Barry Bonds

MLB Monday: Dissecting the Panda

Sorry about the weird and/or insensitive headline, but my advisers tell me that any post that gets the attention of PETA receives hundreds of extra page views. For those animal-rights activists hoping for a description of a panda autopsy that can spark protests from San Francisco to Beijing, it’s time to move along.

We’re actually going to talk about a panda who finds reproduction much easier than the furry endangered species: Pablo “Fat Ichiro” Sandoval (and I’m not joking about the reproduction part — the 22-year-old 1B/3B/C is already a father to a 1-year-old daughter).

Sandoval has done what seemed impossible before the season started: he’s given the Giants a positional player who’s an actual candidate for the All-Star Game — and not just because Kruk and Kuip say so!

Granted, the chances of Sandoval and his 6 homers getting invited to St. Louis are slim, since six NL infielders already have 15 home runs (and all of them are much more famous than Sandoval, save for maybe Mark Reynolds) and the fact that the Giants will likely send three pitchers to the ASG (Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Life of Brian).

Still, there’s no denying that Sandoval has been not just midly successful at every level, but phenomenally so. Or that he’s become the Giants’ best offensive player since Barry Bonds and has given Brian Sabean his first local-grown offensive prospect worth bragging about.

There were more than a couple worries about Sandoval going into the season, lingering doubts nobody wanted to really entertain (not when there was Barry Zito to bitch about, anyway):

–Sandoval was getting a crash course on how to play third base — in the Major Leagues, not in Fresno.

–Pandaval’s penchant for swinging at every pitch last year was cute, but with such a limited resume it wasn’t known if he’d resemble Vladimir Guerrero or Shinjo after his scouting report circulated throughout the league.

–After last season the Giants needed POWER in the worst way (and still do, obviously), and the portly Sandoval definitely looked to have more Tony Gwynn in him than Babe Ruth.

After a solid April and May where Sandoval proved to have the hands to play third base (but perhaps not the elbow) and continued his high-contact/no-patience style of hitting from where he left off last year, Sandoval has absolutely exploded in June (.395/.438/.674). The last 13 games have been a tour de force for Sandoval, who has energized the Giants with everything from tape-measure homers to timely bunt hits down the third base line.

Not quite as important as the production — but still worth mentioning — has been Sandoval’s personality, which is even larger than the bamboo-munching bear that provides one of his nicknames (to be honest, I prefer “Fat Ichiro,” but understand the p.c. obstacles when it comes to getting a nickname like that to stick). Sandoval’s constantly talking, whether it’s conferring with Bengie Molina in the dugout or jawing with middle infielders after reaching second base, and he blows more bubblegum bubbles on the field than any Giant since Will Clark.

These things can’t be ignored, not for a franchise like the San Francisco Giants that have celebrated players who play with flair. Willie Mays wore his hat a couple sizes too big so it would fly off when he pursued balls in centerfield. Barry Bonds’ bat flips and extra-slow home run trots delighted fans for years, and yesterday’s home run from Sandoval into the left field bleachers was punctuated with a bat toss that had to have upset the Oakland A’s dugout while energizing the Giants at the same time.

In short, Sandoval’s a 22-year-old baseball star who’s already the most interesting non-pitcher in the Bay Area. He can play multiple positions, runs like Jerome Bettis in his prime, hits baseballs farther every week and has an infectious personality that has made him a favorite with fans and loosened up a clubhouse that had gotten undeniably stale over the length of the Bonds era.

Sandoval might not be an All-Star this year, but he certainly will be in the future. And now that he’s seventh in the NL in batting average, that batting title folks like Dave Flemming have predicted in the Panda’s future might come sooner than the Giants and/or their fans had any right to expect. For a baseball town where offensive studs have become as rare as real pandas are in the wild, Sandoval has become a star attraction.

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