Pablo Sandoval: Injury or Not, Why He's One of MLB's Best Comeback Players

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Pablo Sandoval: Injury or Not, Why He's One of MLB's Best Comeback Players
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Pablo Sandoval’s prodigal son-like return to baseball’s land of the living has been put on hold once again.

After a disastrous 2010 season in which the Giants slugger was improbably left off the postseason roster, it seemed for a moment that Sandoval was back, better than ever and ready to contend for MLB’s comeback player of the year award—if not an MVP.

Now he will have to bounce back once again, this time from a wrist injury that will sideline him for 4-6 weeks.

Even before the injury though, the Kung Fu Panda’s 2011 resurgence wasn’t exactly the stuff fairy tales are made of.

He wasn’t coming back from a cataclysmic injury like Nomar Garciaparra in 2006. He wasn’t set adrift and then salvaged from the vast ocean of free agency like Carlos Pena 2007. And he wasn’t emerging from the depths of substance abuse and off-field issues like Dmitri Young (also 2007).

No, Sandoval’s comeback had been of a different variety. It had been self—made. It was the return from a season-long slump born of too little discipline, too many personal distractions, too much indulging and maybe, just maybe, buying one’s own hype a little too much.

And now, as quickly as it began, his comeback has once again been put on hold. Giants fans will now have to wait for another self—made revival from the franchise’s most beloved larger than life personality.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The peeps love them some Panda

Which is a shame really, because Sandoval was not only in the midst of a statistical resurrection, but seemed to have rediscovered his passion for baseball. In a sport with a marathon-like 162 game season, passion and attitude can make the difference between ecstasy and agony. If you love the game, the season is a joy. If you do not, it is a chore.

In 2010, the game seemed like a chore for Sandoval. This year, he seemed to have found his joy once again.

Perhaps more so than other players, the joy of the game is important for Sandoval because it is his greatest asset as a player. His child—like enthusiasm and energy is the reason Barry Zito labeled him Kung-Fu Panda in the first place, and the ebbs and flows of his passion have, not surprisingly, been mirrored in his production:

2009: .330 AVG/25 HR/90 RBI/79 R/.943 OPS

2010: .268/13/63/61/.732

2011: .313/5/14/11/.904

The 2008/2009 version of Pablo Sandoval was awesome. Watching him nightly was the baseball equivalent of going to the pound, getting a new dog, and arriving to home to find that the dog instinctively knows how to go to the fridge, open the door, and get you a nice cool beverage. It left you sitting in awe of the good fortune that allowed you to experience this rare talent.

Who is the most important piece in the Giants offense?

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2010 was…less awesome. Like if that same dog suddenly lost his get-you-a-beer instincts and started barking at the neighbors. Sandoval had basically just reverted to standard dog level, but he had fallen from such great heights that his regression seemed just as awe—inspiring as his rise had been mind—blowingly great in the first place.

He clearly wasn’t the player he had once been, and to make matters worse, he knew it.

This year, Sandoval had looked a lot like the player Giants fans had salivated over in 2009. His pitch selection was still iffy, and he was still capable of swinging at more than his fair share of eye—level fastballs and sliders in the dirt, but these traits no longer defined his game.

The real trademark of his game—the fire in his eyes—was back, as was the smile on his face. Somehow, Sandoval had recaptured the essence of what had made him great in the first place.

Now, it is as if the Giants favorite adopted puppy has run away. He will be back, but in the meantime his enthusiasm and newly rediscovered beer-fetching skills will be sorely missed. Not to mention his presence in the middle of the order.

Sandoval had certainly worked his way into the conversation of baseball’s best comeback story, but what determines a comeback player?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
One of these guys has been carrying the Giants offense in 2011. Hint: it isn't Miguel Tejada.

If it is measured in odds overcome and injuries beaten, Sandoval was decidedly not the leader in the clubhouse, even before this injury. Grady Sizemore is in the midst of an improbable return from a terrible knee injury, and if you had wanted to place a preseason wager on Travis Hafner’s 2011 relevance, you would have had a hard time finding a casino cruel enough to take your money, the odds were so long.

