out by the putridity of their offense. But in the middle of their order, in the middle of Bruce Bochy's pathetic coddling of mediocre veteran players, sat the man they call Panda. The Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval.
The cliche barrel usually needs a refilling after an article on Pablo Sandoval. His jolly (read: fat) build makes for much discussion of his joy and/or free-spirited ways. "He's just having fun out there!" is as familiar a refrain as "Bengie Molina ate my ribs" or "Timmy stole my knit cap" when you get around the Giants. The Panda and the Skinny Skater Kid have completely re-invigorated the Giants fanbase, allowing local columnists to go crazy and make outrageous comparisons. That's never a bad idea! (From the SF Chronicle)
On the Excitement Meter, Sandoval bumps the needle higher than any Giant since the young Barry Bonds. To find a Giant with Sandoval's kid-like enthusiasm and joy for the game, say hey, you might have to go back to Willie.
There we go! Willie Mays! That's fair.
Pablo Sandoval's numbers are much better than fair. They're worth getting excited about. 25 home runs, .396 wOBA, a tidy .943 OPS all accrued in a decidedly pitcher-friendly park. Panda puts up excellent numbers while battling with the demons known as reckless free-swinging. Oh the demons haunt Pablo, the demons perch on his shoulder and whisper "Swing, swing at them all! You can reach it!" So Pablo swung. Near or far he offered at them all.
But he fought and battled his demons. He reduced his out of zone swings from 41.5% in April to 33.5% by September. He learned to work a count and learned to talk a walk, finishing the season with a nearly respectable 8.3% walk rate. More than 12% of his PAs finished in walks for the September, where he really put his new-found patience to good use during the Giants aborted run to the post season.
In addition to being good and fun, Pablo Sandoval also gets to be young and clutch. Too things that you can't control too well on your own but sure appreciate once you've lost them. Sandoval lead his team in win probability added as well as improving his output with the pressure was on. He hit the game-winning home run on the last day of the season and added numerous other walkoff and/or high leverage contributions.
One question nags though: with the Panda's pledge to lose weight over the winter and his increasingly patient ways, does he lose what makes him the Kung Fu Panda? Does he just become another good baseball player with a high batting average on balls in play? Was he lucky this year, with only his righteous fatness buoying his considerable fortunes? In a word, no. Fat or skinny, good or average, fun dudes to hang out with are always going to be fun. Charismatic or energetic dudes will always attract attention and attract fans.
That is what the Panda is, and what he means. He doesn't have to be fat (though it does help the large cuddly bear allusions) and he doesn't have disdain walking. Just having a high-level player who isn't a polished corporate robot is more than enough for most fans, the excellent offense is just icing on the calorie-reduced cake.
AP image courtesy of McCovey Chronicles, who are good people.