In Praise of Men Who Swing from the Heels (And Transform Franchises While They're at It)

Lincecum and Cain and pray for rain? Not anymore. The Giants, the game's most surprising contender, have finally found an everyday star who can light up a clubhouse—as well as opposing pitchers—in Pablo Sandoval
August 09, 2009

Before Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval sees a pitch, he pounds the on-deck circle four times with the knob of his bat, taps it four times against his toes, four times against his shins, once against his helmet, then draws a cross in the dirt to the side of home plate. He digs into the batter's box, but only for a moment before suddenly rushing out in front of it as if he might charge the mound. Face-to-face with the opposing pitcher, he smacks the barrel twice against each cleat, gives the bat a full-length rubdown, points it skyward and bangs it once more against his helmet. Only then, after a few more thwacks upside his head, is he ready to go to work.

A lot of hitters have elaborate rituals at home plate. Sandoval's is more like a piece of performance art. It makes the compulsive glove fiddling of A's infielder Nomar Garciaparra look positively understated. As Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm watched Sandoval complete his tap dance early last week at AT&T Park in San Francisco, he was more amused than annoyed. "Maybe he spends so much time outside the batter's box," Maholm said, "because he spends so little time in it."

In an age when hitters are exhorted to work counts, coax walks and swing only at the one pitch they want in the one square inch they want it, Sandoval has a problem: "I like every pitch," he says happily, "no matter where it is." Last season against the Padres he jumped in the air to hit a Jake Peavy pitch that was over his head and tomahawked it into leftfield for a single. In spring training against the Mariners he swung at a pitch in the dirt from Denny Stark and hit it on the short hop, cricket-style, for another single. In mid-June against the Angels he hit a Kevin Jepsen curveball at his ankles for an opposite-field home run. Teams have tried to pitch around Sandoval, but that is impossible, unless they throw the ball behind him. He dreams of reaching across the plate and hitting an intentional ball. "If it's close, I'll do it," he vows. "I did it in Little League once, and I got a double."

Sandoval approaches every at bat as if he's afraid that he will get only one pitch before the other team takes the ball and goes home. He swings at the first pitch a major-league-high 47% of the time—by contrast, Minnesota's Joe Mauer offers at the first pitch 7% of the time—and if he misses, it's a good bet he'll go after the next one, offering at 62% of second pitches that he sees. Nobody swings at a higher percentage of pitches except for his mentor, Giants catcher Bengie Molina. But then Molina is batting .258, a figure you might more reasonably expect from a free swinger who expands strikes zones and is constantly behind in counts. Sandoval, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the modern game, was batting .324 with 16 home runs through Sunday, thanks to (or in spite of) a hitting philosophy he describes as "see the little white thing and swing." To illustrate his strike zone, Sandoval helpfully stretches out both arms as far as they will go.

With Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero in the twilight of his brilliant career, Sandoval, who will turn 23 next week, has emerged as baseball's preeminent bad-ball hitter, doing his part to save a species in danger of extinction. In 1988 the average major league on-base percentage was .318. By 1999 it had risen to .345, a spike that could be attributed, no doubt, to expansion, diluted pitching staffs and performance-enhancing drugs, but also to an increased emphasis on plate discipline. Longer at bats have led to longer games, and though purists can appreciate the 12-pitch confrontations, the casual fan just wants to see someone like Sandoval take his hacks. As Giants infield coach Shawon Dunston, a notorious free swinger in his playing days, puts it, "You want to see a walk? Then go watch the mailman."

Across the Bay Bridge from Oakland, the Giants have countered Moneyball with Sandoball. They rank last in the majors in walks and on-base percentage but were tied with the Rockies for the National League wild-card race, thanks largely, of course, to a pitching staff anchored by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. "We don't have a lot of what I call 'professional hitters,'" says Giants hitting coach Carney Lansford. "They make me bang myself over the head with this clipboard sometimes." Before the trading deadline last week, the Giants acquired first baseman Ryan Garko from Cleveland and second baseman Freddy Sanchez from Pittsburgh, who should fit right in. Sanchez, for instance, is a .300 hitter for his career, but his on-base percentage is only 36 points higher, a sign that he does not discriminate much more than Sandoval.

