Tony Sanchez: Down Year or Bust?

Is Sanchez a bust, or just having a down year?

There has been no question that Tony Sanchez is having a down year.  He’s currently hitting for a .239 average at the plate, and his power has been down, with a .304 slugging percentage, and only nine of his 60 hits going for extra bases.  Prospects are never a guarantee, although there is one thing that is certain with any prospect.  That one thing is the roller coaster ride that their values can take, at least in the eyes of fans.

Usually at the first sign of problems, fans will write off a prospect as a bust, or assume their career is over.  Sanchez isn’t the only player in the Pirates’ system who has struggled this year, and for that reason, he’s getting a lot of these “bust” comments.  The problem with this type of analysis is that it’s based too much on reactions.  It focuses on a small sample size, in this case, half a season.  In a case like Sanchez, people assume the poor stats are a sign that the prospect wasn’t as good as we thought, rather than just a normal down year.

There’s a reason for this.  It comes from the idea that prospects should just breeze through each level, as if the only purpose of the minor leagues is to pass the time until a player reaches the majors.  We get so caught up in estimated arrivals that we forget the purpose of the minors.  The purpose is taking a player out of college or high school, and turning them in to a major league player.  Usually the estimated arrivals are more of a best case scenario.  In the case with Sanchez, the best case was that he would arrive in June 2011.  That obviously changed when he missed half a year in 2010 with a broken jaw.  At this point the ETA is June 2012, although his performance this year could push that back.

That’s disappointing.  But at the same time, it’s not the end of the world.  The key is determining whether Sanchez is just having a down year, or if he’s showing signs that he’s not as good as we thought he was.  So let’s break down his season.

Hitting

There’s no question that his hitting has been poor.  He’s got a .237 average, after hitting for a .314 average in high-A last year.  It’s hard to say whether this is due to the jump from high-A to AA, or whether it’s due to missing so much time last year.  It’s worth noting that Sanchez doesn’t look totally over-matched at the plate.  His strikeout rate is down over 3% from 2010, sitting at a 16.6% rate in AA.  His walks are also above-average, at 10.4% in AA.

Power

This has been a bigger concern than the hitting.  The value of Sanchez goes:

1. Defense

2. Power

3. Hitting

He can get by as a strong defender with power.  The hitting is more of a luxury.  But the power hasn’t been there this year.  Sanchez had just one extra base hit in April, a homer.  He had a decent month of May, but then again in June he had one extra base hit, which again was a homer.  Sanchez has displayed his power in the past.  I don’t believe a hitter just loses power at a young age.  However, because of his broken jaw, Sanchez went on a liquid diet last year, and lost a lot of weight as a result.  It’s possible that the weight loss could also be tied to his power loss.

Defense

The key to Sanchez’s value has always been his defense.  That said, there’s been a big misconception about his defense.  When he was drafted, it was said that he was:

1. Already a major league average defender

2. Capable of being a Gold Glove winner in the future

People tend to mix those two up, suggesting that he was announced as already being a Gold Glove defender when he was drafted.  Like any prospect, Sanchez has work to do to take his defense from college level to major league level.  He excels at blocking pitches, but needs work on calling games, and needs work on his caught stealing percentage.

The latter has been bad this year, although it’s hard to say how much of that is the fault of Sanchez.  The Pirates don’t put much emphasis on pitchers holding runners on.  They put the focus on the pitchers executing their pitches and hitting their spots.  In fact, Sanchez was frustrated by this early in the year.

His skill of blocking pitches has been great this year.  He’s only allowed three passed balls in 65 games, after allowing 4 in 40 games last year, and 8 in 42 games in 2009.

His defense needs work, but it’s not struggling like his hitting has struggled.  He’s made improvements in an already strong point of blocking pitches and preventing passed balls (and every time I’ve seen him, he’s displayed some outstanding athleticism behind the plate, lunging at anything that goes wild, and usually blocking it).  While the Pirates don’t put much of a priority on holding runners on, there are some concerns with Sanchez’s caught stealing rate.  Runners steal off the pitcher, and if the pitcher is slow to the plate, there is little that Sanchez can do.  However, I’ve seen some of his throws, and they’re not always on the money, which is an area he could work to improve on.

