July 23, 2009

On the list of all-time genius sports marketing ploys, there might not be a higher mark than what the Giants ran for their own "Kung Fu Panda." Turning the "Vote for Pedro" campaign from Napoleon Dynamite into the "Vote for Pablo" All-Star movement for Pablo Sandoval was quite the attempt at humor, instantly becoming one of my go-to YouTube videos any time I need a laugh.

What's more, it strangely became the perfect symbol for how fantasy baseball owners approach their love of the apparently cuddly and cute Sandoval. Ughh, what's that, you say? Cute? Cuddly? Although I find none of those qualities present in a Giants player (I have my L.A. hat on while writing this article), I've interacted -- conversed, even, as Warren G would say -- with fantasy owners who get a kick out of the squatish third baseman and his Made for Disney-like nickname.

The video obviously highlighted Sandoval's game and that's the part of him that isn't so warm and cuddly. He crushes the ball with a tenacity not seen by a Giants hitter since the guy with the dangling left earring and oversized head. And what's given owners even more affection for Sandoval is that he's lived up to his preseason hype. One year after hitting .345 in just 145 at-bats, Sandoval is batting a sizzling .327 in a full-time role. He's 22 and was one of five contestants for the last National League All-Star spot, and looks like the future No. 3 hitter for the Giants. Will he continue to keep his average at an elite level? What about his power production? Time to Deconstruct.

All statistics through July 20.

2009 stats: .327 AVG, .939 OPS, 15 HR, 56 RBIs, 42 R, 4 SB

One thing to know right off the bat (no pun intended) is that Sandoval is a lucky guy. You can say he creates his own luck. Last year, his BABIP was a rock solid .367. He's nearly outdone that this year with a .354 mark, although that number seems luckier despite being 13 percentage points lower than last year's figure.

There are two keys to Sandoval's hitting, red flags if you will, that will be a running theme of this article: strikeout rate and line drive percentage. As you know, the more a player whiffs, the fewer chances he has of attaining hits since fewer balls are put into play. The more line drives a hitter nails, the better odds he has of accruing base hits since liners are inherently tougher shots to field than grounders or flies.

This year, Sandoval's K rate has risen from a meager 9.7 in '08 to 16.0. It's not what I would tag as a worrisome figure, but it's certainly worth tracking. What's comforting about his strikeout rate is that his first five games of '09 represent the only time this season that he's fanned in four or more consecutive games. When you factor in that he's struck out multiple times in just five of his 85 contests, it's fairly easy to recognize that his propensity to whiff isn't any more concerning than grown men wearing necklaces and slapping each other on the butt. A little out of the ordinary, but nothing necessarily to worry about.

Same goes for his line drive percentage. It's over six points lower from last year -- down to 19.6 from 25.9 -- but his '09 figure (his liner percentage, not his body) is still meaty. (Okay, you can say that for his body, too.)

Oh yeah, there's another important hitting stat which is inconsistent from what he produced last year. His contact percentage has decreased four and a half points -- 86.9 to 82.4 -- to make him appear as a hitter riding on more luck than last year. This isn't to say that he's not a legitimate .300-plus hitter. The three stats outlined so far are still respectable even if they're worse than last year's impressive figures. Yet Sandoval's adjustments haven't taken complete effect. Who knows how high he'd be hitting if he made more refinements.

Where he's made improvement is in his ability to put the ball in the air. Not only has Sandoval's fly ball percentage increased from 28.9 to 34.3, but his infield fly ball percentage has been cut in half, from 12.8 to 6.5. He's not exactly flying more than Delta, but the man has increased his home run odds by making outfielders work for his flies rather than infielders. It's not coincidence that his HR/FB percentage has rocketed from 7.7 to 16.1. As a result, owners don't have to be content with "just" a .300 season from Sandoval. Twenty-plus homers are likely, with owners being able to hold out hope for 25.

Don't be scared away by his home field, AT&T Park, which is a noted pitchers' paradise. Not only is he hitting a hefty .390 at home (vs. .267 on the road), but Sandoval's home slugging percentage of .679 far outpaces his .448 road mark. It's no wonder all his "Vote for Pablo" highlights seemed to occur in San Fran.

This isn't to say you should sit him on the road. He's too good of a hitter to slot him into a home/away spot start. (The story is different for a player like Adam LaRoche, who's hitting .340 at home vs. .159 away from Pittsburgh. Just more free advice from RotoExperts.com. Back to our regulary scheduled programming.) Twelve of Sandoval's 34 multi-hit efforts have come on the road. Clearly a favorable leaning toward his home prowess, but certainly not worthy of bench time on the road.

Since you've put in the time to read this, I won't blow smoke up your, well, you know, and tell you that Sandoval will be an NL batting champion some day. We've all seen supposed future batting champions blow up in their mid-20s (can you say Howard Kendrick?), but it's not to say Sandoval can't be the reigning leader of batting average at some point. It's just that if he is going to, it would be in his best interest to lower his strikeout rate, perhaps get that liner percentage back into the low to mid-20s and hold onto the decent power he's struck up.

That power could be the key to his fantasy value. Everybody enjoys a .300 hitter, but they can be quite the annoying breed when the contact hitting comes along with zero mash. That Sandoval has added a power bat to his impressive hitting resume makes him an everyday start at the hot corner. It's no wonder the Giants employees who thought up the "Vote for Pablo" video wanted to also use the iconic Jamiroquai song from Napoleon Dynamite. It's name? "Canned Heat." How fitting.

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