Heading into the 2013 season, I was looking at Tony Sanchez as a guy who would only have value in the majors for his defense. He was showing good defensive skills in the minors, but wasn’t hitting, and that included a lack of power. Perhaps that was due to multiple broken jaws, which caused him to lose a lot of weight and muscle. Or maybe it was that he needed a change in approach. Whatever it was, Sanchez turned things around in 2013.
The catcher saw his hitting and his power return in Indianapolis, with an .872 OPS and ten homers in 260 at-bats. The power actually re-appeared at the end of the 2012 season, where Sanchez hit eight homers in 206 at-bats with Indianapolis. In total, he has 18 homers in 466 at-bats at the Triple-A level, which is about the equivalent of the amount of at-bats he’d have over a full season.
A big reason for the newly added power was his new ability to hit to the opposite field. He displayed this skill today with a double and a home run, both to right field. That ability is also going to serve him well eventually when he’s playing half of his games at PNC Park and using the Clemente Wall as a target. At this point I see Sanchez as a guy who could be very much like Russell Martin, even if it’s only a poor man’s Martin. He’s got strong defense, good pitch framing abilities, and the ability to hit for some power. Even if he doesn’t hit for average, he’ll have enough value to be a starting catcher.
One of the big complaints this off-season has been over the Pirates bringing in Chris Stewart. The move means that Sanchez will start the season back in Triple-A, and will serve as the number three option on the depth charts. The complaint is that the Pirates are blocking Sanchez with a defense-only catcher, thus preventing Sanchez from developing in the majors. There are some decent arguments for this complaint, but if you look at both sides of the issue, it definitely makes sense to keep Sanchez in Triple-A.
The Short-Term Value
People tend to only look at offense, and ignore defense. That’s probably why no one appreciates that Stewart was one of the better backup catchers in baseball in 2013. He had an 0.5 WAR, which tied for 37th among all catchers with 100+ plate appearances. Stewart did this pretty much entirely due to his defense, as he didn’t provide any value with the bat.
Sanchez could probably provide more value at the plate, but he would be limited in his playing time behind Martin. Last year, Pirates backup catchers combined for 212 plate appearances, and that was split between three catchers. The offensive value that Sanchez could bring in that short amount of time probably wouldn’t provide a significant upgrade over the numbers Stewart could provide. Also, teams generally don’t use their backup catcher for pinch hitting, which eliminates the need on most days for a good hitting catcher off the bench.
The Depth Factor
It was only a few years ago that the Pirates ran into a nightmare situation with their catchers. They saw a ton of injuries to guys like Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, and Jason Jaramillo, and had to dig deep for depth, going with guys like Dusty Brown, Matt Pagnozzi, and adding Michael McKenry for cash. The idea that you only need two catchers overlooks what happened in 2011, and ignores how easily that could happen again.
The catcher position is a grind, even if home plate collisions will be banned this year. There has only been one year since 2003 where the Pirates have had the same two catchers all year. That happened in 2012, and the two catchers weren’t exactly good ones — Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry.
The addition of Stewart pushes Sanchez to Triple-A, but Sanchez will eventually be in the majors this year. Having a guy like Sanchez as depth out of Triple-A is a good thing for the strength of the catching position in 2014, and much better than the alternative of having Sanchez in the majors, no Stewart, and one of the minor league signings as the top depth option.
The Long-Term Value
The main benefit of having Sanchez in the majors during the 2014 season is the opportunity for him to work closely with Martin. This tends to be a bit over-stated. I talked with Sanchez about this once, and he said that during the game, Martin is only focused on the game. He does learn from watching Martin, but that’s not exclusive to the regular season. He learns from him in Spring Training. He will learn from him when he’s eventually in the majors this year. He learned from him in 2013. And the thing about these lessons is that they don’t disappear after Sanchez and Martin are no longer working together. Whatever Sanchez learned last year, and this Spring, will still be with him going forward.
There are some downsides to having Sanchez as the backup catcher this year. For one, it removes a year of control. The Pirates could have Sanchez as a backup this year, and under control as a starter for the next five years after the 2014 season. Or they could call him up when needed in 2014, and have him as a starter for the next six years. Last year Sanchez got almost a third of the playing time behind Martin. I don’t think an extra 100 plate appearances in the majors is worth burning a year of control.
Sanchez is also used to being a starter, and he’s finally getting to the point where his hitting is coming along. Last year, Michael McKenry struggled with his hitting, and chalked it up to getting used to the backup role, as opposed to playing every day. That’s not something you want to risk with Sanchez, especially since he’d only be in a backup role for one season. It would be better for him to start every day, continue working on his hitting improvements, and come up as the starter in 2015, or as an injury replacement in 2014.
Sanchez as the Backup
Tony Sanchez would make a good backup catcher this year. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to have him in the majors. The Pirates already have a good backup catcher in Chris Stewart, and the reality is that depth is important, since you usually need more than two catchers during the course of a season. That means that Sanchez probably will be up when needed at some point this year. In the time he’s with Indianapolis, he will probably avoid adding a year of service time, which will keep him under team control longer. He’ll also get more opportunity to continue working on his offense as a starter in the minors.
The Pirates don’t really get much short-term value in Sanchez being in the majors as a backup. They do have good depth with Sanchez as the top depth option out of Indianapolis. And you could argue that any long-term benefits for Sanchez being the backup catcher don’t really out-weigh the long-term benefits of Sanchez getting one more year in Triple-A.
This is a situation the Pirates haven’t seen a lot of in the past. They have a great starting catcher who will probably be lost to free agency following the 2014 season. They have a good backup catcher. They have a prospect who is starting to look like he can take over as the starter in 2015. In the past, the Pirates didn’t have guys like Russell Martin to delay the arrival of Sanchez as a starter. So the path to the majors was easy for those prospects. Now they have good talent in the majors, which means that they will probably be turning to Sanchez a year later than they would have done a few years ago.
Links and Notes
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