There were questions this week as to why I didn’t list Sanchez as a guy who was dropping in the top 50 analysis, and why I listed him as untouchable in the trade deadline preview.  The main reason is that his value is primarily based on his defense, and his defense isn’t struggling like his offense is.

Bust or Down Year?

I don’t really believe in burying a prospect at the first sign of trouble.  It’s the shiny new toy syndrome.  You get a guy in the system, and he looks great until the first sign of trouble.  Then you drop him lower in the rankings, all while pumping up someone else who hasn’t struggled.  Never mind the fact that, in most cases, the guy struggling is in the upper levels, while the guy who isn’t struggling is in the lower levels.  That’s based off the false idea that top prospects should have an easy ride to the majors, with no bumps along the way.  When a prospect does have a bump, we want to write him off.  When a prospect has success in the lower levels, we want to elevate him higher, because we assume the future will be a smooth road, with no bumps along the way.

The fact is that prospects, just like major league players, can have down years without the year serving as a reflection on the career of the prospect.  In the case with Sanchez, the main issue is his hitting, which is secondary to his overall value, falling behind his defense.  There are a lot of question marks involved.  Is he still impacted by missing time in 2010?  How has the jump to AA affected his hitting?  Is his low power a result of losing so much weight last year?

I wouldn’t say that his down year makes him a bust.  I wouldn’t say that it’s a disappointment that he’s not in the majors with the Pirates needing catchers (I didn’t even project him in the majors in 2011 prior to his poor 2011 season).  The temptation is there to look at his high draft selection, and assume that he’s a disappointment because he’s struggling in AA and isn’t in the majors yet.  You can’t just use that surface analysis though.  You have to look deeper.  His defense isn’t struggling that much, and his offensive struggles point more towards a down year, rather than a lack of talent.  The temptation is to just write him off, but that’s more a reaction to a bad half season.  That’s not a smart way to evaluate prospects, as very few prospects go through their careers without at least one period of poor performance.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Anonymous

    The world is totally stats oriented and they are important, but they never tell the whole story,  there is not a stat in the world that can tell if a guy has lost strength because of  diet that can’t be avoided or if a player is concentrating on a certain part of his game in the minors or if he is having trouble with a certain pitch and he is altering his swing to hit that pitch.

  • Dave Boocock

    One bright spot that makes me believe Sanchez is going to turn it around and be just fine is his walk rate. You can temporarily lose athletic ability due to injury, but his baseball smarts are just as keen. 

  • Anonymous

    If IIRC Sanchez was getting large before his last year of college. He lost weight before that season started. Has anyone checked his FR and Soph seasons vs his Jr season to see if he had a power surge? Might tell something or might be totally meaningless.

    Too early to give up on him, but he doesn’t appear to have as bright a future today.

    About Pirates catching: McKenry looks to be doing as well as can be expected. Is it feasible to pick up Soto, who is being described as available for the right price?

  • http://twitter.com/Jcsteel Jimmy Cali

    Shelby miller, Jacob Turner or Zach Wheeler should have been the pick because we would have another ELITE arm in the system. Especially with the way all the over slot prep arms of 09 are not performing at West Virginia.  4th pick in the draft you have to get an impact player with high ceiling.  Sanchez never was going to have a high ceiling. 

    • Anonymous

      If he was tearing it up you’d be holding your tongue

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/RB6BJ5QYXVUGVLLTGTCNPETZS4 Josh

        What!?

      • http://twitter.com/Jcsteel Jimmy Cali

        Still would have been the wrong move.   We got the 4th pick and we are getting a catcher that might be better than average?  Sorry,I like a higher ceiling than that.

        I’m more angry about the philosophy that NH did that year in the draft than whether Sanchez is playing well or not.

        • Anonymous

          I can’t dispute that Sanchez was (obviously) not the best player available at number 4, just pointing out how when he was hitting well last year people were hailing him as possibly a future all-star catcher.

