If I told you Albert Pujols sees the fewest pitches in the strike zone in MLB, at 43.7 percent, would you believe me?
Would you believe me if I told you a bunch of other sluggers are just behind Pujols, like Ryan Howard (44 percent), Justin Morneau (44.6 percent), and Lance Berkman (44.8 percent)?
Would you believe it if I told you that a few dozen players are in that 44-47 percent range?
The last two things are true. The first one is not.
Pujols is actually second in baseball in percentage of pitches faced in the strike zone, and Howard, Morneau, Berkman, and several others follow just decimal places behind.
However, all alone by himself in first place on the list is Pablo Sandoval.
Sandoval only sees 38.4 percent of pitches in the strike zone. That means that every eight pitches, he sees three that would be called strikes and five that would be called balls if he didn't swing.
Now, Pujols at the top of the list makes sense—he's the best hitter in the game, and pitchers don't want to give him anything to hit. Howard's, Morneau's, and Berkman's low Zone percent numbers are for the same reason.
It also follows that Sandoval would see an above-average number of pitches out of the strike zone: He's a very good hitter, at .333/.385/.587.
In fact, with that statline and his plus defense at third, Sandoval is a legitimate MVP candidate.
It is, however, too early to put Sandoval in the Pujols class just yet.
But why on earth is he seeing 5.3 percent fewer strikes than anyone else in baseball?
The gap between Sandoval and second-place Pujols is as large as the gap between Pujols and 94th-place Adrian Beltre.
There are two primary reasons for pitchers' seeming fear of Kung Fu Panda.
The first one has nothing to do with Sandoval himself.
Pitchers are simply less inclined to deal with Sandoval than to deal with whoever hits behind him. Bengie Molina, Aaron Rowand, Fred Lewis, Travis Ishikawa, and the rest of the lineup vary from "above-average" to "poor." Sandoval is far and away the best hitter in the lineup, and pitchers would simply rather deal with someone like Molina.
Of course, that doesn't explain the discrepancy from Pujols, who has a similarly unimpressive bunch of teammates at the plate and is a better hitter than Sandoval.
That brings me to the second reason that pitchers rarely throw Sandoval a strike.
His concept of the strike zone is...interesting.
Sandoval will swing at nearly anything.
I don't mean that in a bad way, like I would about, say, Jeff "What's OBP?" Francoeur.
Despite rarely seeing strikes, Sandoval swings at 58.6 percent of pitches he sees, including 45.3 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. In all of MLB, only Molina swings at more pitches. Francoeur ranks third.
Ordinarily, I would condemn such a hack-tastic approach, as I do for Molina and Francoeur. With Sandoval, though, it clearly works. He makes contact on 77.1 percent of his swings at pitches out of the zone, a figure that ranks 16th in the majors and well ahead of Molina or Francoeur.
Sandoval has exceptional hand-eye coordination that allows him to adjust to nearly any pitch—the only pitch he hasn't hit well this season is the cutter. He hangs in particularly well on curves, changes, and splitters, which—you guessed it—are pitches that are often designed to break out of the strike zone.
Pitchers know Sandoval will chase nearly 60 percent of pitches, so it seems that the approach to pitching him is to just get him to chase offspeed stuff a foot off the plate. Combine that with the knowledge that Sandoval must be pitched to carefully because of his power, and pitchers quickly realize two things:
1. You don't need to throw the ball over the plate to get a strike.
2. You shouldn't throw a strike to him because he'll crush it.
Hitters like Molina and Francoeur see a low percentage of strikes because of the first issue, but they don't strike fear in pitchers, so pitchers aren't afraid to throw them strikes, so they see more strikes than Sandoval.
Hitters like Pujols strike fear in pitchers and get avoided, but they're patient, and they'll take plenty of pitches and get favorable counts. In those situations, pitchers are often left with no choice but to come over the plate.
So essentially, there are free swingers who aren't very good, and there are great hitters who aren't free swingers. Each type sees a below-average number of strikes.
But Sandoval is both a free swinger and great hitter, so he sees even fewer strikes than players who have one attribute and not the other.
Not since Vladimir Guerrero has there been a true All-Star-level hitter with this sort of approach, and Guerrero was pitched to in a similar fashion, including a mind-boggling 32.7 Zone percent in 2007.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the whole thing is that Sandoval only drew 24 walks in the first half. However, with his contact and power ability, not to mention his good defense, that's more than enough.
Pablo Sandoval's excellence at being a "bad-ball hitter" has driven pitchers to approach him in a unique fashion, and so far, that approach hasn't worked very well. It will be interesting to see if Sandoval can keep up his hitting pace with so few good pitches to hit.
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