Heading into spring training, Pablo Sandoval might actually be in “the best shape of his life.” This descriptor is overused, and mocked for being overused, to a pronounced degree, but in Sandoval’s case it’s probably the right one. He looks less like Kung Fu Panda than he does Tai Lung, said Panda’s jacked, leonine mortal enemy in the animated movie from which Sandoval got his nickname.
It’s a good movie. In it, Tai Lung is locked in a jail for being a big jerk after being passed over for the title of “Dragon Warrior.” It’s kind of a big deal. Long story short, that moniker later goes to Po, the titular Panda, surprising and shocking everybody, because he is fat and slow. Tai Lung later escapes jail, ultimately facing Po and, despite being a superior physical specimen, loses badly in combat. The simple lesson here -- which my 2-year-old watches three times a week-- is physical strength isn’t everything, inner strength is important, animals can talk, the whole shebang.
Which brings us back to Sandoval. What’s his inner strength, man?, “you” asked, and I’m glad “you” did. There’s a chance Sandoval’s weight has been holding him back over the last few years, but there’s also a chance it has overshadowed the fact that he plateaued in his early-to-mid-20’s, just like the vast majority of baseball players throughout the history and could, like them, simply be regressing his way toward retirement.
If he has, in fact, overshadowed this — and make no mistake, that’s a cruel weight joke — he’s done it by being a Tai Lung-style postseason monster. There isn’t much better you can do than hit three homers in a World Series game, and the Panda done did it. The problem is it’s flashier than it is predictive, David Ortiz’s existence aside...
... but, I mean, Adam Kennedy hit three homers in an ALCS game. Adam Kennedy was a butthead, and was no likelier to repeat his postseason heroics than you are to start at third base for the Red Sox this year or be named the next “Dragon Warrior,” not least of which because no such thing actually exists.
Throw out the 2012 playoff masterpiece, though, and it’s hard to see anything but decline in Sandoval’s slash lines going back to his rookie year. His career line is .287/.339/.451, but it’s been .271/.304/.409 since before Barack Obama’s re-election campaign began. Pardon my skepticism, but to think that he’s going to return to 2011’s form because he lost weight after a full season off seems like a stretch.
Could he be good? Sure. He can probably stretch now, for one thing, and there are some precedents for such a bounceback. Among the hundreds of examples of players who returned from the abyss thrive is former Red Sox pitcher and current World Series champion John Lackey. He was persona non grata in Boston after putting up a 6.41 ERA during Chicken & Beerghazi and the spectacular 2011 collapse, sat out 2012 with an injury, and returned in 2013 to put a 3.52 ERA and help the Sox to a title.
A better comparison comes from the hot corner, as the Sox have a precedent at third base. Boston was forced to take Mike Lowell in the Hanley Ramirez deal for Josh Beckett deal with (then-)Florida because Lowell was considered deadweight for the Marlins after hitting .236/.298/.360 for the Fish in 2006. All he did for the Red Sox in 2007 was hit .284/.339/.475 and win the World Series MVP. That part sounds familiar, at least.
The problem for Sandoval, especially compared with Lowell, is that he was never that great a hitter to begin with, at least not a conventionally great one. (I’m reminded of Billy Beane’s “Mr. Swing-at-Everything” designation for Miguel Tejada in Moneyball when discussing Sandoval, or of a budget Vladimir Guerrero highlight reel). Lowell already had a long track record of hitting well in the majors, with a great eye and some power. Sandoval has flashed some power, but walks have never been his thing, and he hasn’t hit higher than .283 since he was a 24-year-old in San Francisco. That year, he hit .315/.357/.552. That is good. He hit .330 a few years before that, which is great.
Can he find the fountain of youth and do it again? Or, more to the point, has he already found it? While I commend for getting in shape, let’s just say I find that in the spirit of this column’s namesake, I find it pretty, pretty unlikely that he runs away with the third base job this year. Maybe that’s because I just can’t see him ever running away with anything, but I’ve got more than just fat jokes on my side Then again, no one thought Po was the Dragon Warrior, either, and look how that turned out; and if you have a kid, look at it again, over and over and over.