Guerrero is an excellent bad-ball hitter because he has, in the words of his former manager Felipe Alou, "arms as long as telephone poles," which allow him to reach pitches a foot off the plate. Sandoval's bad-ball skills are a function of his sublime hand-eye coordination, developed in the garage of his boyhood home in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, where his older brother Michael would pitch him bottle caps, corn kernels and rolls of tape. Since Sandoval could hit everything, he saw no reason to let anything go by. After signing with the Giants as a 16-year-old in 2003, he officially started following in Guerrero's footsteps. One of Guerrero's cousins, Adalberto Paulino, was a teammate at Class A Augusta, and when Guerrero sent him some extra cleats, Paulino let Sandoval have a pair. This season, when the Giants played the Angels, Sandoval thanked Guerrero for the shoes. "He'll be fine," Guerrero says with an ironic smile, "as long as he swings at good pitches."

If Sandoval can ever lay off some pitches, any pitches, he might be a batting champion. He hears Lansford telling him before every at bat, "Swing at a strike." He hears Michael, who plays for the independent league Newark Bears and always takes the first pitch of his first two at bats, telling him on the phone, "Be disciplined." But Sandoval has been hearing these refrains forever. When he was at High A San Jose, where his host family was Ed and Donna Musgrave, Ed would tell him, "Patience, Pablo, patience." Sandoval would respond, "Yes, Papi, yes." Then he would step into the box and be overcome by the urge to swing. "You won't get somebody to change until they fail," said Gary Davenport, the hitting coach at San Jose.

Failure, though, is a foreign concept to Sandoval. He blazed a Pujolsian trail through the minors last season, batting .359 at San Jose, .337 at Double A Connecticut and .345 in a 41-game stint with the Giants. When he met Barry Bonds for the first time last week, Sandoval asked, "How did you get so patient?" Bonds replied, "Just wait for the pitch you like to hit." It was sound advice, except the next day Sandoval was reminded that there is no pitch he doesn't like to hit. "You see my problem?" he said.

When Bonds was the face of the Giants, the clubhouse he presided over was as quiet as a church. Now that Sandoval has replaced him as the Giants' big stick, the place feels more like a 1980s dance club. That was the mood on a recent weekday, as Come On Eileen blared from the speakers and Sandoval gyrated in the middle of the room in a spandex belly shirt, doing what appeared to be a slow-motion jog. He is 5'11", 246 pounds, with black curls creeping out from the sides of his cap and a scar under his left eye where his pet Doberman bit him when he was one. A prodigious gut spills proudly over Sandoval's waistline, as if mocking the steroid era that held this city hostage. Here is a player who is out of shape, can't tell a strike from a ball and yet has energized the Giants in a way that Bonds never could. When Sandoval was selected as one of the five candidates for the Final Vote in this year's All-Star Game, teammates wore VOTE FOR PABLO stickers on their warmup jackets and affixed signs to the backs of their jerseys, which is more than Bonds's teammates ever did for him when he was closing in on 755 home runs. Molina will not be drawn into any lengthy comparisons, though he says, "It's been a different clubhouse since Pablo got here. It's a happier place, a more enjoyable place."

Sandoval comes across as Sammy Sosa at his chest-thumping best, running onto the field for batting practice shouting, "¬°Hola! ¬°¬°Hola!! ¬°¬°¬°Hola!!!" In one game this season, when second baseman Juan Uribe hit his first homer of the season, Sandoval persuaded everyone to ignore Uribe when he got back to the dugout. Uribe was confused, but after a few seconds Sandoval cracked up and they all leaped up with high fives. "When you first get to the majors, it's so much fun," Giants lefty Barry Zito says. "Then time goes by, and you get jaded. The idea is always to be who you were when you first got here. I think we look at Pablo and he reminds us of that."

