Is Tony Sanchez Throwing Away His Chance at Being a Starter?

The Pittsburgh Pirates will be faced with an interesting decision this off-season. Their starting catcher, Russell Martin, will be eligible for free agency. Their top catching prospect, Tony Sanchez, is at a point where the organization needs to decide whether his future is as a starter, or a backup. The decision? Bring Martin back at a much bigger cost than what they’re paying him now, or give Sanchez his shot at being a starter.

What complicates the Sanchez decision, or what might make the Martin decision easier, has been the throwing from Sanchez. The 2009 first round pick has displayed some issues over the last few years with his throwing. That’s not just throwing out runners at second, but making throws down to first and third. Sanchez was held back from the majors last year due to these issues, and they don’t seem to be going away.

As far as caught stealing numbers, Sanchez has really struggled this year. He went 0-for-7 in the minors, and is currently sitting at 17% caught stealing in the majors. Part of that process involves the pitcher, so you can’t always blame the catcher for poor numbers. But it’s hard to blame the pitching staff in Pittsburgh when Russell Martin had a 33% caught stealing rate with that same staff, prior to his injury.

Sanchez has posted good stolen base numbers in the past, with a 31% caught stealing rate in 2012. He also has good defensive skills beyond his throwing problems. His blocking is excellent, he’s a good pitch framer, and he handles a pitching staff well. There are currently no ways to quantify that last skill, but Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington offered praise for the work Sanchez has done with pitching staffs.

“The maturity Tony has shown over the years with us is tremendous,” Huntington said. “His primary focus is how he’s going to get the pitcher not only through that game, but through that inning or through that at-bat, through that pitch. That’s wonderful recognition for a young catcher and that’s what going to allow him to have a very successful major-league career and one of the reasons why we’re so excited about his growth and his development and where he’s going to go.”

As for the blocking and pitch framing, there have been ways to quantify that. Baseball Prospectus says that Sanchez has been worth 3.4 blocking runs per 7000 pitches this year, and 14.3 framing runs per 7000 pitches. Combined, that means Sanchez is worth about 1.8 extra wins for his blocking and receiving. However, Russell Martin has been worth a combined 30 runs per 7000 pitches, meaning he would be worth about 1.2 wins more than Sanchez over a full season. Martin also has the ability to handle a staff, so at best, that’s a wash.

Offensively, Sanchez has struggled a bit in the majors this year, with a .273/.298/.291 line in 57 plate appearances. On the other side, Martin hasn’t been great offensively, with a .242/.342/.355 line in 73 plate appearances. Neither of those are large sample sizes, although Martin’s are close to what he did last year. The upside for Sanchez is similar to Martin — a low average, good ability to get on base, and some power, with an OPS around .700.

But the big issue for Sanchez remains the throwing. That’s not just the caught stealing numbers. It’s the wild throws down to second that allow the runner to take third base, or the wild throws down to first that turn an out into two bases. Sanchez had 14 errors last year with Indianapolis. He has six errors so far this year between Triple-A and the majors. You could call that a small sample size, but the wild throws have become a bad trend for Sanchez, not unlike the situation with Garrett Jones having problems throwing to second base while playing first.

“Just keep working through it. You’d be surprised at the number of catchers that are in the major leagues that had some level of this challenge at some point in their career, guys that you would never think of,” Huntington said. “We’ve got staff members that have been other places and we’ve got scouts that have seen some major-league catchers work through this and he’s just going to have to continue to work through it. He’s certainly capable of it and yet another challenge for him to overcome.”

The question is, will the Pirates be better off letting Sanchez work through those issues as a starter? If he doesn’t work through those issues, the catching situation could be pretty bleak. Meanwhile, you know what you’re getting with Russell Martin, who is basically everything you want Sanchez to become. They don’t have to make a decision just yet, but if the throwing issues continue from Sanchez, there won’t be much of a decision to make.

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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  • johndw28

    Sounds to me like Pirates brass and coaching trying to talk themselves into believing something they know very well may not be true- that Sanchez’s defensive lapses will be a blip on radar screen. I’m very concerned about the long term outlook with Sanchez.

    On another note- Chris Stewart has been very blah imo. Helped contribute to that loss in Cincy with some horrible throws, I think he mishandled a ball on play at plate IIRC and I feel a good defensive catcher throws out a runner on 3rd base last night. That was a big non-play.

  • Scott Kliesen

    RM isn’t exactly doing much to secure himself a big FA contract, which actually bodes well for a Pirates if they want to keep him.

    TS looks like a mediocre player w the occasional yips. Not a good combination for a team w so much going for it.

    if I had to guess, I’d say there’s a good chance both are here for next couple years. Hopefully, McGuire can get in the development fast lane and be up in ’16.

    • 20Stoney

      I hope you are right. I just don’t see the Pirates paying Martin, even if it’s less than previously believed.

