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Pirates catching prospect continues to learn

Friday, May 6, 2011

ALTOONA — Tony Sanchez spent weeks last summer sucking meals through a straw, his surgically repaired jaw wired shut.

In June, an errant fastball thrown by St. Lucie Mets pitcher Brad Holt slammed into Sanchez's face. Sanchez, the Pirates' No. 3-ranked prospect, missed the rest of the season at High-A Bradenton. When he returned to the field during Arizona Fall League play four months later, he wasn't the same.

"I was scared," said Sanchez, 22, who batted .206 with four homers in 18 games. "I didn't trust the guy on the mound. I was on my heels, leaning back. I stood no chance. I struck out in my first five at-bats."

Adding to his awkwardness, Sanchez started at catcher in his first game. His team's starting pitcher was ... Holt.

"Ironic, huh?" Sanchez said, grinning.

Sanchez, the Pirates' first-round pick in 2009, learned some painful lessons last summer but is reaping the benefits.

By the start of spring training, his fear had faded. He began this season at Double-A Altoona and has been aggressive at the plate — digging in, practically daring pitchers to come inside.

In the first 22 games, Sanchez has been hit by pitches a team-high four times. He got off to a slow start — hitting .190 by mid-April — but raised his batting average 100 points during the past two weeks.

"A lot of people are concerned that when a guy gets beaned, not once but twice, he'll show fear," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "Tony's almost gone the other way. We've got to teach him a defensive role and get him out of the way. He's still intense and fiery."

The broken jaw was not Sanchez's first injury last season. Barely a week into the season at Bradenton, Sanchez was bothered by a sore right shoulder. The injury happened when Sanchez gunned the ball too hard to second base trying to nab a base-stealer.

Defense always has been Sanchez's forte. In his final year at Boston College, Sanchez led the Atlantic Coast Conference by throwing out 19 baserunners.

At Low-A West Virginia in 2009, Sanchez caught 30 percent (14 of 47) of runners, about 10 points worse than how he fared in college. Last year his success rate dropped to 15 percent (9 of 61).

"It messed with my head," Sanchez said. "I would ask myself, 'What the heck is going on• Am I not the catcher I was in college?' "

Sanchez saw runners taking big leads and wondered why his pitchers didn't keep them closer to the bag. Why weren't there more pitchouts and snap throws to first?

He took his concerns to the front office.

"Tony cares a great deal," director of player development Kyle Stark said. "That can lead to distractions, at times, if the player isn't caring about the right things — things he can control. Tony is maturing significantly in this area."

Sanchez understands, albeit grudgingly.

"I hate saying this — it still frustrates me — but (stopping) the running game is not a priority," he said. "We've got to get these (pitchers) mechanically sound and get them throwing strikes. The running game is lower on the totem pole."

In the minors, especially in the lower levels, wins and losses do not matter. It's about development. For pitchers that often means getting strike one. Worrying about baserunners is a luxury.

The Pirates know Sanchez can catch and throw. Many scouts say his skills behind the plate are nearly major league-ready.

"As long as my pitchers are comfortable with me back there, I'm happy," Sanchez said. "If I hit, it's a bonus."

Additional Information:

Catching up

Tony Sanchez's minor league stats:

2009 (State College, Short-A): 4 games, .308 average, 4 hits, 2 runs, 0 home runs, 1 run batted in

2009 (West Virginia, Low-A): 41 games, .316 average, 49 hits, 29 runs, 7 home runs, 46 runs batted in

2009 (Lynchburg, High-A): 3 games, .200 average, 2 hits, 2 runs, 0 home runs, 1 run batted in

2010 (Bradenton, High-A): 59 games, .314 average, 65 hits, 31 runs, 4 home runs, 35 runs batted in

2011 (Altoona, Double-A): 21 games, .296 average, 21 hits, 11 runs, 1 home run, 9 runs batted in




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