I'm somewhere in the 10-20 pounds heavier than I’ve ever been range, a match beyond the place I’d previously only inhabited during bouts of post-college depression. For someone who used to run a five-minute mile, this kind of thing can be frightening to go through. Though outside of my clothes not fitting the way I’d like -- while I prefer a tighter fit than most, buttons-grabbing-onto-fabric-like-a-scene-from-Cliffhanger is a bit snug -- I’m fundamentally okay with the way I look.
So, needless to say, it’s kind of hard to get after Pablo Sandoval for showing up to spring training in whatever’s the properly cliched counterweight of "I’m in the best shape of my career". Sure, he looks like a baseball playing version of me, with shapelier calves and a (much) better tan. But even if that wasn’t the case, I’d be hard pressed to find a reason why it is any of our business how much he weighs or what he looks like in a t-shirt.
That essentially no one that has ever come into spring training "in the best shape of their life" has ever really improved -- unless it was a walk year, of course -- seems besides the point. It’s as though we forget that we talk about these things every year, often about the same people, and often with the same level of eventual significance: none.
Not to mention the laundry list of famous athletes (and baseball players in particular) for whom a six-pack was not a high priority. There's little correlation between being in the best shape and being the best, and there's certainly a difference between being dangerously obese and out of shape. Also, as a life long professional wrestling fan,if you don't think "fat" guys can be athletic, I have three words for you: Bam Bam Bigelow. And another two: Tomohoro Ishii. Okay, okay, two more: Kevin Owens. We could play this game all day, but that's kind of the point.
But what makes it worse is that we knew what we were getting as fans when we signed the guy. For a player, who even as a World Series MVP had a nickname that conjures up images of pandas and Jack Black, are we really surprised he has a bit of gut in February?
Now, there are definite caveats to this. That he’s a professional athlete, with a contract that supposedly presupposes he’ll "stay in shape" (whatever that would mean, unless there are specific causes relating to defining it.). That we "pay his salary" -- even though, at this point, it’s probably mostly subsidized by people who don’t watch baseball but have NESN on their cable package. That, more so than any other sport outside of football, baseball is a "What have you done for me lately" business. And at least one of those is definitely valid.
Which brings us to the issue of his performance last year, a season somewhere between atrocious and literally the worst in the league. But it’s ultimately unclear how much of that had to do with what kind of shape he was in, especially as it relates to his horrific fielding. Even those who had publicly complained about his weight during spring training last year still reported him as looking agile. And it’s not like he was looking like Mike Trout when he was doing the Lord’s work at third in San Francisco. This is yet another reminder that "is fat" and "is out of shape" are not the same thing, as easy as they are to conflate on an otherwise quiet February day.
It’s less the accuracy of the reporting than how it’s reported, however. If the jokes and comments written by professional journalists about Sandoval, were said by them towards a female athlete -- as opposed to all the other times that literally every other person, Internet commenter and unprofessional journalist on earth speaks about women like this -- they’d rightfully be on the firing block.
But there’s idiocy and duplicity to be mined from Pablo acting as though he hadn’t been told to lose weight, and quality journalists like our own Joon Lee have pointed that out. There’s also the idea that it was an incredible dumb signing to begin with, especially with Hanley coming at the same time and potentially creating a logjam at third base. That inkling we should be more concerned with, as well as the fact that his first strike percentage is up five points from the last five years, that his swing and contact rates were at lows over the same period, and all while he was seeing significantly more pitches in the strike zone than he had since 2008.
Instead, we talk about how his shirt doesn’t fit right. We do it because it’s easy, cheap, and something that feels okay as a collective to do. The truth is it’s wildly inappropriate, and honestly more than a little weird. That we’re in a nation filled with so many people who struggle with their weight makes it particularly egregious. This isn’t about being politically correct: it’s about treating people like they have hopes and feelings. You know, like people.
They also don't take into account that even if Pablo Sandoval wasn't a human being, and presumably nice guy, his job doesn't require him to look like a body builder. He just needs to produce on the field, regardless of how big he gets. He hasn't, not because he wasn't in shape, but because he might not be as good as he used to be, or as good as the team thought he was.
Which brings us to the crux of the issue: even if these comments were warranted or appropriate, and not hate-and-spiteful, there’s a sizable chance they are preoccupied with the potential of a bad season that isn't coming.
It’s not though we've been given any concrete reason to believe that we’ll see a repeat of last season’s debacle, and if anything, all signs point to an improvement, at least offensively. Both ZiPS and Fans projections put him at least in the vicinity of his career averages. And while Fangraphs' quick hit synopsis largely brushes it off, his BABIP being 30 points lower than his career average would seem to indicate that he may been stuck between a minor decline and major string of bad luck (in more ways than one).
Which is to say, ultimately, that the numbers seem to have faith in Pablo, and maybe we should too. At the least, give him some time, like you would anyone else.