- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If you can measure a ballplayer's impact by the comparisons he elicits, San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval should be in for an interesting ride over the next decade or so.
Scouts and talent evaluators in Arizona this spring compared Sandoval to Vladimir Guerrero for his bad-ball hitting acumen, and to Kirby Puckett and Mo Vaughn (the early, Boston version) for his potential fan appeal.
Giants infielder Rich Aurilia tossed out the name of Terry Pendleton, another short, stocky switch-hitter who won a Most Valuable Player award and a batting title with Atlanta in 1991, while former San Francisco shortstop Omar Vizquel has said Sandoval reminds him of Bobby Bonilla.
Sandoval's 5-foot-11, 245-pound frame has even generated a few references to former Baltimore catcher Floyd "Honey Bear" Rayford, whose pudgy physique once prompted teammate Jim Palmer to ask him, "Floyd, how many people are you smuggling into the ballpark in that uniform?"
But the clear winner, in terms of imagination and shock value, comes from Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, who was in Giants camp this spring as a senior adviser with the club. McCovey sat in a far corner of the Scottsdale Stadium home dugout during batting practice one morning and raved about Sandoval's skills.
"I just think he's a natural born hitter," McCovey said. "I went out on a limb last year and said I think he's going to be another Albert Pujols. I know it's high praise, but that's kind of who he reminded me of when he first came up."
It's an understatement to say that Sandoval has made an impression in the Cactus League this spring. He's hitting .456 and slugging .676, on the heels of a .345 batting average in six weeks with the big club last summer and a bravura performance in winter ball in his native Venezuela.
Sandoval's amazing offseason adventure peaked when he won the Venezuelan Home Run Derby, dispatching countrymen Magglio Ordonez, Andres Galarraga, Bobby Abreu and Carlos Zambrano before beating Miguel Cabrera in the final round.
The Giants, starved for offense to complement one of the league's better pitching staffs, plan to break camp with Sandoval at third base and young Travis Ishikawa at first. That caps a whirlwind year for Sandoval, whose profile was so nondescript last spring that he didn't rank among Baseball America's top 30 prospects in the San Francisco system.
Sandoval began the 2008 season with San Jose in the Class A California League, made a 44-game pit stop with Connecticut in the Double-A Eastern League, and ended up wowing the big club with his low-maintenance approach to hitting.
"He's a hitting coach's dream, because you don't have to say anything to him," Giants hitting coach Carney Lansford said. "You just let him swing unless he starts having a problem -- which he hasn't yet. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel. If it ain't broke, I ain't fixing it. And it ain't broke."
The list of Sandoval's attributes at the plate is lengthy and varied. He's able to keep his hands back and hit the ball with authority even when he's committed too soon with his shoulders and hips. He has the rare ability to get the barrel of the bat on pitches at the shins or the uniform letters. And at age 22, he's sufficiently poised that an 0-fer or awkward at-bat rarely spill over into the next plate appearance.
Sandoval is the quintessential free swinger. According to the FanGraphs Web site, 45.5 percent of the pitches Guerrero swung at last season were out of the strike zone. That was tops among major league regulars. Sandoval, in a 154-plate appearance cameo with San Francisco, made a staggering 53.8 percent of his swings at pitches outside the strike zone.
For sake of comparison, 40.8 percent of San Francisco catcher Bengie Molina's swings were at pitches outside the zone. That's the same Bengie Molina who has a .310 career on-base percentage and 171 walks in 4,223 plate appearances.
If a pitch is located somewhere between the concession stands, chances are Sandoval will at least eyeball it. Sandoval was adept at making contact as a rookie, but he might find life more challenging this year, when the scouting reports are more meticulous and "waste" pitches are so far out of the zone even he can't reach them.
Sandoval vows to make an effort to become more patient at the plate. But so did Atlanta outfielder Jeff Francoeur, and his progression has yet to work out as planned.
"I'm curious to see how he adjusts to the full-year grind," Aurilia said. "It's not always what you do right out of the gate. It's that second go-round. That's where you learn from your mistakes."
Sandoval became conditioned to taking his hacks as a youth in Venezuela. He grew up playing tape-ball in the family garage with his older brother Michael, who went on to spend six years as a third baseman in the Minnesota Twins' chain.
I just think [Pablo Sandoval is] a natural born hitter. I went out on a limb last year and said I think he's going to be another Albert Pujols. I know it's high praise, but that's kind of who he reminded me of when he first came up.
”-- Hall of Famer Willie McCovey
Sandoval's hefty frame conceals a natural athleticism; he's ambidextrous and can throw the ball accurately and with zip as both a lefty and a righty. But his range is limited at third, and the Giants are covered at catcher for the short term with Molina and the long term with top prospect Buster Posey. The consensus is that Sandoval will forsake both catching and third base for first base eventually.
"He's only 22 and he already doesn't move that well," said a scout. "He's going to have to work hard on that body. He's sort of a 'knock it down, throw it across the diamond' kind of guy at third."
If Sandoval can make the routine plays and stay healthy, that might have to suffice. During a spring training game against the Cubs, Sandoval took a bad-hop grounder by Joey Gathright off the mouth. Sandoval wears braces on his teeth, and Giants trainer Dave Groeschner had to pry the braces loose from his lips. It was not a pretty sight.
Provided he hits, Sandoval plays the game with an infectious energy that's sure to resonate with fans in general and young fans in particular. After mulling over several suggested nicknames for him last year, his teammates finally settled on "Kung Fu Panda."
If opponents take Sandoval's enthusiasm the wrong way, that's their problem. During an early Cactus League game, Sandoval got buzzed by Dodgers pitcher Scott Elbert and responded with a long home run to left field.
After the game, one Dodgers person called Sandoval "cocky." That characterization came as news to the Giants, who saw a model of comportment when Sandoval arrived in the big leagues last summer.
"It's not cockiness at all," Lansford said. "That's his personality. He has a bounce in his step, and he just wants to win and has fun playing. A lot of our hitters actually feed off him."
Said Aurilia: "He has a good head on his shoulders. He came up last year and basically did what he was supposed to do -- play hard, keep your mouth shut and learn."
Responsibility is a family heirloom in the Sandoval household. Sandoval's father, Pablo Sr., is a mechanical engineer, and his mother, Amelia, runs an exporting business, and the family stressed education and the importance of striving for success without shortcuts. The Sandovals are such a close unit, Amelia, Pablo Sr. and brother Michael all traveled to Arizona in spring training to be close to Pablo and show their support.
Sandoval talks of his Venezuelan baseball heritage with a trace of wonder in his voice. He picked up fielding pointers from Vizquel last year in San Francisco, and listened intently when Galarraga, another boyhood favorite, gave him a speech on accountability during the Home Run Derby.
"He told me, 'No matter what, when you get to the big leagues, try to stay there. You don't want to go back to the minor leagues. Work hard and do what they tell you,'" Sandoval said.
If Sandoval has yet to make waves nationwide, that's a function of playing for a West Coast team that finished 18 games below .500 last year. Judging from the buzz he's created in the desert, it's only a matter of time.
"He's going to be a fan favorite in San Francisco, for sure," McCovey said. "The people there are going to love him."
The more Sandoval produces, the more folks who call him undisciplined will opt for "aggressive," and that pudgy moniker will be replaced by "big-boned." Nothing makes scouts and Internet cynics overlook a guy's body mass index more than a .345 batting average.
Starved for offense, the Giants plan to go with "natural born hitter" Pablo Sandoval as their starting third baseman to start the season.