Sandoval Mashes Way To Winter POY

For many Venezuelan boys, Omar Vizquel is their favorite baseball player.

Vizquel, whose big league career has spanned 20 seasons, is Venezuela's all-time leader in runs scored and games played, and he needs just 21 more hits to surpass Luis Aparicio as that country's all-time hit king.

So when San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval started playing baseball at age 5 in Venezuela, his two favorite players were no surprise: fellow countrymen Vizquel and Andres Galarraga.

While Vizquel and Sandoval were both in the Giants organization in 2008, the odds of Sandoval ever teaming up with Vizquel seemed slim. Sandoval, after all, was an A-ball catcher repeating the high Class A California League, while Vizquel was a 41-year-old shortstop in the last year of his contract.

Then came the breakout. Sandoval opened the year at San Jose as a 21-year-old and blasted his way to a California League all-star appearance by batting .359/.412/.597 in 68 games. That performance earned the switch-hitting Sandoval a promotion to Double-A Connecticut, where he continued to mash: .337/.364/.549 in 44 games.

His performance earned him a big league callup in August. Playing against the Padres on Aug. 22, seven days into his major league career, Sandoval grabbed his glove, stepped out of the dugout and played third base for the first time as a big leaguer. The shortstop to his left: Vizquel.

"One of my dreams was complete," Sandoval said. "I couldn't believe it."
Sandoval went 2-for-4 that Friday evening, then went on to finish the year batting .345/.357/.490 in 41 big league games.

Coming into the 2008 season, the notion that Sandoval and Vizquel would be sharing the left side of the infield in San Francisco seemed, at best, remote. But that just underscores the sensational season that Sandoval had, including a stellar winter campaign in the Venezuelan League, to become Baseball America's 2009 Winter Player of the Year.

Playing in winter ball for Navegantes del Magallanes, Sandoval continued lambasting opposing pitchers. In 52 games Sandoval batted .396/.449/.677 with 12 home runs. He even drew 18 walks, though eight of them were when the opposing team decided it was better to intentionally allow Sandoval to trot down to first base rather than allow him to inflict more damage upon their pitchers.

During one stretch in November, Sandoval recorded a 13-game hitting streak, including a stretch in which he homered four times in three games. Making it sweeter for Sandoval was that he played in front of his family, who had seen him play on TV but had never made it to the United States to see him play.

"I think one of the things he did much better this year was he was able to get himself in better counts and then get into better counts to drive the ball a little bit more," said Shane Turner, the Giants' coordinator of minor league instruction. "Yet when he got to two strikes, he had the ability to shorten up (his swing) and put the ball in play.

"When you look at his walk totals, they went up. Not significantly up, but he hit in a lot more 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 counts than he had previously in his career. And pitchers need to throw strikes in that situation unless they want to walk him."

Natural Hitter
Sandoval signed with the Giants as a 16-year-old in May 2003. A couple of months later, Sandoval began his career in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League. It was his first time being away from his family in Venezuela. There was no language barrier for Sandoval, but it was the first time he had been away from his family. Sandoval said that part was difficult for him, but at 16 he showed what the Giants say they have always known he could do: hit. He batted .354/.390/.493, striking out just 13 times in 231 plate appearances.

"You've got three things: a quick bat, hand-eye coordination and you've got bat control," said Bobby Evans, the Giants' vice president of baseball operations. "He's a product of some natural ability and a lot of investment in him of our coaching staff. He's a product of both skill and coaching, but it's hard to teach what he does with the bat with balls in and out of the zone."

Sandoval came to the U.S. the following season and hit .266/.287/.373 in 46 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Sandoval was a catcher that year, but the Giants moved him to third base in 2005 in the short-season Northwest League. It was something Sandoval had to get used to, as the Giants switched his position nearly every season of his career.

"The biggest question that surrounded him at the time was: where is his best position?" Evans said. "It ended up being a question that created some creativity on our part to put him in a number of different places. He seemed to be adequate at each one, but you're still trying to figure out who he's going to grow into as a player. The one thing he's consistently done is hit, every place he's gone."

Sandoval has floated around in his career from first base to third base to catcher. He spent most of his time at first base in 2006 with low Class A Augusta, then split time between first base and catcher in 2007 with high Class A San Jose. Sandoval, who was 20 years old for most of the 2007 season, batted .287/.312/.476 in the California League that summer, showing his typically uncanny ability to put the bat on the ball with just 52 strikeouts in 423 trips to the plate.

Then Sandoval had his breakout season in 2008. Everywhere he went, he hit. He showed an aggressive approach that didn't lead to many walks or pitches seen per plate appearance, but his ability to put the barrel to the ball and drive it with authority made it work.

"He's not a guy who you look to have a ton of major league power right now, but he's definitely going to be a guy that drives the ball and hits it hard somewhere," Evans said. "We like his aggressiveness, but at the same time you want him to have some patience at the plate to look for a ball in the zone to really drive. But that's who he is. He's an aggressive hitter and it works for him."

Not The Prototype
Not only was Sandoval hitting, he was showing defensive skills as well. While scouts from other teams were skeptical of his receiving skills and of whether a 5-foot-11, 245-pounder could hold up as a big league catcher, Sandoval proceeded to throw out 44 percent of runners in the minor leagues. And in 83 games, he committed just six passed balls.

"He's always had very good feet for a big man, very soft hands and he has arm strength," Turner said. "If you have an offensive catcher, that's a good starting point. Being with (manager) Steve Decker in San Jose, I watched his game-calling improve immensely."

"This is a very good athlete," Evans added, "who isn't prototypical in terms of his look, but he's a good, solid athlete."

In his big league callup, Sandoval played mostly third base and first base, and the Giants would like to see him work his way into a starting role at third base in 2009.

"The bat was dynamic," Evans said, "and (we were) trying to find a way to not only find a way that the bat plays every day in the minor leagues, depending upon the makeup of the minor league club, but also looking into his future where he might best fit. Sometimes the time behind the plate—albeit as good as it looked—it seemed to be perhaps not his quickest path to the higher levels. It seemed that his bat was going to carry him faster than the position would. We needed to find a position that could keep up with the bat.

"The truth is, he could play an average defense at any one of those three positions. Going into '08, our focus was to have him behind the plate because we felt it was a position of need for us. Wherever Pablo is in the long term, he's going to excel because he puts that kind of investment in his work ethic."

When Sandoval began getting regular time in San Francisco's infield, Vizquel was there to share his wisdom.

"We worked together last year," Sandoval said. "He gave me little tips like how to take a ground ball, how to move your feet...He told me keep working, keep working. If you're working, you get your chance to play."

Wherever the Giants decide to put him in the field is fine with Sandoval.

"I just want to be in the lineup every day," Sandoval said. "If you find a spot for me, I'll just play. I just want to be in the lineup and play every day. I can be in the outfield, whatever, I just want to play."

If he keeps hitting like he did last year, pretty soon boys in Venezuela could look up to Sandoval the way he looked up to Vizquel.

"He plays the game hard and he plays the game with a certain level of intensity, but he also exudes that he's having fun playing the game," Evans said. "I think that fans can see that. They see the effort but they also see the fun he's having. He really genuinely is a solid young man, and I think everything he does on and off the field continues to enhance his image."