Pondering the Panda

Pablo Sandoval is reportedly going to be heading into Spring Training in the best shape of his life, but at this point I think most Giants fans are in “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode. Offseason stories about Sandoval’s conditioning are nothing new; the Giants and Pablo Sandoval have seemingly been at odds over the player’s fluctuating weight ever since the portly third baseman reached the majors back in 2008.

The battle reached its nadir shortly after the 2010 World Series. Sandoval had finished a poor regular season, both at the plate and in the field, and the Giant front office had been on him all season about his apparent neglect in taking care of himself. After a few poorly-timed fielding errors in the first couple rounds of the playoffs that year, Sandoval was finally benched for the World Series, paving the way for Edgar Renteria to become the World Series MVP. A couple of days after the Series ended, a picture of Sandoval grinning in front of an enormous sundae started making the rounds. It was about this time that the Giants told him to get his butt in shape or he was headed to the minors.

According to whichever source you decide to believe, Sandoval has apparently been working out rigorously this offseason in yet another attempt to drop weight. Some reports had him shedding as much as 45 pounds, something that Sandoval vigorously denied, although this photo that was circulating in the offseason seems to show that he was doing something to slim down.

A major part of the reason that this is an issue again is because 2014 is probably a make or break season for Sandoval with the Giants. Not only is Sandoval coming off a so-so year where he only made it into 108 games, he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season and thus will be playing for his next contract. How he performs will determine whether or not the Kung Fu Panda will be wearing a different uniform come 2015.

As a hitter, Sandoval is something of an enigma. He’s a free-swinger extraordinaire, and will generally swing at (and usually make contact with) anything within a stone’s throw of home plate. That’s all great when he hits those balls hard and they go for line drives all over the park or over the wall, like in 2009, or 2011, or the 2012 postseason. However, his hacktastic approach can be grating to fans when he swings at bad pitches and doesn’t hit them hard, like in 2010 or stretches of 2013. Giants fans gave Sandoval a lot of rope after his monster 2009 season (when he burst on to the scene with a .330/.387/.556 line), but the fact is that he has slugged over .450 in just one of the past four seasons. For a player who is supposedly an anchor in the middle of the order, that might not cut it.

Of course, the last time Sandoval made headlines for dedicating himself to an offseason workout program, it was after his poor 2010 season. He came back noticeably slimmed down that spring and had a great 2011, hitting .315/.357/552 for a lineup that otherwise couldn’t hit its way out of a paper bag. If the drop in weight really was the cause of Sandoval’s solid season that year, it bodes well for this season if he truly has dropped weight. Also, Sandoval missed time due to various injuries the past two seasons, and its possible some of the dwindling power (he slugged just .417 last year) was attributable to that.

One more reason that fans might have to be optimistic about Sandoval’s 2014 outlook is that this will be his walk year. In 2006, in Baseball Prospectus’s Baseball Between the Numbers book, Dayn Perry did a study concluding that the majority of players did, in fact, perform better in their walk years than either the year before or the year after. It seemed to back up the generally held theory that players produced better in years where they knew free agent dollars were at stake. Famous recent examples include Adrian Beltre in 2004 or Alfonso Soriano in 2006.

Giants fans have embraced Pablo Sandoval like few players in team history. Even to this day, five years after the Panda first became a sensation, you can look around AT&T Park and see panda hats, costumes, and other paraphernalia everywhere. For as frustrating as Sandoval can be at times, he’s still an immensely popular player in the Bay Area. 2014 will be the year that determines just how much longer Sandoval stays a Giant. If he produces and regains his power stroke, it’s easy to see the team hammering out an extension even before the season ends. If he slumps again and rediscovers the joys of chocolate-covered sweets, the Panda may go extinct in San Francisco.