But if you measure a comeback in terms of statistical relevance and pureness of baseball talent, well, Sandoval will win most debates judged by these criteria hands down. By these benchmarks, Sandoval had been baseball’s most important comeback story, and it really wasn't close.

Simply, Pablo Sandoval makes the Giants lineup relevant, and brings an air of legitimacy to the offense that it otherwise so sorely lacks. Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff are nice pieces, and can be difference-makers at times, but have been slumping. It has been Sandoval who has anchored the offense, and for the next 4-6 weeks he will be sorely missed.

Given the Giants franchise-best success in 2010 without Sandoval, it might seem difficult to believe that he is a difference maker. But San Francisco’s run to the title was more a statement of what a dominant pitching staff and timely hitting can do. It is easy to remember Cody Ross’ clutch home runs in the NLCS last year. What is often forgotten is just how feeble the Giants offense would have looked without them.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Things we know about Lance Berkman: (1) Does not like playing in New York. (2) Can still hit.

A healthy Sandoval makes the middle of the Giants order dangerous not because they are a group who can get hot, score three runs and shut you down with pitching, but because they are legitimately decent. In San Francisco decent is good enough to win a lot of games.

In a way, this injury may ultimately bolster Sandoval’s comeback player of the year chances. He won’t be out long enough to eliminate him from the running, and the lackluster nature of the Giants offense without him will be evidence enough of his value when healthy.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take a look at some other comeback players who could use this opportunity to take a step ahead of Sandoval in the minds of baseball fans and front offices alike.

Lance Berkman – If you thought that Berkman’s struggles in New York in 2010’s second half meant that he was really done, you haven’t been watching baseball long enough. If ever there was a player who just needed a change of scenery in a great baseball town with considerably less pressure than New York, it was Lance Berkman.

Signing with the Cardinals was just what the doctor ordered.

In 2011, Berkman has looked like the player we saw during the heyday of Houston’s “Killer B’s”, hitting .408 on the season with 8 HR, 22 RBI, 23 R and an absolutely Bonds-esque 1.234 OPS.

Who has been baseball's best comeback player in 2011?

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If this guy is washed up, I want to root for a team of has-beens and washed up veterans.

Russell Martin – Entering the season, the Yankees newly vacated catching job was ostensibly going to go to top prospect Jesus Montero. Apparently no one told Russell Martin.

Martin has been everything the Yankees could have hoped for and more. He has started all but one of their games, and has even out produced the Yankee Captain himself, Derek Jeter to start the season. His .292/6/18/12/.968 has been totally unexpected.

In the race for comeback player of the year, Martin’s baseball zombie-type revival falls into the Carlos Pena “Oh, that guy is still alive?” category.

Grady Sizemore – The Cleveland Indians have been one of baseball’s biggest surprises in 2011, but they haven’t been as surprising as Sizemore’s return. Entering the season, there were rumblings that Sizemore would be playing at somewhere between 70-80% health after micro fracture knee surgery.

Thus far, it has been like he never left. His numbers thus far have not only matched his career averages, but have exceeded them in virtually every way. He is hitting .378/4/9/10/1.251. He will never possess Ruthian power, but the all-around aspects of his game seem to have returned with him. Whether he can continue his sweltering pace remains to be seen, but before the injury he was one of baseball’s best players, and 2011 has so far represented a return to form.

Travis Hafner – Remember when Pronk broke out in 2004? Everyone thought he would team with Grady Sizemore and C.C. Sabathia to form an AL contender for years to come. Not exactly.

Hafner had three very productive years, followed by four wretched ones. Now it seems, Travis Hafner is back. His .342/4/11/13/.959 splits thus far would suggest that he has simply started the season hot, and set a pace that he cannot possibly maintain.

Except that these are exactly the kinds of numbers he did maintain for three seasons in his prime.

Count me amongst those who will believe a productive Travis Hafner season when I see it. If he can continue though, his feel-good story is exactly the kind that is common amongst MLB’s best comeback stories. 

 

Whether Pablo Sandoval can return healthy and motivated as ever, ready to reclaim his spot at the top of the comeback player discussion remains to be seen. In the meantime, Giants fans have little choice but to wait patiently and hope that the man who has carried the San Francisco offense in 2011 returns sooner rather than later.

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