One thing that will probably always surround Tony Sanchez is the controversy of his selection in the 2009 draft. The Pirates passed on a group of highly rated prep pitchers to take Sanchez fourth overall. The selection was made for two reasons. The main reason was that the Pirates could sign Sanchez for around slot price, and use the extra money on prep pitchers in the middle round. The Pirates also liked Sanchez’s defense, and felt he had the offensive potential to hit in the majors.
It doesn’t help now that most of those 2009 prep pitchers have underperformed. It also doesn’t help that Sanchez hasn’t been hitting for the last two years. In 2011 in Altoona he had a .241/.340/.318 line in 402 at-bats. He returned to Altoona in 2012, hitting for a .277/.370/.390 line. The average and the on-base percentage were back, but the power hadn’t returned with zero homers in 141 at-bats. Sanchez then went to Indianapolis, where he hit for a .233/.316/.408 line in 206 at-bats, with eight homers.
The home run pace came in a small sample size, but it was encouraging. Extrapolate that AB/HR ratio over a full season and you’ve got 19 homers from the catching position. Last year there were 18 catchers with 400 or more plate appearances. Nine of those catchers hit 19 or more homers. So can Sanchez hit for power over a longer period of time, and carry that power over to the majors? And why wasn’t he hitting for power in Altoona prior to the numbers in Triple-A?
Part of the problem in Altoona was the weight-loss Sanchez suffered as a result of a broken jaw in 2010.
“In 2011 I had a huge problem with gaining weight, keeping weight on,” Sanchez said. “I got down to about 205 (pounds). They thought I was sick. I looked really bad, and I couldn’t hit the ball out of the outfield. I’d attribute that power loss to the broken jaw.”
In 2012, Sanchez worked with Altoona hitting coach Ryan Long, focusing on driving the ball the other way. He raised his average and put up an impressive on-base percentage in Altoona, but the power didn’t come until he jumped to Indianapolis.
“Last year I kind of figured it out,” Sanchez said. “I’m a notoriously slow starter. I wouldn’t say that I started slow in Altoona, I just didn’t hit for power. But once I got to Triple-A I started putting it together with a little more adjustments and finally figured it out.”
Once he was in Indianapolis, the catcher started working with current Pirates assistant hitting coach, and Indianapolis hitting coach at the time, Jeff Branson.
“When I got to Triple-A, 200 at-bats, I started driving the ball the other way,” Sanchez said. “We did a little more tweaks to my hand positioning and with my pre-pitch set up. It really benefitted me, and I got a small sample size of what I could do.”
“It was more or less just getting in there in a more consistent position to see pitches, recognize pitches, then be able to drive pitches,” Branson said of the work he did with Sanchez. “He’s a guy that has tremendous power. I hadn’t had him until last year, and he opened my eyes real wide just by the potential and the consistency that he had.”
Perhaps the best chance Sanchez has of hitting for power in the long-term isn’t what he learned last year, but what he did over the off-season. Sanchez worked out at Bommarito Performance Systems five days a week. Each day he would run, work on his agility, do lateral drills, sled drills, and work on his speed and lateral movements. There are a lot of position-specific drills. For catchers, the focus was on foot drills and things to quicken feet. After the running drills, Sanchez would go to the gym and lift weights to bulk up. The end result was that he gained 15 pounds of lean mass in three months. He’s now up to 225 pounds and 12% body fat, gaining all of the weight back from his jaw injuries.
“It’s actually done a really good job with my endurance and my stamina behind the plate,” Sanchez said of the training. “My legs feel great. I’m getting a lot of playing time (in Spring Training), and each morning I come in here I still feel really good. Doing a lot of things that I learned in the off-season, as far as recovery and taking care of my body. When I’m out there I feel great. Swinging the bat really well, the ball’s coming off a little differently than it was last year, the arm feels great. It’s all paying off right now.”
Sanchez has also carried over his work with Branson last year to this Spring, and it helps that Branson is now the Pirates assistant hitting coach.
