SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Kung Fu Panda and his million-watt smile are making their way through the clubhouse, stopping to joke with Aubrey Huff at one table, pausing for a conversation in Spanish at another, then out to the still-empty dugout on this quiet morning to make a cell phone call.
Amazing thing is, he hasn't even drilled a crazy pitch off his shoe tops for a double into the gap since yesterday afternoon. Of course, it is only 8:30.
And I pause here to ask: Panda and Bam-Bam?
How can you not grin right along with these Giants? That's got to loosen up even the most blue-blooded of Dodgers fans, doesn't it?
Panda is third baseman Pablo Sandoval, one of the most infectious rising stars in the game.
Bam-Bam is Hensley Meulens, the former major league outfielder who is San Francisco's new hitting coach.
Together, along with a cast that includes holdovers Rowand, Bengie Molina and Edgar Renteria and newcomers Mark DeRosa and Huff, Panda and Bam-Bam are hoping to reshape a Giants offense that has been stubbornly inefficient over the past few seasons into a run-producing contender.
Why, you might even say that if Panda and Bam-Bam can do this, the Giants will have a yabba dabba doo time right on into October. Especially given a rotation led by Freak (Tim Lincecum), Matt Cain and Barry Zito.
The punchline with the Giants is this: They were cartoonish enough last year to win 88 games despite a lineup that ranked 13th in the NL in runs scored and dead last in the league in both on-base percentage (.319) and walks (392).
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"The impression I get wasn't that the offense struggled so bad so much as it was a reflection of the approach," says DeRosa, the veteran who won at previous stops with the Braves and Cubs. "When the approach isn't there, it can kind of snowball.
"Maybe Bam-Bam giving us a different voice, maybe the way I go about things, maybe that will help.
"I know there will be seven hitters grinding it out ... and then we'll let Panda do what he does."
If there's an operating philosophy as the Giants approach liftoff for 2010, that's as good as any.
Meulens is the Giants' third hitting coach in the past four seasons. He follows Carney Lansford, who followed Joe LeFebvre. The Giants, over the past five seasons, rank last in the majors in runs and on-base percentage, 29th in home runs, tied for 29th in slugging percentage and 28th in walks.
Without an impact run producer in the middle of their order like Albert Pujols (or, cough, cough, like Barry Bonds), the Giants cannot afford sloppy approaches and missed opportunities. Last year's Giants drew just 351 unintentional walks which, as Baseball Prospectus points out, is one of the lowest totals of the past 50 years and the fewest in any non-strike season since the Tigers drew 341 in 2002.
Neither Huff nor DeRosa is a one-man wrecking crew, but both will make the life of a hitting coach -- and, by extension, that of the Giants -- less stressful. Both get on base about 34 percent of the time. And Huff's career batting average is .282, DeRosa's .275.
"Professional hitters who give you tough, tough at-bats every time," Meulens says.
Meulens is working with both Molina and Sandoval to calm down even a wee bit in the box after they ranked 1-2 in the NL last year in percentage of pitches swung at (Molina was at 58 percent, Sandoval 57 percent). The trick is to slow them down without taking away their aggression.
"If Bengie swung at the first pitch four or five times this spring, that's a lot," Meulens says. "He's taking a first-pitch strike every time. He's going to right field. He's a guy who's very valuable to the team because he produces.
"I try to tell him if you can get a good count, you try and make the pitcher make a mistake."
Nobody can really explain what Panda does because so much of it is so outrageous. He's the best bad-ball hitter this side of Vladimir Guerrero. The other day in Glendale in a Cactus League game against the White Sox, he drove a pitch that was, yes, at his shoe tops into the right-center field gap for a double. Didn't simply hit it. Drove it.
"I don't want to change anything with him," says Meulens, and hearing him say that you get the idea that this is a hitting coach who could have staying power. "People are saying he's got to take more pitches and take more walks. How much better do you we want him to get?
"His on-base percentage (.387) was the best of any third baseman last year."
