SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Dan O'Brien, the former gold-medal-winning Olympic decathlete, heard in November that he'd have a new client to train — a third baseman from the Giants.
But the day Pablo Sandoval first walked into the Triple Threat Performance facility, O'Brien didn't take notice of him.
"He came in with his agent and I thought they were a couple Joes off the street," O'Brien said. "Honestly, I didn't think he was an athlete. The agent introduced him and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this might be the biggest third baseman I've ever seen.'"
Sandoval, the rotund Kung Fu Panda, was big-bodied to begin with. But by the time the Giants won the World Series on Nov. 1, the 5-foot-11 infielder had ballooned to 278 pounds. He couldn't take a half-dozen ground balls without panting, hands on knees. His chronically sore hips locked up his swing, especially from the right side.
Just 23 and one year removed from his breakout 2009 season in which he hit .330, Sandoval was on the verge of becoming a corpulent dropout. A flash in the Panda, so to speak.
His deteriorating defense cost him his starting job in the playoffs. Giants manager Bruce Bochy and GM Brian Sabean gave Sandoval their scared-straight speech after the victory parade, telling him he'd be shipped to Triple-A Fresno if he didn't take off significant weight over the winter.
So Sandoval showed up at Triple Threat in Tempe, Ariz., properly motivated. It was up to owner/director Ethan Banning and his team, including O'Brien, to provide the structure he needed.
A little more than three months later, Banning reported that Sandoval weighed 240 pounds when he took his physical Friday morning. His body fat measurement went from 30 percent to 19 percent. Combined with an estimated gain of seven pounds of muscle, Banning said Sandoval has shed 45 pounds of goo.
Will it translate in the batter's box? That remains to be seen. Sandoval said his weight wasn't the sole reason he slumped to .268 last year and lost nearly 150 points off his slugging percentage.
But on the first pitch he saw in live batting practice Saturday, Sandoval hit a towering shot over the right-field fence. A few pitches later, facing minor leaguer Felix Romero, he belted one over the center-field wall.
"I feel great," Sandoval said. "Everything is going to be different this year."
According to his trainers, there already is a measurable and striking difference in Sandoval's strength, endurance and agility. O'Brien started him out with 100- and 200-yard interval runs, joined by a few college football players. Sandoval routinely finished last in the group. During rest periods, he'd sprawl flat on his back and beg for extra time.
"Oh, we took pictures of him on the ground," O'Brien said. "But he wasn't afraid of it, and from week to week, there was improvement."
Now, Sandoval "looks like a runner," O'Brien said. "Good arm action, knees are up. He's not sloppy. He pays attention to his technique and form. He's changed as a professional athlete."
Banning demanded the same dedication from Sandoval in the weight room and at the training table.
"He ate in a way that crushed his metabolism," Banning said. "He'd not eat breakfast, sleep till he got to the ballpark, go out at night and eat a mammoth meal, probably some adult cocktails. That's the way it went down.
"The bottom line is, he played professional baseball but he did not behave like a professional. He didn't have the knowledge. So, early on, he had to learn how to work and eat like a professional."
Sandoval "was miserable early," said Banning, but he lost 10 pounds in his first week. The results fueled his willpower.
Sandoval couldn't do three pull-ups in early November. Now he does sets of 10. His legs shook when he tried to squat 135 pounds. Now he is squatting 400. The first day, Sandoval struggled to complete two reps of an exercise called the inverted row. He maxed out at 26 last week.
His flexibility and range of motion vastly increased too. Sandoval, a switch hitter, complained of constant hip pain last season and now acknowledges that the problems wrecked his right-handed swing. He hit .379 from the right side in '09 but just .227 last season.
"It was bad, my hips," Sandoval said. "I (couldn't) even get through to the ball. Now I can swing hard. Now I get loose and nothing is sore."
Sandoval received chiropractic alignments and deep-tissue rubs — what Banning called "hurt-you" massages — to correct the dysfunction in his hips. Three months ago, he couldn't touch his fingertips to his toes. Now, he palms the floor.
Banning is confident that Sandoval's strength, energy level, flexibility and confidence will make an impact in the batter's box. O'Brien envisions a fleeter Sandoval turning more singles into doubles, even challenging him to swipe a few bags.
Discipline remains the key for Sandoval, lest his offseason results disappear like the strides he made in his "Camp Panda" experience a year ago.