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Swing High, Swing Low
PABLO SANDOVAL'S philosophy on hitting is part Duke Snider ("Swing hard in case they throw the ball where you're swinging"), part Pete Rose ("See the ball; hit the ball") with this little twist: "I see the little white thing," Sandoval says, "and I swing." Whether the white thing is heading for his head or his shoe tops, is in on his hands or out off the plate, he swings. When it comes to pitches or location, Sandoval does not discriminate. "I don't have a lot of mechanics and all that," he says. "I just hit the ball."
Ordinarily, this might pose a problem for the Giants, who preach patience and discipline to their young hitters. But the Sandoval school of hitting works—at least it does for him. Last spring he was sent to Class A San Jose to begin his fifth season of pro ball. After hitting .359 there and .337 at Double A Connecticut, he was called up in mid-August to the Giants, and he hit .345 in 145 at bats (but walked only four times). This spring manager Bruce Bochy says he expects Sandoval to hit third, fourth or fifth in the order.
"He came out of nowhere, really," hitting coach Carney Lansford says. "We saw him last year in spring training and the ball jumped off his bat, but we were afraid he would chase a lot of the balls out of the zone. Well, he does chase a lot of balls out of the zone—and he hits them."
Sandoval, 22, is a phenomenon in more ways than one. He is a 5'11", 246-pound switch-hitter who can play three positions. Signed out of Venezuela in 2003 as a third baseman, he was converted to catcher, moved back to third and has also learned to play first. (In the interest of roster flexibility, the Giants would do well to consider giving him time behind catcher Bengie Molina; Sandoval gunned down 30 of 68 runners in the minors last season.) He throws with his right hand but describes himself as ambidextrous, which helps explain his proficiency from both sides of the plate.
Teammates tell Sandoval that he is built like Tony Gwynn—in Gwynn's later years—and hits like the free-swinging Vladimir Guerrero. But his recent ascent through the minor leagues is vintage Albert Pujols, who started the 2000 season with the Class A Peoria Chiefs and was voted National League Rookie of the Year with the Cardinals in '01.
Judging from last season, when Sandoval hit only three home runs in 41 games in the majors, he does not generate the kind of power that Pujols and Guerrero do. Then again, he won the home run derby in the Venezuelan winter league this off-season, besting a field that included Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordoñez. That hot stick carried over into the spring, during which he was batting .467 in 60 at bats through Sunday.
San Francisco has not had a homegrown position player make the All-Star Game since Matt Williams in 1996, and if the club is going to contend this season, not an impossibility in a shallow division, it will need Sandoval to channel Williams. The Giants have three Cy Young Award winners in their starting rotation (Randy Johnson joins Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito) and an overhauled bullpen (free-agent pickups Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry join closer Brian Wilson), but they scored the second-fewest runs in the National League last season and they cannot expect new shortstop Edgar Renteria, the team's lone major every-day addition, to invigorate the offense on his own.
Rather, they believe a full season from Sandoval could make the difference. He will need to adjust to pitchers who are seeing him for the second time and maybe even lay off a few sliders in the dirt. But the Giants do not believe he will be weighed down by the pressure to carry an entire lineup. "Won't change him at all," Lansford says. "He doesn't overthink anything—just sees the ball, hits the ball."
When Sandoval made his debut last year, on Aug. 14, the Giants were 50--69. Over their last 43 games they went 22--21. One game over .500 might not sound like much, but in the National League West it won't take a whole lot more.