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Big League Stew

We’re Going Streaking! Pablo Sandoval’s giant September

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants

The Naked Truth: .313/.357/.556, 23 HR, 68 RBIs, 2 SB, 3 CS, 32 BB/61 K

Having a nice little Saturday: Pablo Sandoval is in so much pain that he can't bat right-handed, and his shoulder may need surgery this offseason to fix the problem. But he's the reigning NL Player of the Week, and he's batting an absurd .383/.426/.867 with seven homers and 17 RBI in 18 games in September, as the Giants have gone 12-7 and briefly moved from also-rans into wild card contenders. Right now, the only thing that can get Sandoval out is his own body.

You're my boy, Blue!: Sandoval was brilliant as a 22-year old in 2009, batting .330 with a .943 OPS and 25 homers. Then, last year, basically everything went wrong. His OPS fell by more than 200 points, his home runs dropped by nearly half, he led the league in grounding into double plays, and he batted .176 in the playoffs as Buster Posey carried the team on his shoulders. Last year was Murphy's law. This year is happy days, here again.{YSP:MORE}

The thing is, his components haven't actually changed that much. His strikeout and line drive rates are virtually unchanged from 2009 and 2010 and his walk rate has actually fallen. His home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) and Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) fell a lot last year, and bounced back this year; in 2011, his HR/FB is higher than 2009 but his BABIP is lower than 2009.

Sandoval has only played 457 games in the big leagues, so it's hard to draw too many conclusions about his "true" talent, but here's a guess: He got really unlucky last year, so his results in 2009 and 2011 are a lot closer to the hitter he truly is than last year's results.

Because of his relatively low strikeout and walk rates, he'll always be a high-contact hitter who relies on a high BABIP, and as a result he'll be more subject to slumps than would a hitter who walks a lot. I would feel better about his results going forward if his walk rate were higher. But in those 457 games, including his awful 2010, he has batted a combined .307/.356/.501. It's really hard to complain about that.

Think KFC will still be open?: For the Giants' sake, let's hope that Sandoval stays away from KFC. When Sandoval announced his intentions to take a month off and rest this offseason, manager Bruce Bochy got a little nervous:

This month he's planning on taking has to be done the right way... We'll keep an eye on him. He knows how important it is to keep the weight off. He's a different player, offensively and defensively.

Kung Fu Panda simply isn't as good a hitter when he's out of shape, as he and the Giants both realize by now. But if Sandoval can stay in shape, he'll continue to rake.

Which other players are currently streaking?

James Loney, Los Angeles Dodgers .288/.341/.412, 11 HR, 63 RBIs, 3 SB, 0 CS, 42 BB/65 K
The problem with James Loney has always been his lack of power. Since 2008, he has the second-worst slugging percentage among all major league first basemen, ahead of only Casey Kotchman. He's a decent contact hitter who doesn't strike out a lot and has a walk rate that's usually around or just below league average. But his severe lack of pop has always limited his value. Well, until now. Maybe it's just the pretzels, but since Aug. 1, he's hitting .367/.432/.620 with seven homers and 30 RBI in 46 games. That's a pretty impressive mark for two months of play, considering that he only had four homers from April until June, and considering that he hasn't hit more than 13 home runs since 2007. He has certainly been benefiting from a heightened BABIP (.393) during his recent hot streak, and manager Don Mattingly had a theory for his success: "Loney must have been abducted by aliens." Mattingly tried something more concrete earlier in the season, reports the LA Times:

Early this season he [Loney] struggled to hit, period. Mattingly placed a "Loney fly-ball jar" on his desk, and the left-handed Loney had to put one dollar into it every time he flied out to left field instead of hitting line drives to the opposite field.

On the other hand, as the True Blue LA blog points out, Loney has had other hot streaks before, but has never yet put together an entire season of even average production. Instead he has tantalized and disappointed. The high BABIP and long track record make it hard to believe that this performance is anything but aberrant, though it has been fun to watch. However, if he could keep the high walk rate that he has maintained during his streak, it would be easier to believe he had more magic in his bat.

* * *

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers .333/.442/.560, 26 HR, 98 RBIs, 2 SB, 1 CS, 107 BB/87 K
When Albert Pujols came up, he wasn't just a once-in-a-generation player: over the course of his decadelong career he has established himself as perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter ever. But like Tim Raines to Albert's Rickey Henderson, Miguel Cabrera has been almost as good. And this August and September, he turned up the heat as the Tigers pulled away from the pack in the AL Central, increasing their lead from three games on August 1 to 12.5 after Thursday's games. Over that period, all Miguel has done is hit .382/.478/.576. Remarkably, he's experienced a homer outage, with just four homers and 30 RBI in 47 games, but he has 21 doubles and 32 walks (eight intentional) against just 23 strikeouts. In fact, this is the first season of his career in which he has more walks than strikeouts. His 107 walks are second in the American League, and his 16.2 percent walk rate is five percent higher than his career rate of 11.2 percent. Cabrera is still only 28 years old and was last year's MVP runnerup, so the realization that he is still improving as a hitter is truly a frightening thought.

* * *

Javier Vazquez, Florida Marlins 12-11, 3.77 ERA, 183 2/3 IP, 3.62 FIP, 1.21 WHIP, 3.06 K/BB
It looks increasingly likely that Javier Vazquez will retire at the end of this season. But if he does, he will be going out on top. As I wrote at Fangraphs, "He's been simply brilliant over his last 18 starts, with a 1.91 ERA and a sparkling 106/19 strikeout to walk ratio in 117 2/3 innings." His fastball, which had fallen into the high 80s earlier in the year, has picked up several miles per hour in recent months, and he has pitched 25 consecutive scoreless innings with one more likely start before the end of the season. Through his career, Vazquez has been durable but inconsistent, one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball — last month, he recorded his 2,500th strikeout, one of just 30 pitchers in baseball history to do so — but his results are often up and down. This year has been no exception: before his hot streak this year, he had a 7.09 ERA in 13 starts, and a 5.94 ERA in his previous 45 starts going back to his terrible 2010 campaign in New York. That all happened after his brilliant 2009 with the Atlanta Braves, in which he finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting. So he has always been up and down. This year, he's up, and the reason is relatively simple: a crisper fastball and many fewer homers than last year. If he does retire after this season, he couldn't pick a better way to exit.

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