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Alex Remington

Can Pablo Sandoval improve on his Kung Fu numbers from 2010?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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We all have questions about the 2010 season and luckily Alex Remington has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address a few per week as Opening Day approaches.

The Situation: Pablo Sandoval(notes), the Kung Fu Panda, has baseball's best nickname, and he had one of its most potent bats in 2009.

Sandoval shocked just about everyone last year. Packing more than 250 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame — he was up to 270 by the end of last year — the 22-year-old doesn't fit most people's notions of what an athlete should look like, but there's no denying the success last year.

There's plenty of room to wonder whether he can possibly do it again, however. After all, his career minor league OPS was under .800, and until his 2008 breakout in High-A and Double-A, he wasn't viewed as a top Giants prospect. Even the Giants don't know what to do with him: the team has decided not to negotiate a long-term deal for the moment, just giving him a one-year contract for 2010 while he's still under team control. The Giants' front office may be betting he'll take a step back in 2010. Is it right?

The Question: Can Panda repeat his 2009 numbers — .330 AVG, 25 homers and .943 OPS? Or was that as good as it gets for the San Francisco third baseman?

The Analysis: No one predicted that Sandoval would be quite that good last year and a large reason for the doubt was his walk rate, which is the one mark in his offensive portfolio. He had a meager 8.2 percent walk rate in 633 plate appearances last year, which meant that his OBP was only 57 points higher than his batting average. If that average comes down significantly — it was backed by a soaring .350 BABIP — then his OBP will similarly suffer.

Still, that BABIP rests on a fairly solid foundation. His minor league BABIP was .339 (it was .375 in his monster 2008), and based on a formula by slash12 at Beyond the Box Score, his "expected BABIP" last year was .320. That's still well above league average, but it's also well below the number he actually posted. So in order for him to continue to succeed, he'll have to keep his BABIP extraordinarily high.

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Sandoval is a good contact hitter — his 13.1 percent strikeout rate last year is good for a hitter with his power and his 82 percent contact rate was above league average. This is despite the fact that he's a bad ball hitter who, as John Sickels wrote early last year, "makes 'hard contact' even on pitches most hitters shouldn't swing at." He only saw 3.44 pitches per plate appearance last year, 13th-worst in baseball among the 154 players who qualified for the batting title. He swung at 58.2 percent of all pitches that he saw; even when a pitch was outside the strike zone, he swung 41.5 percent of the time, which is why he rarely walked. The list of legendary bad-ball hitters is small — Yogi Berra, Vladimir Guerrero(notes), Ichiro Suzuki(notes), Alfonso Soriano(notes), and a few entertaining others — because it's awfully hard to make a living swinging at pitches outside the zone. Once you do that, there's no reason for a pitcher to ever throw you a strike. From the looks of it, though, Sandoval doesn't seem to care.

The Forecast for 2010: Most projection systems expect more of the same from Sandoval in 2010: Bill James, CHONE, ZiPS, and the recently-released FanGraphs Second Opinion book all project him to hit at least .320 with at least 18 homers and an .880 OPS. An outlier is the Graphical Player 2010, which expects a .303 BA and an .828 OPS, still terrific numbers for a 23-year-old, and apparently the low end of the spectrum. Think about this for a minute: As far as I know, no one expects Pablo Sandoval to hit under .300.

Leaving the Graphical Player 2010 out for a moment, the other projections are pretty consistent. Bill James, CHONE, and ZiPS expect him to hit around 20 homers with 90 RBIs, and 40 to 50 walks. (CHONE expects only 28. The difference is 10-20 points of OBP.) In other words, they are expecting something like a mirror image of his 2009 campaign. I can't disagree. The guy's been hitting everything in sight for 24 months, and shows no signs of stopping. I'm not betting against him.

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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington

Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?
Will Marco Scutaro solve Boston's shortstop problem?
How many more wins will a healthy Beltran and Reyes bring the Mets?
What kind of difference will Jake Peavy make with the White Sox?
Can Jonathan Papelbon become the next Mariano Rivera?

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