When Sandoval was in San Jose, and fans were already starting to chant his name and sing along to his Spanish entrance music, he once asked his host mother, Donna Musgrave, "Mami, why do they like me so?" She tried to explain that his exuberance engendered affection, and Sandoval concluded that he should never let the smile fade from his face. A player's popularity can often be measured by the quantity and caliber of nicknames bestowed upon him. Sandoval, in his second season, has gone through Zorro, Little Money, Round Mound of Pound and, most notably, Kung Fu Panda. Zito saw the movie Kung Fu Panda last summer, and as he watched the lovable bear morph into an unlikely superhero, he was reminded of his playful but potent new teammate, who's also full of surprises. Sandoval is an exotic breed himself, an ambidextrous, switch-hitting third baseman who can play catcher and first, who lives with his mother, in addition to his wife, Yoletzade, and one-year-old daughter, Yoleadny. He prefers to do interviews in English even though he is more comfortable speaking Spanish. He is naturally lefthanded, but he grew up wanting to play shortstop like fellow Venezuelan Omar Vizquel, so he taught himself to throw righthanded, which is how he still plays. "That's the Pablo that I am," he has said.

The Giants have taken Zito's pet name for Sandoval and turned it into a marketing bonanza. Fans wear panda T-shirts and panda masks, and have even showed up at AT&T Park outfitted in full panda costume with black and white fur. On Aug. 12 there will be a sleepover for kids on the field after the game, and Kung Fu Panda will be shown on the scoreboard. The Giants have waited a long time for this kind of player, a slugger they can promote without backlash, an ambassador they can book for community events.

"This is not about Barry," says Giants president Larry Baer. "It's about the fact that we have a star player who is so innocent and pure in his approach to the game, whose personality is the perfect antidote to everything that has gone on. Guys play different ways to give themselves an edge. Barry liked to play a little bit angry, with kind of a chip. Pablo is more like Willie Mays in that Say Hey, stickball-in-the-streets mode. But there are multiple ways to greatness."

There is a seriousness to Sandoval's approach too. The jitterbug he does before every at bat, for instance, is intended not to irritate pitchers but to honor the dead. He taps his barrel four times: once for his grandmother, Josefa; once for his grandfather, Luis; and once for his baby sister, Diana, who died in a car accident when she was six months old. (The fourth tap, he says, is to honor God.) Sometimes, when Sandoval looks at Yoleadny, he sees Diana's tough and rambunctious personality pouring through. After a game last week he stayed up with Yoleadny in their San Francisco apartment watching Kung Fu Panda for the first time. "It's true," Sandoval says. "The panda is a lot like me."

Both are animated, with karate-chop swings and elementary school appeal. "Pablo's a Little Leaguer who's playing in the majors," says his brother Michael. In the Giants' clubhouse, meanwhile, the debate rages over walks versus hits, on-base percentage versus batting average. Lansford wants his hitters to be selective, to wear out pitchers. Dunston wants them aggressive. The argument has a cultural bent. In the U.S. players are taught from Little League on to wait for their pitch. In Latin America they hit whatever pitch is thrown to them. "Down there you don't hear the word selective," says Alou. "Selective service reminds you of the army."

Sandoval is no sociologist, but for at least one reason he believes his sport could use a few more bad-ball hitters swinging from the heels, letting the bat head fly. "The games," he says, "would be a lot quicker."

Now on SI.com
Can the Yankees end the Red Sox' stranglehold on them? Find out at SI.com/bonus

"You want to see a walk?" infield coach Dunston says. "Then go watch the mailman."

The Giants have waited a long time for a slugger they can promote without a backlash.

PHOTOPhotograph by BRAD MANGINIF YOU PITCH IT ... Sandoval will swing: Only one player (teammate Bengie Molina) hacks at a greater percentage of pitches he sees. PHOTOEZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGESSANDOBALL Sandoval not only switch hits, but he can also throw 88 mph with either hand.
TWO PHOTOSDANIEL R. HARRIS/ICON SMI[See caption above] PHOTOJEFF CURRY/US PRESSWIRESPLENDID SPLINTERS At 22, Sandoval is the best bad-ball hitter to come along since Vlad Guerrero. PHOTOBRAD MANGINJOY TO BEHOLD Kung Fu Panda has brought a touch of levity to a clubhouse that had a notorious reputation for being tense.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)