There has been a lot of talk about how the 2011 season has been a down year for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system. A big reason for that has been the struggles in the upper levels of some of the top prospects coming in to the 2011 season. One of those prospects is Tony Sanchez, who came in to the year ranked the number three prospect in the system, but has hit for a .241/.340/.318 line in 402 at-bats at the AA level.
Sanchez was taken with the fourth overall pick in the first round of the 2009 draft. The pick was controversial, as there were a lot of players on the board rated higher than Sanchez. After he put up a .314/.416/.454 line in high-A in 2010, the pick was seen as less controversial, especially since Sanchez was projected to be a strong defensive catcher. The Pirates are thin at the catching position, and Sanchez is one of the few players in the system who profiles as a strong two way catcher. That’s why his 2011 season has been seen as such a disappointment.
“I’m supposed to be the both sides of the field guy,” Sanchez said when I talked to him last week. “They drafted me because I’m a good catcher and a good hitter. And the fact that I didn’t hit this year has been frustrating to say the least.”
There are two big factors you might point to in order to try and explain the lack of hitting this year. The first factor is the jump from high-A to AA, which is always the toughest jump to make for hitters. There’s also the fact that Sanchez was hit in the face with a pitch last year, which broke his jaw and ended his season in late-June. He had his jaw wired shut, and went on an all-liquid diet. When an injury like that comes along, there’s always the worry that the player will never be the same. The injury hasn’t changed his approach at the plate, as he doesn’t go up there worried that he will get hit with a pitch. However, the liquid diet has affected him.
Sanchez weighed 225 pounds prior to the injury. He now weighs 212 pounds, and he hasn’t been able to gain the weight back. The Pirates are feeding him protein shakes, protein bars, high calorie meals, making sure he eats 3-4 meals a day, and making sure he gets the proper sleep, hydration, and exercise. They have even sent protein home with him, and make sure he has it when he’s on the road.
“I’m sick and tired of protein,” Sanchez said with a laugh.
Last year Sanchez played in the Arizona Fall League over the off-season, although he didn’t feel it helped him, since he wasn’t playing every day. This year he’s hoping to play in the Dominican League, which he describes as the best of the best as far as winter leagues go, due to the amount of major leaguers that play down there. Regardless of whether he plays in the Dominican League, he’s hoping to spend a month at API (Athlete’s Performance Institute), which is the boot camp of baseball training complexes. His goal there is to get his body where it needs to be in Spring Training.
Recovering physically from his 2010 injury will be a good thing, and it might explain the lack of power this year. It doesn’t explain the lack of hitting, with Sanchez currently holding a .241 average, after putting up a .300 or better average at every stop in the lower levels. The interesting thing is that Sanchez doesn’t look over-matched at the plate. He’s got an 18.9% strikeout rate this year at the AA level, which is an improvement of almost one percent over what he saw in 2010 at the high-A level. He’s walking in 10% of his plate appearances, which is down a bit, but still above average. Sanchez clearly doesn’t have any issues with pitch recognition, although he admits that pitch selection might be an issue.
“I’m not swinging at pitches that I can drive,” Sanchez said. “I’m swinging at pitches that they want me to swing at. But I have such good hand/eye coordination that I can make contact with those pitches. And sometimes you don’t want to make contact with those pitches, you want to let them go, they’re probably balls, they might be strikes, but even if they are strikes, they’re not a pitch that you can drive, and that’s been the story of my season.”
That’s where the jump from high-A to AA might come in. A hitter is going to see better pitches to drive in A-ball, and he’s going to see those pitches more frequently. Sanchez isn’t the first guy we’ve seen that has struggled at the AA level with a low average, despite strong K/BB ratios. Chase d’Arnaud did it last year, maintaining his strong ratios, but hitting for a .247 average. He bounced back this year to hit for a .280 average in AAA before making the jump to the majors. Andrew McCutchen is another player who struggled at the AA level, hitting for a .260 average in his first full season, despite a strong K/BB ratio. He went on to be a .283 hitter in AAA the next season, followed by a .303 average in 2009 before getting the call to the majors.
We’re only talking about one side of the game here, and when it comes to catching, the defense is going to be more important than the offense. Look no further than Pittsburgh to see a prime example of this. The Pirates have two catchers getting most of the time in the majors right now. In one case they have Michael McKenry, who has strong defense, but a .231 average and a .604 OPS. They also have Ryan Doumit, hitting for a .291 average and an .811 OPS, but with poor defense. Which guy would you rather have behind the plate? The Pirates’ philosophy with their catchers in the minors is to focus on defense first.
“We tell our catchers all the time the most important thing is what goes on on the mound,” Pirates’ farm director Kyle Stark said. “For me to sit here and rip his season because he didn’t swing the bat would probably be a little hypocritical.”
