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.