Aubrey Huff

Giants Zoology: Examining the Panda, Pablo Sandoval

Crikey! After Pablo Sandoval put together one of his best at-bats of the season against Brandon League in the All-Star Game, it’s time to put our Steve Irwin caps on. Calm down, we’re not going to see what happens if we substitute his bamboo for In ‘N Out Double-Doubles. Nor will we shoot him with the same tranquilizer someone capped Joe Buck with before the All-Star Game. Or even monitor Sandoval’s driving habits. We’re just interested in figuring out just how good this endangered species baseball player has been this season.

Sandoval’s season would certainly have him in the early race for NL MVP if he didn’t get injured — of course the fact that he came back relatively soon from a broken hamate bone in his hand and turned a couple weeks of singles hitting into a 21-game hit streak while gradually regaining his power was/is spectacular. But that streak has gotten barely any attention in the wake of Bruce Bochy’s All-Star roster selections, Brian Wilson’s performances on and off the field, and even the Nate Schierholtz renaissance. But, as often happens, a Twitter conversation with the bloggers that cover the Giants from so many angles that if Baggarly, Urban and Schulman led us we’d be considered an army, got me thinking…

The topic was a certain New York Mets right fielder (if you missed it, here’s what I wrote early this morning as the rumors started pouring in and Carlos Beltran to the Giants sounded less far-fetched by the hour), and there was a mild disagreement. If the Giants actually trade for Beltran, would Beltran become the best hitter on the Giants? Or would Beltran be the second-best, behind the Giants’ resident cuddly superhero?

That it’s even a question in a healthy Beltran contract year is quite a statement to how good Sandoval is. I’m not going to break this down too seriously, but hitting-wise it’s a close race between the two in 2011. Beltran’s got the better eye, they have the exact same slugging pct (.503) and Beltran’s been healthy all year (and he’s been an elite player for much longer). But there’s a couple points I want to make about the Panda before we close the cage (okay sorry, I promise, no more panda innuendo for the rest of this post).

Sandoval’s high average may actually be less a function of luck than a unique skill he possesses.

I know this sounds weird, but hear me out. One area where Sandoval beats out Beltran is batting average. Sandoval’s sitting at .303, Beltran’s hitting .285. Not to compare the two, but I don’t know if this is simply a function of a higher BABIP (Batting Average for Balls in Play). Yes, Sandoval’s is a lofty .329 compared to Beltran’s .311. But I’m starting to think of Sandoval’s routinely high BABIP of .325 for his career (and his average is .305 … hmmmm, pretty similar to his numbers so far this season) isn’t lucky at all.

Sandoval’s kind of like Matt Cain. There’s just something about the way he hits the ball that defies logic, just as there’s some way that Matt Cain, without textbook strikeout stuff or strikeout credentials, keeps teams from scoring more than three runs in pretty much ever start. With Pablo his lack of selection at the plate could be at his advantage when he makes contact, and he’s in the conversation with Robinson Cano if you’re asking who takes over Vlad’s emblem as the No. 1 see-ball-hit-ball guy. Defensive positioning is the bane of many hitters’ existences. But you can’t gameplan for a guy who doesn’t care where the pitches are, and hits line drives that travel in a ridiculously wide variety of angles.  That’s why Sandoval hits line drives that tail away from the closest defender as often as any player in baseball. Like that ridiculous opposite-field double in the All-Star Game.

Pablo Sandoval is the best fielding third baseman in baseball this season.

I don’t know how long we can expect this, but Sandoval’s RANGE has made him the easy Gold Glove choice if he stays healthy the rest of the season. You know why Miguel Tejada’s still allowed to play shortstop from time to time, when 29 other Major League teams would have put an end to this experiment long ago? Because Sandoval’s weight loss, strength gain, whatever, has led to the kind of defense at third base the Giants never expected to see last season. Because while he wasn’t hitting up to his capabilities late last year and in the playoffs, his poor defense — in terms of range as well as throwing accuracy — was too much of a liability. Not a problem anymore.

If Sandoval keeps hitting, his defensive improvement easily makes him the team MVP, and the savior among position players in a year where the Giants will be without Buster Posey for the majority, Freddy Sanchez’s return is questionable, and Aubrey Huff should change his first name to “Anchor.” Whether or not Sandoval’s a better hitter than Beltran is a legitimate question, but he’s shown in the 50 games he’s played this season that he’s at least as valuable.

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