    • Lukas Sutton

      Apart from injury concerns, RM is doing nothing to lessen his stock for a huge payday. He wasnt considered a great hitter before or after his time here, but teams now greatly appreciate a catcher with his overall defensive skills. His great year last year nearly solidified a team offering him a substantial raise and likely 3-4 years, both of which would be a bad investment for the pirates. RM on a 3-4 year deal likely means the last 1-2 years are pretty rough thanks to injury and declining defense that comes with mid 30s catchers. He will be far and away the best catcher in the free agent pool, with guys like Hundley and Pierzynski as his best competition.

  • Jeff Rhodes

    The question assumes there’s a viable alternative to Sanchez, and there doesn’t appear to be one with fewer flaws than he has.

    As you mention, the Pirates could try to re-sign Martin — and he might accept their offer. Or he might not. But even if he does, you’d probably have to make him the highest-paid player on the team, and I’m not sure that makes sense for a guy approaching his mid-30s whose offensive output, while still respectable, is in decline.

    Sanchez isn’t an All-Star, but he hits a little, does other defensive things pretty well and works for peanuts. All things considered, I’ll take that from a catcher until McGuire comes up.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      Martin is already the highest paid player on the team.

      • Jeff Rhodes

        I knew he was — by far — when he was signed, but I didn’t know how the subsequent extensions for Cutch and Marte affected that. In any case, since he isn’t likely to settle for a pay cut, I assume he’d still have that distinction next year if the Pirates were reckless enough to give it to him. Which they won’t be.

  • leadoff

    A couple of bad throws from a young rookie catcher is not a big deal, the ability to handle a pitching staff, block pitches and frame pitches are. Sanchez has some throwing problems no doubt, but they are mechanical and will be corrected, no matter who the Pirates bring up as a young player, that player is going to go through growing pains, Marte is a good example of that. Comparing Sanchez to Martin is a poor way to evaluate Sanchez, Martin is a top 5 catcher in all of baseball, evaluations on players like Sanchez are something I would wait a little longer to do. Sanchez may not be a complete package yet, but he certainly has the tools to get there.

    • 20Stoney

      The problem is that it has been more than “a couple of bad throws.” And it isn’t necessarily a mechanical problem. It can start that way and become a mental problem.

  • R Edwards

    Although I like Sanchez – seems like a good kid and good catcher – he is another example of a previous draft mistake. I remember when they drafted him, most “experts” felt he was taken way too high and the accusations were that the Pirates drafted him because he would be a less expensive and easier signing. Basically, the team repeated the same mistakes when it wasted extremely high first round picks on the likes of JVB, Moskos, Bullington, Lincoln, etc.. With all that being said, I still like Sanchez – his recent history is that he has a good arm and he can throw out base runners. Overall, the pitching staff is terrible in holding runners on. I think he will also hit well enough to start. We have much bigger concerns in my opinion.
    Speaking of past drafts, living in Baltimore area it pains me to see the Orioles trot out Wieters and Machado – they both could have been Pirates – and Wieters SHOULD have been a Pirate.

    • leadoff

      ” the Pirates drafted him because he would be a less expensive and easier signing”.
      These two reasons are true, however there were a couple of other very important reasons for drafting him, 1. The system was in terrible shape at the time for catching. 2. Sanchez was the best catching prospect available to them at the time. 3. The Pirates decided to go after a lot of draft picks that were going to college that had very good pedigree. Look up the amount of total money the Pirates spent on the draft, they were not going cheap. Weiters was a mistake of the previous front office and it was a big one, but this regime has made no mistakes of that level since they arrived, not to say they have not made mistakes, but they certainly have.

  • Macchamp74

    Huntington with the “but it happens other places too” response….
    Not going to help Sanchez throwing issues.

    • johndw28

      Exactly. That does nothing to alleviate my fears that this issue is something that will readily pass. My biggest fear is that it’s mental, not mechanical.

  • bucsws2014

    My gut says to re-sign Martin if they can get him at a straight $5 mill per 2014 WAR point (ignoring 2013).

    There are things I’ve seem him do that are the kind of wily veteran moves this team still needs to learn about. He’s not a great offensive player, but he looks for every edge he can get. That said, 2013 might be as good as he gets for the rest of his career. And Sanchez still has something to learn.

    Assuming the Bucs trade Pedro next year – and why wouldn’t they – Martin should also be able to play 3b more often. I think he could do reasonably well there and get some bounceback on his power numbers, which have declined markedly this year. At worst, getting Martin back for 2 years on a reasonable deal is a (somewhat) expensive stop-gap until our next 3B and C options are ready to contribute at the MLB level.

    After all, it’s not like Neal is going to go the FA route, nor do the Bucs have pieces to trade to get someone significantly better – at least not pieces they’d be willing to part with.

    Lastly, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to notice, but it certainly seemed Cole and Stewart were not only not on the same page, but they were reading different genre books in separate libraries.

  • BlueBomber72

    Sanchez cannot be an everyday player. Not sure he can even be a backup. He’s one meltdown away from being the next Mackey Sasser or Scott Bradley. He’s uncomfortable to watch. I feel bad for the guy. Martin is worth the money.