A lot of people are down on Sanchez because of the offensive numbers. It’s easy to look at the offense and tell that a guy is having a bad year. It’s not as easy to look at the defense and judge a player, especially catching. We drew some criticism for not only keeping Sanchez in the top ten overall prospects last month, but for ranking him seventh in the system. A big reason for that is that his defense hasn’t seen the same struggles as his offense.
“I think he’s light-years ahead of where he was last year,” Stark said of Sanchez’s defense this year.
About the only stats that people can look at are the caught stealing percentages, and the passed balls. Sanchez has always been good at limiting passed balls, due to his pitch blocking, and his athleticism behind the plate. However, his 22% caught stealing rate has drawn some concern about his defense.
Caught stealing rates aren’t exactly the best way to judge a catcher, especially in the minors. There are so many factors that go in to a stolen base, the primary one being the pitcher’s delivery to the mound. Ask any base stealer, and they will tell you that they are stealing off the pitcher, and not the catcher. The Pirates don’t exactly focus on keeping runners on. They’re more focused on pitchers executing their pitches, hitting their spots, and working on their development. The caught stealing percentage throughout the organization was 22% this year as a result.
The best way to judge a catcher’s abilities in holding base runners is simply by looking at his arm. When I’ve seen Sanchez this year his arm has looked strong. He’s had a few throws that have been off the mark, but he’s still making strong throws. I saw him catch two of three base runners stealing last week, with high 1.8 pop times on each throw. A “pop time” is the time it takes between the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt and the ball hitting the receiver’s glove at second base. The major league average is usually around 2.0, and anything in the 1.8 to 1.9 range will definitely play in the majors.
“If you would have told me in April ‘you’re going to make the same throws you made in April, in September’, I would have said ‘you’re crazy’. I’ve never played 104 games before in my life, and I’m still throwing 1.88s to second base and getting guys out,” Sanchez said about his arm strength this year.
The biggest thing Sanchez has been working on this year, offensively and defensively, has been his pitch calling.
“He has really made that a big point of emphasis for himself, and I’m really pleased,” Altoona Curve manager P.J. Forbes said. “He wants to get better at it, and that’s step one with him.”
Sanchez has really made some strides this season, especially in the last month, with his pitch calling. Playing a full season has helped a lot in this area. After each inning, he and Forbes would review the pitches that were called. When Forbes saw something he didn’t like, regardless of whether or not the pitch worked out, he would ask Sanchez why he made the call to see if Sanchez had a good reason to call that pitch. Forbes is usually looking for Sanchez to provide an explanation about why he thought the pitch would be a good call, for example, something Sanchez saw with the hitter, or just knowing his pitcher’s strengths.
“What’s changed in my approach, as far as attacking guys, is I can see what they’re trying to do and pitch around that, and pitch to our pitcher’s strengths and get more outs,” Sanchez said about his pitch calling. “Now sometimes it doesn’t work out, but at least I have a game plan and I know what I’m trying to do.”
Defensively, Sanchez has had a much better season than he’s had offensively. He’s made some big strides with his pitch calling, to the point where Forbes only asks him about 1-2 pitches per game. His arm is strong enough to play in the majors, and his pitch blocking is outstanding and clearly the highlight of his defensive game. There’s no question that Sanchez will be a major league catcher. The only question is how good will he be, and that really depends on his offense.
At the trade deadline we heard a lot of rumors that the Pirates were looking at catching options. That led to speculation as to whether they were giving up on Sanchez. It seems absurd to think they would give up on a first round pick after his first full season, especially when he’s made strong strides on the defensive side of the game. If there were people thinking that Sanchez getting passed over this year was a reflection on the organization’s view of him, it wasn’t Sanchez.
“It didn’t really affect me that I didn’t get called up,” Sanchez said. “I never thought ‘all of these guys are going down, I’m going to the big leagues’. That thought never crossed my mind, just because I’m not naive, and I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that I have not played the way I know I can play, and I don’t have the experience.”
The 2011 season was definitely a down year for Sanchez, but it wasn’t a total loss. His offense struggled, but his defense saw some improvements, which is very important for a catcher. Attending API this off-season should be a good thing for the 2009 first round pick, and hopefully it allows him to regain his lost weight and get his power back. Getting more playing time over the off-season might also help his pitch selection, and will hopefully allow him to bounce back from his low average, similar to what other players with strong K/BB ratios and low averages have done in the past.
Sanchez knows how easy it is to get to the big leagues, even from the AA level. He saw Eric Fryer go from being his backup in 2010, to making the jump from AA to the majors in a month and a half in 2011. The defense for Sanchez still needs some work, but it’s to the point where he could be a major league starter if his offense bounces back to it’s pre-2011 form.