Pablo Sandoval's Success Strategy: Just Swing Early
Pablo Sandoval isn't exactly a normal MLB star. He shares a nickname with a Jack Black-voiced animated character. The amount of fat jokes he hears in a week on the road would put Sam Tarly to shame. He's likely the only 5'11", 240 pound switch hitter in MLB history.
And he's on his way to making an All-Star Game for a third straight season.
2013 has been a been a revival of sorts for Sandoval, especially after his down (and injury-plagued) 2012. His current .315 batting average and .377 on-base percentage would be his highest since 2009. Although he hasn't hit many extra-base knocks (two doubles and two homers), his hits have still come in clutch situations: his 14 RBIs sits four higher than anybody else on the Giants squad.
Normally, this is the time where I'd say something to the effect of "Yada yada, regression to the mean." However, after looking at the stats, it seems there is a legitimate difference between last season and this season in Sandoval's style of play. And it all comes down to J.S.S.: Just Swing, Stupid.
Just Swing, Stupid
There is something to be said for working the count. Savvy baseball minds figure that the Moneyball approach has to do with patience and taking walks and getting on-base any way possible. For Sandoval, though, the ultimate on-base strategy seems to be swinging early and making sure he makes contact.
Last season, Kung Fu Panda swung at the first pitch 42 percent of the time. That's a pretty high percentage as it is; for reference, teammate Buster Posey has swung at the first pitch only 23 percent of the time over his career. For Sandoval, though, that percentage was right in line with expectation, as he's been between 40 and 42 percent of his first pitches swinging over the past three seasons.
However, as I've already hinted at, his 2009 season was marginally better than any of his past three years. That glorious season, Sandoval batted .330, reached base at a .377 clip, and hit a still-career-high 25 homeruns and 90 RBIs. But he didn't get there by doing anything in particular different... with one key exception.
AS/Str - Swung at Strikes Percentage (percentage of strikes that aren't looking)
AS/Pit - Total Pitches Swung At Percentage
I/Str - Percentage of Strikes Put In Play
% Con - Percentage of Swings that Made Contact
1stS - Percentage of Swings on the First Strike
In 2009, Sandoval didn't make contact more often or let more pitches go by or even put more balls in play. All Pablo Sandoval did was attack earlier, swinging at 48 percent of the time at the first pitch he saw. This doesn't extend over all pitches - in fact, Sandoval's percentage of total pitches swung at (57 percent) that season was barely over his career average (56 percent). He simply spread the swinging out to more regularly include the first pitch rather than wait.
Especially since he has historically made contact on a high number of his swings as well (see that 81 percent career mark), Sandoval rarely ever sees late counts, and especially not counts that he's favored in. In fact, over his career, Sandoval has never had more than 14 percent of his total plate appearances reach even a 2-0 count. With this the case, it makes sense that swinging early would give him a better chance for success: free swingers are often not rewarded by going deep into counts where they're more likely to be behind and hold less chance for success.
I'd be tempted to dismiss 2009 as an outlier, but in 2013, Sandoval is seeing success using the exact same formula. Let's take those career numbers again and compare them with this year.
Once again, Sandoval is swinging early in addition to often. And once again, it's working, as evidenced his current .315 BA and .377 OBP I mentioned earlier. Although he hasn't gotten the extra-base hits, I figure his current extra-base hit percentage of 6.6 percent of all plate appearances will return to his 9.8 percent career average shortly.
And when that happens, Sandoval has the potential to become his Dominating 2009 Self once again. After a bout of self-exploration, Kung Fu Panda has regained his mojo once again. And it's all about swinging early.