Although you might not be able to hear it over the din of the early NFL season, Major League Baseball has opened the throttle for its stretch run.
Magic numbers are dwindling in the American League as the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins are days away from officially clinching the AL West and Central, respectively.
Over in the AL East, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are still tussling over the pennant, but the runner-up will be the proud owner of the Junior Circuit's Wild Card.
In other words, the only mystery is the seeding.
Contrarily, the playoff picture in the Senior Circuit is hopelessly cluttered.
The Cincinnati Reds have almost locked up the National League Central and the Philadelphia Phillies are beginning to disappear over the horizon with the NL East flag, but the NL West and Wild Card won't be decided until the final weekend.
Which brings us to the San Francisco Giants and their portly, once-everyday third baseman, Pablo Sandoval.
The lads have exactly 12 games to separate themselves from the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, and Atlanta Braves.
The Friars—who are knotted up with San Francisco in the loss column—and the Rox—who trail both teams with an extra defeat—have 13 games left on the slate. The Bravos are one ahead of the good guys in the loss column with only 11 to play.
When the margin is so narrow and the remaining schedule is heading toward single digits, anything can happen. Eventually, however, the separation will come.
If the Gents want it to be of the good variety, the kind that will send them to the franchise's first postseason since 2003, it would behoove all involved if "The Kung Fu Panda" found the stroke that made him a city favorite in 2009.
You can no longer say the berth depends on Sandoval catching fire because the squad has contended for so long without him, but such a development would certainly make life easier.
Unfortunately, such a renaissance seems highly unlikely at this point given the magnitude of what's gone wrong for the voluminous Venezuelan.
The Trouble Starts on the Surface
From a macroscopic perspective, the first thing that's gone awry is easy to spot.
Because it's everything.
Check out the splits from 2009 to 2010:
2009—633 PA, 79 R, 44 2B, 25 HR, 90 RBI, .330 BA, .387 OBP, .556 SLG, 10 GDP
2010—585 AB, 59 R, 32 2B, 12 HR, 60 RBI, .264 BA, .318 OBP, .402 SLG, 26 GDP
There's good, there's bad, there's ugly, and then there's whatever you want to call that mess.
As you can see, Pablo's looking at some horrendous regression in his second full season unless he scores 20 runs, hits 12 doubles, launches 13 home runs, raises his batting average 66 points, ups his on-base percentage by 69 points, adds 154 points to his slugging percentage, and erases 16 double plays from his tally in the next 48 plate appearances.
Only one thing I mentioned is literally impossible, but all of the above might as well be, since it ain't happening.
Especially since "Little Money" has been removed from his regular spot in the lineup. Part of the motivation for the periodic hook is the overall free-fall, but it's also got a little something to do with the next crimson flag protruding from Sandoval's body of work.
Something Has Gone Wrong from the Right Side
Last year, the switch-hitter was a holy terror from both sides of the dish, but he was even better when gripping and ripping from the right side against left-handers.
I won't bore you with the full array of statistics, but here are the most pertinent highlights—a slash line of .379/.428/.600 and only 15 K in 159 PA.
It's not just that Sandoval's struggled from the right side this campaign, it's that he's looked utterly and comically lost while collecting the numbers to prove it. That's how you go from the aforementioned and sparkling '09 version to a slash line of .232/.285/.312 with 25 whiffs in eight fewer trips to the plate.
True, the train doesn't go this far off the track for a switch-hitter without issues on both sides of the plate. Nevertheless, the drastic contrast between the right-handed performances makes it evident that the solution must start there.
Sadly, it musn't stop there.
And It's Continued to Go Wrong on the Road
In his young career, "The Panda" has established that he is one of the few splinters who adores hitting at AT&T Park.
The spacious confines and heavy air don't seem to bother him as he rocked a .361 average with a 1.012 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (amongst other pretty numbers) by the San Francisco Bay in '09.
Again, no data or split has been spared the carnage of Pablo's decline, but his '10 home stats don't look as gruesome as the rest. His .326 average and .892 are, quite frankly, staggering to anyone who's watched him closely this year.
But that old, familiar feeling returns when you place the road splits next to each other:
2009—325 PA, 36 R, 24 2B, 12 HR, 43 RBI, .301 BA, .363 OBP, .514 SLG, 5 GDP
2010—300 PA, 26 R, 13 2B, 4 HR, 22 RBI, .204 BA, .260 OBP, .296 SLG, 14 GDP
Ordinarily, you'd fixate on the fact that almost 100 points have been shaved off the batting average. Or maybe that Sandoval's on-base percentage has dropped by over 100 points. Or perhaps that his slugging percentage is lighter to the tune of 218 points.
In this case, though, it's pretty tough to get over Pablo's seemingly supernatural ability to ground into about three times as many double plays despite 25 fewer plate appearances. That's almost as inexplicable as...
Here's the Kicker
Perhaps the most pressing issue is the set of numbers that has NOT changed.
Typically, you'd expect to see some underlying explanation for such a severe turn of events. You'd expect to see a significant decrease in line drives as the anxious batter tries to compensate, either rolling everything over as he tries to pull the ball (grounder) or trying to hit every offering into the bleachers (pop up).
Or maybe a change in plate discipline or contact rate.
But this is where Sandoval's year gets really weird—compare the '10 line-drive, ground-ball, and fly-ball rates to their '09 counterparts. Better yet, compare his '10 plate discipline with the same on display in '09.
No discrepancies greater than five percent and most of the statistics are basically the same.
That's distressing, but it's also (slight) reason for hope.
Carrying a Heavy Burden with Lady Luck Shoeing Him in the Junk
The lack of overt evidence as to the decline could mean it's more a mental snafu than anything else—a mechanical flaw should reveal itself through the numbers.
Of course, many pundits around the Bay Area love to point at Pablito's ever-expanding waistline as the cause of all his ills and for good reason. Let's not mince words—dude is fat and getting fatter.
But he wasn't exactly slim in '09 when he was yanking the pearl to hell and gone on a nightly basis. So, while Sandoval most definitely needs to get his weight under control for the sake of longevity, I'm not so sure I buy the pounds as the root of this year's problem.
They can't help, but observers also have to remember that (A) this is only the third baseman's second full year in the Show; (B) he recently finalized an arduous divorce; (C) he was expected to be the primary lumberjack for a contender; and (D) he's a relatively young 24-year-old.
That's a whole lot to keep track of in the ol' noodle for what many would still consider to be a kid. With that kind of mental stress, it wouldn't take a very large straw to break the proverbial camel's back.
Say, a slide in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) from ..356 in 2008 to .350 in '09 to...oh, .287 in '10!?!?!?
Yikes, that's one large serving of bad luck, right there.
And luck can change just as quickly as an athlete's mindset.
Pablo Sandoval is having a brutal 2010 Major League Baseball season, that much is without a doubt.
One can only hope the jovial youngster figures out the solution and snaps back to his previous form as quickly as possible because, when he's right, the man is a sight to behold and fun to watch.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the San Francisco Giants will get to enjoy that spectacle until 2011.