Michael McKenry hurt his left knee last night sliding into second base. McKenry got a late slide and hit his knee on the bag during the slide, leading to his knee getting “stuck” as he described it. There was no update on his status this morning, although Tony Sanchez did arrive in Miami on the taxi squad. The Pirates have until three hours before Monday’s game to make a decision on Sanchez.
Russell Martin is currently penciled in as the starting catcher, but also had his own knee injury from Friday’s game. The combination of injuries led to a late night for Sanchez. He got the call close to midnight that he would be coming down to join the Pirates. He had family visiting, and previous plans meant he didn’t get to bed until 2:30. He woke up at 4:30, ready to catch his 6:30 AM flight. Thus, at this point he’s running on coffee, which is the side effect of seeing the two major league catchers banged up in back to back nights.
There have been a lot of calls from Pirates fans to replace McKenry with Sanchez. Sanchez has been hitting well this year, with a .288/.368/.504 line in 260 at-bats. However, he has struggled lately, with a .247/.318/.364 line in 77 at-bats since his last trip to the majors. He attributes the struggles to a long season.
“[I don't feel] as good as I felt at the beginning of the season,” Sanchez said. “It’s almost August. The season starts catching up to you. I got off to a really good start for the first three months, and then I started to hit a little bit of a slow spell there.”
Sanchez noted that he moved down in bat weights recently, and that he’s been hitting better in his last few games. That has shown up on the stat sheets, with a 7-for-17 stretch and one homer over his last five games. The notable issue has been his throwing. He went through a stretch in June where he was throwing wild down to second on stolen bases, down to third after strikeouts, and down to first on fielding plays. He noted that he was trying to rush a few throws to force the issue, and was putting too much on some throws.
“Throwing has always been my strong point,” Sanchez said. “It has always been the best thing that I’ve done. You have a couple games where you’ll throw a ball away, thoughts creep into your head, throw another ball away, ‘oh my god, what’s going on?’ But you grind through it.”
Clint Hurdle also talked about the improvements this year from Sanchez, including hearing better reports on his throwing lately.
“I think there’s been incremental progress from the beginning of the season until now,” Hurdle said. “He’s continued to work on the ball blocking aspect of the game. Continued to work on the throwing part of the game. Not just throwing to second. Back picks, first base, third base, just to continue to see how he can stretch himself out and continue his comfort zone. The bat has continued to play.”
“We hear better reports,” Hurdle added on the throwing specifically. “That’s why he continues to work. He stays on a structured throwing program. I haven’t seen it. I get the reports, but they said he continues to work and show improvements.”
The backup catcher isn’t going to play a big role on the roster, so any upgrade Sanchez could bring over McKenry would be minimal. One thing to consider is how the role of backing up Russell Martin affects the hitting and approach for a player. McKenry has struggled at the plate this year, and he mentioned after last night’s game that a big part of that was the lack of playing time. In 2011 he was the starter in the second half. In 2012 he was playing almost every other day at times, and got the majority of the playing time at the end of the season. Now he’s having to adjust to a few at-bats per week.
Sanchez would have to make that same adjustment, and hit bat could also struggle like McKenry’s bat has struggled. Considering the lack of impact for a backup catcher, and considering Sanchez has things he’s still working on, it might not be the best idea to call him up at this point when both catchers in Pittsburgh are healthy. The one benefit to calling him up would be the experience he gets at the major league level. When he was in the majors last month, he used the time to pick the brains of Martin, McKenry, and some of the pitchers on the staff.
“I sit next to Locke and A.J. the entire game and talk to them,” Sanchez said. “And just listen, really. Keep your mouth shut and listen. That’s all you do. Russell and McKenry, we’ve all worked together a lot during Spring Training, we’ve got a lot of time together so we know each other. But when Russ is catching, he’s locked in. You don’t bother him. Same with McKenry. We’ll talk, and share things, share ideas, tell each other what we think.”
Martin is under contract through the 2014 season. Sanchez is the guy who would be in line to take over the starting duties when Martin leaves. It would be important to get Sanchez some experience in the major league clubhouse before he takes over. However, it also is important for Sanchez to finish developing in the minors. Sure, he’s 25-years-old, but he’s also a guy who has dealt with two broken jaw injuries in his short-career, leading to limited playing time. This is the first year where he’s healthy the entire year, and not coming off a broken jaw from the previous year or the previous off-season. That’s probably why we’re seeing such good results this year compared to previous years. The Pirates will just need to decide whether Sanchez getting more development time outweighs the possible upgrade he could bring as the backup catcher. Considering he can come up and join Martin and McKenry in about one month, the impact of his development over that month is probably greater than the upgrade he could bring as the backup catcher for a month.
Then again, if McKenry needs to go on the disabled list, that makes this entire discussion moot, as the Pirates won’t have a choice but to call Sanchez up.
UPDATE: Sanchez has been activated, but it wasn’t McKenry that went on the DL.