Sandoval's .330 batting average ranked second in the NL in '09. Since 1958, only three other players have had higher averages in their first full major league seasons: Wade Boggs (.361 in 1983), Ichiro Suzuki (.350 in 2001) and Fred Lynn (.331 in 1975).
"He's aware that he can be better if he hits the ball when it's in the [strike] zone more than chasing it," Meulens says.
Sleeper ... Madison Bumgarner: Bumgarner worked mostly out of the bullpen in his brief stint with the Giants last season, but he looked every bit ready for major-league duty, striking out 10 batters in 10 innings. And that was with his velocity down -- something an offseason of rest should cure. With all the talent in their starting rotation, the Giants have no reason to rush Bumgarner, which is why he was sent to the minors to begin the season. He's a future ace -- and one relatively unhyped.
Bust ... Bengie Molina: Just when the Giants hinted Buster Posey would start, they backed down and re-signed Molina. But he won't bat cleanup anymore, which eliminates all those RBI opportunities that set him apart from other catchers, and at age 35, he has nowhere to go but down. The slightest muscle pull opens the door for Posey to take the job and never look back. Molina is nothing more than a stopgap -- a good one, but just as temporary as any other.
Breakout ... Jonathan O. Sanchez: It has to come together for this strikeout artist eventually, doesn't it? He took another step forward last year, but it didn't come easily, his early-season struggles forcing him to the bullpen for a short period. He pitched well when he returned, though, posting a 3.46 ERA over his final 16 starts, which included a no-hitter. The 27-year-old left-hander will have to improve his control to avoid becoming an Oliver Perez type whose performance doesn't match his stuff, but based on his age and steady progress, if a breakthrough is coming, it'll come soon.
-- Scott White
Top Giants Prospects (2010 destination)
1. Buster Posey, C, Triple-A
2. Madison Bumgarner, SP, Triple-A
3. Thomas Neal, OF, Double-A
4. Zack Wheeler, SP, Class A
5. Dan Runzler, RP, Majors
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But really, how much fun would he be if he didn't whack the occasional pitch off of the plate ... or out of the other batter's box?
"It's fun," Giants pitcher Matt Cain says. "He's full of intensity all the time, whether it's in batting practice, drills or in general in his life. He picks everyone up. We love being around Pablo."
And Sandoval loves being around them.
"I keep doing what I'm doing, working hard," he says. "Trying to help my teammates. That's the way I play."
His joie de vivre is infectious, his enthusiasm contagious.
"I love it," he says. "Everything. The fans, the city, the cold weather. I love it."
What, specifically, about the city?
"Everything," he says. "The Golden Gate Bridge. Alcatraz [the old prison that's now a museum]. I went there with my family last year on a day off."
At 250 or so pounds, Sandoval has the most unlikely body for a star since the late Kirby Puckett. The disarming thing, though -- aside from incredible hand-eye coordination -- is his athleticism. There was a play against Los Angeles two summers ago in which Panda and the ball converged on the plate at the same time, the Dodgers catcher went low for the ball and Panda instinctively leapt over him and then tumbled home, safe.
That's when Zito immediately dubbed him Kung Fu Panda, and it stuck. When the Giants returned home, Rich Aurilia brought a giant blow-up panda to the park and plopped it in the team's weight room.
"It fits, you know?" Zito says contentedly. "He's athletic."
Meulens, 42, earned his nickname way back when he was 14, home on the island of Curacao, crushing softballs with his friends. When the right-handed Meulens stepped in and began whaling away left-handed, that's when the Bam-Bam thing started. And stuck.
Panda, only 23, already is working on his legend. Why, when he needed five stitches earlier this spring after getting spiked on a play at the plate, Giants closer Brian Wilson quipped that doctors stitched him up with bamboo.
"He's great," Meulens says, smiling, knowing there will be times this summer when Sandoval will leave him shaking his head in both good and bad ways. "I'd like to have 10 of him.
"He's really loose. He's happy. He plays hard. He hits from both sides. He's a rare breed. They don't make 'em like that."
Panda and Bam-Bam. Perfect.