    • F Lang

      You say “all” the over slot arms from 2009 are not performing at W.Va. That is completely false. Cain, Pounders, Black, Dodson, and Fuesser are all pitching well in Low A. Only ZVR has been a total mess and even he has excellent K:BB ratio. He is just getting too much of the plate. One other thing that wasn’t mentioned on Sanchez is he had very few AB’s at High A and has made an ambitious jump to AA. It could be argued he needed a few more months in Bradenton to start 2011. I think his BB:K ratio is really good for the jump he made and if it continues the results will show in time for a strong finish in August. He will be heade to the AFL again also I’m sure and hope he can really pick it up there.

  • http://twitter.com/matt_glenn Matt Glenn

    Sanchez’s BABIP in ’09 and ’10 was around .350 or higher in each year.  This year, it’s .275.  Unfortunately, Fangraphs doesn’t have LD% for minor leaguers (I doubt anyone measures such things) so it’s impossible to say if he’s hitting fewer line drives or hitting into worse luck.  Any time a player’s BABIP drops .75 points from his (admittedly short) career average there’s at least a decent chance that luck’s playing a big role.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if BABIP often drops as players move up levels since you’d expect the defense to improve at each level.  I’m definitely not giving up on Sanchez yet.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=sa500593&position=C

    • Anonymous

      statcorner.com is a great site to use as well, especially for pitchers.  Here’s Sanchez:
      http://statcorner.com/batter.php?id=506997

      His LD is at 17.5 this year down from 24.2 last year. 

      I’m not ready to give up on him, but this year is a setback and should be judged accordingly.  A lot of people were down on d’Arnaud last year, but we saw his fundamentals (K/BB) were still solid and believed he could rebound.

      I think Sanchez will bounce back in 2012.

  • Anonymous

    I saw last nights game, here’s what I had:
    -Blocks the plate very well, as seen as he laid out a runner after an amazing Marte throw.
    -was able to block a ton of pitches but the 1 that actually got by cost the curve a run because two runners advanced on the pitch.
    -Swings the bat VERY hard.  Might make better contact if he eased up a bit but I’m not a scout or coach.
    -He threw two balls into center field on base stealers but I’d blame that as much on Josh Rodriguez not catching the ball as anything, I thought the throws were there early and relatively on target.-Walked on a 3-2 count after a few foul balls, good eye there.

    I’m going to try to make the sat and sun games to get another look.
    -

  • Anonymous

    I saw him play 6 times this year and he hit the ball well a handful of times but mostly it was just weak grounders or popups that would ultimately result in his having a worse BABIP. So sure he is making contact but he’s hitting like a glove first shortstop from the 80’s. It is way too early to write him off but he was having problems throwing last year too so it’s possible it just isnt a strong point for him.

      He may have missed time last year but he also made up time in the AFL and as a spring training invite reporting to camp earlier. It is possible he is at the low end of what plenty of scouts expected him to be, a .260 hitter with 10 homers and good defense. Some even saw him as a major league backup

    • Lee Young

      John……I tend to agree with your next to last sentence. And, I’ve read the last sentence a few times from other sites, too.

      I don’t think he’ll ever be an All Star, but I think he’ll end up being ‘solid’. A poor man’s Kendall, but with better defense.

      However, every game I’ve seen him here in Hbg, he’s made bad throws, so that does seem to be something he needs to work on.

      Wow…….as of today, our last 3 signed #1 picks sure ain’t doing well. BUT……..THE BUCS ARE IN FIRST PLACE!!!!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

    Personally I feel anytime you draft a college level position player in the Top 10 of draft he should be able to hit majors more quickly than Sanchez.  

    • F Lang

      Catchers need more development time than regular players and players get to the majors when they are ready…they all develop differently. Many were writing Neil Walker off 2-3 years ago and look where he is now. There is no directions on the box. Every player is an individual case with no set timetable. What if NH said “I expected Neil Walker to develop in 4 years, let’s trade him?

  • Anonymous

    I agree with not giving up on a prospect of Sanchez’ potential.  The Pirates nearly gave up on Neil Walker.  What a shame that would have been.