That’s One Skinny Sad Panda, Taking Strike One

Contract year. He got skinny. He’s 27 years old. This will be the Panda’s year. This will be the year Pablo Sandoval puts it all together.

So far, so not good. Sandoval’s power is down, his strikeout rate is up, his swing metrics are all messed up, and his owners are considering dropping him in mixed leagues. What’s up with this skinny sad Panda?

We know that power takes a while to stabilize, so we can let him off the hook for career-low power numbers. After all, he could hit three homers in the next game and everything would look different. He’s done that before, famously.

And of course we can give his .205 batting average on balls in play a nod. He’s currently hitting twice as many infield fly balls as he normally does, but he’s been league average in that department for his career, and even with a bad pop-up rate, you’d expect his BABIP to be over the Mendoza line.

But wander over into his swing metrics, and everything is all screwed up. Imagine what you might have told Pablo Sandoval he needed to change going into the season. I’m guessing you would have told him to stop reaching for that got dang pitch at his eyes and would he please just learn to work a count. Well, he got half of that right so far:

Swing% O-Swing% Z-Swing% swSTR%
Pablo Sandoval 2014 51.8% 41.4% 68.1% 12.0%
Pablo Sandoval Career 57.8% 45.0% 79.7% 9.8%

So he’s swinging less and reaching less, but unfortunately, he’s also swinging at pitches inside the zone less, too. But it turns out, *when* he’s swinging is much more important than *which pitches* he’s swinging at. Look at his swing percentage on the first pitch over the course of his career:

Season First Pitch Swing%
2008 0.500
2009 0.490
2010 0.414
2011 0.408
2012 0.420
2013 0.424
2014 0.271

Oops. The league average first-pitch strike rate in baseball is 60%, and he’s halved his swing rate at the pitch. That means many more oh-and-one counts, and many fewer hitter-friendly counts. For a guy that normally swings so much, giving away strike one isn’t recommended (well, it’s bad for everyone). Of course, pitchers are afraid of his free-swinging ways, so right now they’re throwing him a first-pitch strike a little less than usual (52.5%, 61.3% career), but the more word gets out that he’s taking strike one, the more they’ll venture back into the zone.

Of course, that would make for a perfect time for him to start being aggressive on the first pitch again, and he could break out of this funk. Swing metrics are stable at this point, but they still only explain 50% of future variance when stable. Probably because players can change their plan of attack when it comes to swing rates. Sandoval could just decide he’s had enough of this approach, and go back to swinging at everything from the eyes to the laces.

In this case, that would be a welcome change, the Pablo Sandoval of old. Perhaps his strikeout rate would improve, at least. Not every good player fits into our cookie cutter definition of the perfect player. It looks like Pablo Sandoval needs to remember what it felt like to be Pablo Sandoval again.

Until he does, we’re left with a player that could still hit .280 with 20 homers, but whose projections have moved south of that pace due to his early-season strikeout rate. Considering that Kyle Seager is on the mend, and Aramis Ramirez is healthy, and Todd Frazier is playing really well, you probably have some options in a mixed league that make more sense than holding on to a messed-up Pablo. The toughest decision may be right around Chase Headley, who adds speed and a less messed-up swing rate trend. But if you’re looking at Trevor Plouffe (despite his improvements, Plouffe doesn’t have the same batting average upside) or Chris Johnson (who is mostly batting average when it’s working out anyway), you may want to hold on for just a bit longer and watch Pablo on the first pitch.

We hoped you liked reading That’s One Skinny Sad Panda, Taking Strike One by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Menthol
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Menthol

Dude is just killing me this year.