Pablo Sandoval regressed last year but is looking to regain his form in the upcoming season.

This is the second installment in “Countdown to Opening Day,” which will answer questions about the San Francisco Giants and the rest of the MLB in preparation for the start of baseball in 2011.

Will Pablo Sandoval bounce back?

Last year:

Over the last two seasons the Giants burly third baseman Pablo Sandoval became a favorite in San Francisco, winning fans over with his carefree smile, towering home runs and rotund appearance. Nicknamed “Kung Fu Panda” by pitcher Barry Zito, the craze for Sandoval took off in 2009 as Sandoval hit .330 with 25 home runs in his first full season in the MLB. After nearly making the National League all star team, hideous ear-flapped panda hats could be seen everywhere at AT&T Park and it seemed as if the Panda could do no wrong.

Alas, Sandoval’s resemblance to a panda was a big reason why he regressed so badly last year. His batting average dropped 62 points to .268 in 2010 and he only hit 13 home runs. Sandoval was unable to keep off the weight last season and the 5’11″ third baseman ballooned to 278 pounds. Sandoval was also a liability in the field last year. His weight limited his range and Sandoval often made wild throws to first. Ultimately, it was Sandoval’s fielding that allowed manager Bruce Bochy to bench him for much of the playoffs. Always a free swinger, Sandoval was exploited time after time by pitchers who had a full year of game tape to examine his inability to both lay off of and hit the high fastball. Perhaps another factor behind last season’s letdown was the fans’ continued adulation of Sandoval, which may have contributed to a less than stellar work ethic.

Spring Training 2011 trim

Pablo Sandoval reported to Spring Training in Scottsdale 38 pounds lighter.

This year’s prediction:

All signs point to a great season for the Panda. Sandoval lost 38 pounds (my god, how fat was he before?) over the off season and I believe he will be committed to keeping his fat under control this season. At about this time last year people were amazed at how much weight Sandoval dropped, only to see him gain it all back once the season got rolling. However, this season will be different because Sandoval will make sure to stay away from the snack bar after such a humbling year in 2010. Not to mention the extra motivation that comes with the Giants winning the World Series despite a horrid season by Sandoval.

Sandoval has been ripping the cover off the ball in Spring Training, saying that his increased flexibility and weight loss has freed up his hips to release when he swings. Another encouraging sign are the reports that Sandoval is also hitting well from the right side; last year he struggled mightily righty, only batting .227.

Obviously, Sandoval’s weight is something that people will always point out during his ups and downs, but fans underestimate the importance of Sandoval becoming a more patient hitter this season. The Panda will always be a free swinger, and the Giants should not try to change his entire approach, but Sandoval needs to be able to let go more high fastballs and curveballs in the dirt, which should boost his abysmal .323 OBP from last year. Talking with Barry Bonds, baseball’s all time leader in walks, should help Sandoval’s plate discipline.

Pablo Sandoval is primed for a comeback season in 2011. He’ll become the electrifying player that he was two years ago and will  hit around 25 home runs again. He’ll have a solid average in the .280s and I wouldn’t rule him out as the first Giant since Barry Bonds in 2004 to have 100 RBI on the year. Welcome back Pabs.

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