“He did a very nice job of maintaining what we worked on in-season, throughout the off-season, and has brought it in to Spring Training here,” Branson said. “The more reps that he gets here against major league pitching is only going to make him better. He works his butt off everyday. We open that cage at 6:45 in the morning, and he’s in that 6:45 group. He’s there every morning with a purpose, with a plan, he’s continued everyday.”
The main value from Sanchez will probably always come from his defense. He excels at blocking pitches, has improved his receiving skills in the last two years, and has a plus arm. That last tool hasn’t always shown up in the stat sheets. Sanchez had a pretty unimpressive 22% caught stealing rate in 2011 over 109 attempts. He quietly showed some improvements last year, throwing out 27% in Altoona, and 31% in Indianapolis. Last year Pirates fans observed the team’s lack of focus on the running game. The priority was on pitchers executing their pitch, allowing runners to take easy bases off the pitchers. That approach has existed in the minor league system prior to the 2012 season, and was a main reason Sanchez’s numbers were so low. Even with a perfect throw, Sanchez had very little chance. It got to the point where Sanchez was trying to do too much to make up for the slow deliveries to the plate, resulting in some wild throws.
“I don’t think Tony gets the credit he deserves in throwing out the percentage of runners that he did,” Neal Huntington said when I asked him about the subject over the off-season. “So many catchers think they need to change their mechanics to be quicker, and they lose the fact that their mechanics are sound, their release is accurate, and they do what they can do to get the ball there. They’ve done their job, and yet you see too many guys try to fly and unload the ball in 1.7 seconds and it flies into center field or three hops to second base. If a catcher is his quickest release, and he’s accurate and on the mark, he’s done his job. Tony Sanchez is more than capable of doing that. We believe in Tony, more often than not he did his job last year, and it resulted in some caught stealings in situations where people were probably surprised by. He can throw, he can get rid of the ball, and he can be accurate. Tony deserves more credit than he probably gets for that.”
The injury to Russell Martin early in Spring Training has provided Sanchez with more playing time, and more opportunities to learn the big league pitchers. With so many pitchers in camp, and most of them throwing 1-2 innings, that’s an overwhelming chore for a catcher to learn what everyone throws, and how they like to throw each of their pitches. Sanchez mentioned that it takes at least three or four outings before a catcher gets comfortable catching a pitcher, and a pitcher gets comfortable throwing to a new catcher.
“It’s going really well,” Sanchez said of learning the big league pitchers. “I’ve caught guys like (Jonathan) Sanchez and (Jason) Grilli and some of the other guys that I’ve never seen before and come into games. And it’s fresh. You’ve got to be on your toes and you want to make a good impression for those guys because you want them to want to throw to you. And I’d say so far I’ve done a pretty good job of that. You’re just trying to get your timing down. You want your offense to be there, and then you’ve got other things to worry about defensively. You know those guys are number one, and that’s one of the biggest things I’m focusing on now.”
Sanchez has the defensive skills to make the majors. His lack of hitting is what is currently limiting his upside. To date he has looked like he could range from a strong defensive backup in the majors, to an average catcher who hits for some power, gets on base, and gets the bulk of his value from his defense. I asked Sanchez if he had the offensive potential to be more than that.
“It’s definitely in there somewhere. I just have to find it and put it together on a more consistent basis,” Sanchez responded. “I know I can hit. I know that I’m very coachable and I’m open to what these guys have to tell me because they know how to hit, and they know how to teach us. Branson and (Jay) Bell, and all the guys that I’ve worked with, they have my best interests in mind, and I really put a lot of trust into them. I know that coming into this year it’s going to be a big year and I’m excited.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Branson said about whether Sanchez has the ability to hit in the majors. “He showed that there is definitely potential in there, and there is consistency in there. We just have to become more consistent. Every major league player to become an everyday major league player, that’s the thing — consistency. The more seasoning he gets, the more (at-bats) he gets, the better it’s going to be.”