Almost as surely as flowers bloom in the spring, great young hitters slump in their second full seasons in the major leagues. Well, maybe not with that much certainty, but it’s probably more common than not, particularly if you include a few spill-over stars who slumped significantly in their third (Chipper Jones in 1997) or fourth full seasons (Barry Bonds in 1989).
Here are a few good examples: ARod’s 1997 season (career full-season low .846 OPS), Albert Pujol’s 2002 season (career full-season lows of .314 batting average, .394 on-base percentage, and .561 slugging—those are some pretty terrific career lows), and Jeff Bagwell’s 1992 (his .273 batting average and .812 OPS were the lowest of his career until his very last two seasons).
The conventional wisdom on this phenomenon is that baseball at the major league level is a game of adjustments, and after a great young hitter comes into the league and batters pitching staffs for a season, the league’s pitchers and scouts come into year two with a much better idea where the young hitter’s weaknesses lie. If the young hitter is truly destined to be great, he makes the necessary adjustments in his slump year and goes on to greater glory as he moves toward his age 26-to-31 peak seasons (barring major injuries along the way).
The Panda is slumping big-time so far in 2010. After entering the 2010 season with career numbers (in roughly 1.25 seasons of play) of .333 batting average, .381 on-base percentage and .543 slugging, Sandoval’s 2010 numbers so far are .282, .343 and .435. Those are huge drops, although the 2010 season is only about 40 percent of the way through.
The cause of Panda’s 2010 slump is obvious: he’s a free swinger, and the NL’s pitchers have better learned how to set him up to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, on which Panda’s odds of getting a hit or an extra base hit are sharply diminished.
Panda has already earned a reputation, perhaps second only to Vladimir Guerrero or Ichiro among those currently playing, as a great bad-ball hitter. Nonetheless, no matter how good he is at hitting pitches out of the strike zone, any pitcher will tell you he’d rather take his chances with Sandoval swinging at balls rather than at strikes.
I’m pretty confident that Sandoval will make the necessary adjustments by the time the 2010 season is in the books. First, even with his major slump so far this year, he’s still hitting well for a player who doesn’t turn 24 until August.
Second, Sandoval has made tremendous progress in his ability to lay off bad pitches and draw walks in a very short period of time. In 2008, the year Sandoval broke into the majors, he drew only 35 walks in 593 professional at-bats that year. His previous high before that was 22 walks in 438 at-bats in the Class A Sally League in 2006.
In 2009, his break-through year, Sandoval took enough pitches to draw 52 walks in 572 major league at-bats. While that’s certainly not great and one has to keep in mind that he hit so well last year that pitchers were pitching around him a lot, it’s still a tremendous improvement over prior years and a solid performance for a young, bad-ball hitter. He also drew more walks in the second half of the 2009 campaign when he was obviously seeing fewer pitches to hit.
So far in 2010, Panda has drawn 24 walks in 255 at-bats. This isn’t terrible, but Panda needs to improve on it enough that pitchers are forced to come into him with strikes.
For what it’s worth, here’s a Tim Kurkjian article from 2002 which lists some of the All-Time best bad ball hitters in baseball history. I remembered Yogi Berra and Roberto Clemente, but not some of the others on the list, which was why I went trolling on-line and found Kurkjian’s article.
Based on the fact that both Tony Gwynn and Ichiro made Kurkjian’s list, I would bet that Rod Carew and Paul Waner deserve to be on the list too, being similar kinds of hitters.