Sanchez earning Pirates' trust behind plate
BRADENTON, Fla. — Nothing can derail a catcher's career quicker than a case of the yips.
A catcher must be able to make strong, accurate throws to second base to control the opposing team's running game. A catcher who's often off-target — short-hopping infielders or zinging the ball into the outfield — finds himself stuck in the low minor leagues or, worse yet, out of a job.
In 2009, not long after the Pirates drafted him with the fourth overall pick, Tony Sanchez got the yips.
“It came out of nowhere,” Sanchez said Tuesday. “There were times when I didn't want to play baseball anymore. But I didn't have that choice, so I had to do something to better myself and fix it.”
Sanchez might not have fully conquered his problem but believes he is winning the battle. In his brief stint in the majors last season, Sanchez showed manager Clint Hurdle he could be trusted behind the plate.
During three years at Boston College, Sanchez threw out 61 of 146 basestealers (41.8 percent). As a junior in 2009, he lead the ACC with 19 caught stealings.
In the lower levels of the minor leagues, however, pitchers are too focused on developing their pitches to worry about slide steps. Controlling runners is not a priority.
In 2010, when he was with High-A Bradenton, Sanchez threw out just nine of 61 basestealers (15 percent). The next season at Double-A Altoona, he gunned down 30 of 139 (22 percent).
Sanchez also began uncorking wild throws. He made eight errors in half a season with Bradenton in 2010, then 18 errors at Altoona in 2011.
“I was saying, ‘What the (heck) is going on? Why am I not throwing anybody out?' ” Sanchez said. “You get into these bad habits of trying to be too quick. I'd throw balls with a split-fingered grip. It was just a mess. You're trying to be so fast and throw everybody out, but you're trying to control what you can't control.”
Realizing the reasons behind the struggles, management dispatched coaches Tom Prince, Jeff Banister and Brian Esposito to work with Sanchez.
“I learned to trust myself, because it's all about confidence,” Sanchez said. “I think of myself as a mental warrior. I get the ball, make a clean transfer and a good throw to second base. If (the runner) is safe, he's safe.”
When Russell Martin was hobbled by an injury last May, Sanchez went on the “taxi squad” and joined the Pirates in New York, but was not activated. A month later, he was recalled and made his big league debut, but he was used as a designated hitter in his first two games.
Sanchez caught for first time July 30 against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. He became the seventh Pirate to catch a shutout in his first game behind the plate.
“He accepted the responsibility that comes with being behind the plate, making those calls and getting the most out of all the pitchers,” Hurdle said.
It was a confidence boost for Sanchez, but he still has work to do. In December, general manager Neal Huntington traded for Chris Stewart to be Martin's backup this season.
Sanchez knows he'll be sent to minor league camp at some point during spring training and will begin this season with Triple-A Indianapolis.
“When Neal called me and said they were going to sign (Stewart), I wasn't surprised,” Sanchez said. “I knew they weren't going to want me to back up Russell because I'll just sit and rot in the big leagues and catch maybe once a week. I said, ‘Neal, I understand. From a developmental standpoint, I completely agree.' I need to play every day, and that's fine with me. I'll go to Indy, get my work done — there's no doubt about that — and I'll put together another good year.”