I want you to do something for me.
I want you to place your hand on your stomach and take deep breaths through your nose and out through your mouth; feeling your stomach rise and fall with each breath. And I want you to close your eyes for a minute while you count down from 60 seconds, and think of nothing else but those numbers.
Once you're feeling fully relaxed, let's talk a bit about Pablo Sandoval.
Heading in to the season, I believed that Pablo would be one of the toughest players in the Majors to project. He lit the world on fire in 2009, smashing 44 doubles and 25 home runs while posting a .330/.387/.556 line. The jolly third baseman instantly became a fan favorite. Really, how can you not like a chubby slugger at the hot corner with "toes to nose" coverage of the strike zone? The "Kung Fu Panda" could swing at anything and knock it all over the ballpark.
Unfortunately, the Panda's propensity to swing at and eat everything prevented him from reproducing his success in 2010.* The league adjusted to Pablo's free-swinging tendencies, feeding him less four-seamers (by about 12%), and gave him a steady diet of sinking pitches. According to Texas Leaguers through MLBAM, Pablo saw 8% more two-seamers and sinkers in 2010. Over the course of a full season- about 2,115 pitches for Pablo- this amounts to roughly 175 more pitches designed to induce ground balls. Add in the 27 or so more sliders Pablo saw, and that's about 200 more pitches with sinking action Pablo had to deal with in '10. And he didn't fare particularly well with them, either. Pablo had a ball in play average of .284 in 2009 on grounders and .181 in 2010; had he matched his rate in 2009, he would have wound up with about 22 more hits, which would have lifted his line to .307/.359/.448. Sure enough, Pablo's infield hit per ground ball rate dropped from ten to five percent despite maintaining essentially the same ratio of ground balls to fly balls. Since I don't have advanced batted ball data available, I can only assume that Pablo was A) hitting weaker grounders, which usually occurs with sinking pitches, and B) he wasn't able to leg out some of those ground balls that he was able to back in 2009, thanks to a heavier frame and worse physical condition.
In addition to his ground ball woes, he simply wasn't hitting the ball with as much authority even when he did put the ball in the air. His Isolated Power (slugging average minus batting average) on BIS-coded line drives in 2010 was a mere .181, a remarkable 141 points worse than his 2009. He fared even worse on outfield fly balls, going from a .529 ISO to a .341, nearly 200 points of difference. Clearly, he wasn't hitting the ball nearly as hard as he used to.
Heading in to 2011, Pablo swung at 58.8% of total pitches he saw. In 2011, he's swung at 53.1%, a drop of 5.7%. He's struck out in 6% more of his at-bats, but I think we can live with that- in his career, he's struck out in 14% of them- so right now he's right at the league average. What makes me excited, despite being incredibly wary of the sample size issues, is that Pablo is showing some actual plate discipline. In his career he's swung at the first pitch 45% of the time; in 2011, he's done so in 26% of his plate appearances. That's a massive drop, and he's seeing more 2-0 counts (18%, compared to a career 13%) and 3-1 counts (5% to 9%). Rather than seeing 3.40 pitches per plate appearance, he's seeing 3.75. That's still slightly below the average- hitters usually see about 3.80- but it's a step in the right direction.
And his power? Pablo currently has an ISO of .246. He had 13 home runs in 616 PA last year; this year, he has 5 in 76. His 20.8 HR/FB% is right around Prince Fielder, Carlos Delgado and Mark Reynolds territory; and, while it is conceivable that Pablo could maintain a rate close to that, he's likely to finish the season much closer to the 14% mark he posted in 2009. But, you never know.
The key to Pablo's success, in my opinion, is discipline. At both plates. He showed a lot of dedication during the offseason to get in shape, and he did a fantastic job. And as it currently stands, his plate discipline has shown signs of improvement.
When all is said and done, though, we mustn't take his current numbers too seriously. This is why I asked you to relax before reading- we're only about a month into the season and Pablo has yet to even reach the 100 PA mark, so to draw any conclusions about him changing drastically as a player are exceptionally premature. Pablo is highly likely to regress; the question is, by how much?
Before the season began, ZiPS forecasted him to hit .295/.346/.474 with 19 home runs in 574 AB. His updated forecast has him hitting .298/.352/.490 with 23 homers. Personally, it wouldn't surprise me to see him surpass those numbers...but maybe that's the optimist in me talking. Then again, Pablo still is one of the toughest players to project.
*Apparently, Pablo was also dealing with a divorce, which I would imagine impacted his focus by quite a bit.