    • Monsoon Harvard

      Actually he’d need to be a better hitter to be a Mackey Sasser.

  • Macchamp74

    2nd straight game back up Stewart is starting.
    That might say what Hurdle thinks about next year.

  • piraddict

    Taking into account T. Sanchez’s “glass jaw years” Martin’s and Sanchez’s minor league numbers are similar. It’s not fair to compare Sanchez to Martin as of today as this is Martin’s 9th MLB season vs 1st for Sanchez. Of course Martin is better. But Martin is also 31, how long can he continue to catch well given the wear and tear of the position? Sanchez is 26, with a much younger body. Sanchez will hit for more power when he settles in.

    The Pirates may need to spend on SP in 2015. Better to save money at C and spend it on SP to replace Rodriguez, Liriano, Volquez unless you are willing to trust Cumpton, Pimental, Sadler, Locke, Wilson, Worley, Kingham, Taillon (2Half) to fill the three available positions. Now I would be willing to trust the rookies, but no way NH and the Pirates’ brass will do that. Even if you resign Liriano or Volquez it will cost significantly more than what they are being paid now. And who knows who will be available in the FA market for SP this winter? Given the natural progression up the annual pay scale for Walker, Marte, Cutch, Alvarez and everyone else on the present roster who will be retained in 2015,and the need for new pitching, the Pirates are not going to be able to afford to retain Martin. Better accommodate to that eventuality now.

    • bucsws2014

      It shouldn’t be about money. The only “unknown” big ticket is Walker. I’d expect his arb to be $7500 or so. Bucs might save a half mil or more in 2015 by extending him. Salaries for most everyone else who’s expected to stay is known and it amounts to commitments of just short of $50 mill for 19 players (11 position, 8 pitchers). Barring a signing of David Price they should be able to afford Martin.

      Assuming Gaby doesn’t return, Martin might even learn 1b in addition to 3b. Odds are Neal won’t want to pay Josh Harrison’s projected arb in 2015.

      • Lukas Sutton

        Anyone who says “it shouldnt be about money” usually doesnt have money invested in what they are talking about. Its a labor of love for fans, its a labor of love and money for owners. Gotta realize the business part of this game

        • bucsws2014

          What a brilliant insight.

          As I pointed out above, Bucs will have about $50 mill earmarked for 19 players. The OF is set. They’ll need a RH platoon 1b unless they keep Gaby. They’ll need at least one SP, preferably a LH. They’ll need a closer if it’s not Melancon or Watson. Neal doesn’t spend for middle relief, so whatever holes are there will be filled for cheap. And they’ll need a catcher. They’ve got $30 million to work with to fill those holes.

          Like I said, it shouldn’t be about money. It should be about whether they can find an equal/better solution than Martin.

          If the Bucs pay Martin $10 mill, they still have $20 mill to find a SP, 2-3 relievers and a RH hitting part-time 1b. Are you actually suggesting that can’t be achieved or that the Bucs should cheap out and end up with a payroll short of $75 million? If so, you’re the one not dealing with business realities.

          • piraddict

            The Pirates will be at $75MM plus for this year, and the compensation for the roster positions goes up in 2015, except maybe closer if they forego Grilli and sign low with Melancon or equal, catcher if they let Martin go, RF if they trade Tabata and don’t extend Polanco (which they should), or SP if they start three young pitchers at the three open slots (which they will never do). So money has to come from somewhere, and probably Martin’s a goner.

  • piraddict

    Maybe Elias Diaz will work out.

  • lonleylibertarian

    Well the first thing that needs to happen is the Martin needs to get healthy and back on the field – if he is breaking down and can’t catch 120 games a year his defensive abilities do not offset his offensive shortcomings.

    And I am less than wowed with Chris Stewart – he should have had the runner at third last night and I agree with WS2014 that Cole seemed less than happy with him.

    I think a bit of patience and a bigger sample size are warranted before we throw Tony on the scrap heap.

  • piratemike

    Martin is not worth the money that he will be asking.
    Sanchez has a touch of Steve Blass syndrome.
    It will be interesting to see what the Pirates come up with.
    If I were Sanchez I would be throwing footballs from a kneeling position to second base all off season or any other drill that is devised by coaches but nobody can be a ML catcher if he can’t make that throw either that or learn another position and get better at hitting.

  • pilbobuggins

    If there is a player the pirates would pay “market value”for I would think it’s martin, gold glove defensive catchers don’t grow on trees. And he calls a very good game. Batting average is usally a little low but he’s good in the clutch. Sanchez would be a good backup as well as a good bench bat, it would also give him a chance to work on his yips by learning from martin.

  • Michael Shaeffer

    Sanchez will be fine.

    That being said, McGuire can’t get here soon enough.

  • IQB

    Sanchez will cost $500k . Anyone else, a lot more. End of discussion . Cost is all that this ownership group cares about.

  • Jared

    5/18/14: second inning with Morton struggling…Sanchez throws a 3 hopper to 2nd base after a strikeout. Awful.