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A Month Without Panda

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Heading into the Cactus League home stretch, the only San Francisco Giant injuries of note are Hector Sanchez -- with ominous pain in his shoulder -- Pablo Sandoval, who is having his right elbow examined, and Jose Mijares, also dealing with elbow problems. Let's play a thought game. Someone comes up to you at the water cooler and says, "Friend, have you heard? The Giants are heading into the 2013 regular season without ______, and it could be a month before he returns."

Now put each of those three names into that sentence. Let me guess. "Without Jose Mijares" didn't raise your blood pressure at all, and in fact, depending on the ferocity of your Dan Runzler fetish, might have provided a wee frisson of guilty pleasure.

"Without Hector Sanchez" -- a more complicated response. The thought of a journeyman like Guillermo Quiroz replacing Sanchez for a month sounds grim, but frankly, it won't take much to match what Sanchez gave the Giants last year on a month-by-month basis. If Sanchez's injury requires a little bit of DL time, but not a lot, it makes absolutely no sense finding a different backup. And if Quiroz's defense is far more polished (again, wouldn't take much), Hector might find himself, well, Sanchez'd by Quiroz, with the pitching staff threatening to mutiny if "Q" -- a fairly safe guess at his nickname -- is sent down to make room for healthy Hector.
OK, last one. "Without Pablo Sandoval." Ulp. You're sweating. You're fidgety. You need a smoke break. This is no good, no good at all, you mumble. Well, probably, but a funny thing happened on the way to the DL: The Giants have fared quite well without Panda.

We all know about 2010, when he was benched down the stretch and in the playoffs. In 2011, he broke his first hamate bone and the Giants went 25-16 without him. In 2012, he broke his other hamate bone and pulled a groin muscle, and during those two DL stints the Giants went 29-24 without him. All told over the past two years, the Giants had a winning percentage of .574 sans Panda. With him, they were .547. (Their total winning percentage in 2011-2012 was .556.)

This could be total coincidence. Or just what good teams do: get along pretty well for a while without a big cog. Or it could be a small but telling statement about the hidden costs of Sandoval's defense, even though some advanced metrics have rated him favorably. Or it could be a smart manager getting the most of his back-up plans.

In 2010, Sandoval was at sea, and Juan Uribe made a difference. But in 2011 and 2012, Sandoval was crushing the ball (.904 OPS, .912 OPS) before each hamate injury. Miguel Tejada was his replacement in 2011, Joaquin Arias in 2012. Arias played tight D at third, and that's about the best it got while Panda was on the shelf. We hazily remember Arias doing all right with the bat last year -- and overall he did hit lefties reasonably well -- but in the month of games he started at third base in place of Pablo (May 8 to June 12), his overall OPS dropped from .832 to .597. 

Bottom line is, the Giants without Pablo Sandoval have fared slightly better the past two years than the Giants with Pablo Sandoval. Don't get me wrong. I don't want to try the experiment yet again; I want a healthy happy hammerin' Panda in the lineup. But the prospect of a month or so in 2013 with Joaquin Arias at third and a couple weird scrubs as backup infielders isn't turning my knees to jelly.

I guess that's what they mean by baseball being a "team game," like it's actually played by a team -- unless the guy not able to play with your team is Buster Posey.

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