There has been no question that Tony Sanchez is having a down year. He’s currently hitting for a .239 average at the plate, and his power has been down, with a .304 slugging percentage, and only nine of his 60 hits going for extra bases. Prospects are never a guarantee, although there is one thing that is certain with any prospect. That one thing is the roller coaster ride that their values can take, at least in the eyes of fans.
Usually at the first sign of problems, fans will write off a prospect as a bust, or assume their career is over. Sanchez isn’t the only player in the Pirates’ system who has struggled this year, and for that reason, he’s getting a lot of these “bust” comments. The problem with this type of analysis is that it’s based too much on reactions. It focuses on a small sample size, in this case, half a season. In a case like Sanchez, people assume the poor stats are a sign that the prospect wasn’t as good as we thought, rather than just a normal down year.
There’s a reason for this. It comes from the idea that prospects should just breeze through each level, as if the only purpose of the minor leagues is to pass the time until a player reaches the majors. We get so caught up in estimated arrivals that we forget the purpose of the minors. The purpose is taking a player out of college or high school, and turning them in to a major league player. Usually the estimated arrivals are more of a best case scenario. In the case with Sanchez, the best case was that he would arrive in June 2011. That obviously changed when he missed half a year in 2010 with a broken jaw. At this point the ETA is June 2012, although his performance this year could push that back.
That’s disappointing. But at the same time, it’s not the end of the world. The key is determining whether Sanchez is just having a down year, or if he’s showing signs that he’s not as good as we thought he was. So let’s break down his season.
There’s no question that his hitting has been poor. He’s got a .237 average, after hitting for a .314 average in high-A last year. It’s hard to say whether this is due to the jump from high-A to AA, or whether it’s due to missing so much time last year. It’s worth noting that Sanchez doesn’t look totally over-matched at the plate. His strikeout rate is down over 3% from 2010, sitting at a 16.6% rate in AA. His walks are also above-average, at 10.4% in AA.
This has been a bigger concern than the hitting. The value of Sanchez goes:
He can get by as a strong defender with power. The hitting is more of a luxury. But the power hasn’t been there this year. Sanchez had just one extra base hit in April, a homer. He had a decent month of May, but then again in June he had one extra base hit, which again was a homer. Sanchez has displayed his power in the past. I don’t believe a hitter just loses power at a young age. However, because of his broken jaw, Sanchez went on a liquid diet last year, and lost a lot of weight as a result. It’s possible that the weight loss could also be tied to his power loss.
The key to Sanchez’s value has always been his defense. That said, there’s been a big misconception about his defense. When he was drafted, it was said that he was:
1. Already a major league average defender
2. Capable of being a Gold Glove winner in the future
People tend to mix those two up, suggesting that he was announced as already being a Gold Glove defender when he was drafted. Like any prospect, Sanchez has work to do to take his defense from college level to major league level. He excels at blocking pitches, but needs work on calling games, and needs work on his caught stealing percentage.
The latter has been bad this year, although it’s hard to say how much of that is the fault of Sanchez. The Pirates don’t put much emphasis on pitchers holding runners on. They put the focus on the pitchers executing their pitches and hitting their spots. In fact, Sanchez was frustrated by this early in the year.
His skill of blocking pitches has been great this year. He’s only allowed three passed balls in 65 games, after allowing 4 in 40 games last year, and 8 in 42 games in 2009.
His defense needs work, but it’s not struggling like his hitting has struggled. He’s made improvements in an already strong point of blocking pitches and preventing passed balls (and every time I’ve seen him, he’s displayed some outstanding athleticism behind the plate, lunging at anything that goes wild, and usually blocking it). While the Pirates don’t put much of a priority on holding runners on, there are some concerns with Sanchez’s caught stealing rate. Runners steal off the pitcher, and if the pitcher is slow to the plate, there is little that Sanchez can do. However, I’ve seen some of his throws, and they’re not always on the money, which is an area he could work to improve on.
There were questions this week as to why I didn’t list Sanchez as a guy who was dropping in the top 50 analysis, and why I listed him as untouchable in the trade deadline preview. The main reason is that his value is primarily based on his defense, and his defense isn’t struggling like his offense is.
Bust or Down Year?
I don’t really believe in burying a prospect at the first sign of trouble. It’s the shiny new toy syndrome. You get a guy in the system, and he looks great until the first sign of trouble. Then you drop him lower in the rankings, all while pumping up someone else who hasn’t struggled. Never mind the fact that, in most cases, the guy struggling is in the upper levels, while the guy who isn’t struggling is in the lower levels. That’s based off the false idea that top prospects should have an easy ride to the majors, with no bumps along the way. When a prospect does have a bump, we want to write him off. When a prospect has success in the lower levels, we want to elevate him higher, because we assume the future will be a smooth road, with no bumps along the way.
The fact is that prospects, just like major league players, can have down years without the year serving as a reflection on the career of the prospect. In the case with Sanchez, the main issue is his hitting, which is secondary to his overall value, falling behind his defense. There are a lot of question marks involved. Is he still impacted by missing time in 2010? How has the jump to AA affected his hitting? Is his low power a result of losing so much weight last year?
I wouldn’t say that his down year makes him a bust. I wouldn’t say that it’s a disappointment that he’s not in the majors with the Pirates needing catchers (I didn’t even project him in the majors in 2011 prior to his poor 2011 season). The temptation is there to look at his high draft selection, and assume that he’s a disappointment because he’s struggling in AA and isn’t in the majors yet. You can’t just use that surface analysis though. You have to look deeper. His defense isn’t struggling that much, and his offensive struggles point more towards a down year, rather than a lack of talent. The temptation is to just write him off, but that’s more a reaction to a bad half season. That’s not a smart way to evaluate prospects, as very few prospects go through their careers without at least one period of poor performance.