Slowly but surely, Panda practicing patience
Notoriously free-swinging Giants slugger taking more pitches
SAN FRANCISCO -- Pablo Sandoval's evolution from hacker to hitter is progressing gradually.The numbers don't lie: Sandoval is taking more pitches than he ever has. Granted, the statistical difference looks insignificant. But those with trained eyes have noticed and admired the change. "I like his at-bats. He's showing greater discipline," said manager Bruce Bochy, whose Giants begin a seven-game trip to New York and Cincinnati on Friday. "He's 'quieter,' not as anxious." Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said that he noticed Sandoval's judiciousness during the recent Giants-Phillies series.
"The more selectivity he has, he ought to drive the ball better," Manuel said.For now, Sandoval's concentrating on consistency. His .333 batting average ranks second among the Giants to Buster Posey's .361. Sandoval also owns a team-high nine RBIs and has hit two homers, tied for the club lead. His .959 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) tops all Giants with more than 10 at-bats. Moreover, Sandoval has hit safely in all 12 of San Francisco's games so far -- no great shock, given the 22-game streak the third baseman maintained in the middle of last season. The Giants' San Francisco-era record for a season-opening hitting streak belongs to none other than Willie Mays, who reached 16 games in 1960. "Every day, you want to feel comfortable at home plate," Sandoval said. "If you feel like that all year, you're going to have success." Sandoval has succeeded since he reached the Majors in August 2008. Despite his season-long slump in 2010, when he batted .268, the switch-hitter owns a .308 lifetime average. That could rise along with his average number of pitches per plate appearance. In 2009, his first full Major League season, Sandoval saw an average of 3.44 pitches in each trip to the plate. That ranked 70th among National League hitters who qualified for the batting title. The following year, Sandoval's pitch-per-appearance average and league ranking in this category barely moved (3.43 and 71st). Missing 40 games early last season with a hamate bone injury prevented Sandoval from accumulating enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. But his 3.51 pitches-per-plate appearance average would have stood 63rd in the NL. This year, Sandoval has seen an average of 3.75 pitches each time he settles into the batter's box. That's 60th best in the NL. Assuming Sandoval bats four times per game, he's seeing a total of one more pitch each contest, which doesn't sound like much. But for Sandoval, it's a lot. The change is more mental than numerical. "It's part of my game," he said. "I'm going to be more patient. I've been working on a plan to get a pitch I can hit." At 25, Sandoval has begun to understand the benefits of restraint. Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said that he has had to scold Sandoval about swinging wildly only once since Spring Training. And the Giants understand when Sandoval reverts to his natural tendencies by taking a full rip at the first pitch or any delivery that isn't close to the strike zone.
Said Bochy: "He's still going to be aggressive. You don't want to change that."Yet when Sandoval's batting average dipped below .300 early last September, Meulens lectured him about his plate approach. "You should be winning batting titles. You should be leading the league in RBIs," Meulens said he told Sandoval. Meulens also told his pupil that he'll never realize his full potential if he keeps flailing at pitches in the dirt early in the count. Meulens pointed out that by taking more pitches, Sandoval can work himself into better hitter's counts. That makes Sandoval more dangerous, given his considerable skill. This year, according to baseball-reference.com, Sandoval is hitting .417 (5-for-12) on 2-2 counts, .400 (6-for-15) when he's ahead on the count and .346 (9-for-26) when he's even in the count. Sandoval's mere six strikeouts in 53 plate appearances proves that his new outlook feels natural. Maybe he'll swing at the first pitch, as he often has done. But he might not put the ball in play until the sixth pitch. "Or you don't swing at all," Sandoval said. "It's a surprise."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.