BRADENTON, Fla –
This was not what Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez envisioned his baseball life to be six seasons after becoming a first round draft pick.
“I got death threats,” Sanchez said. “Guys yelling, ‘We know where you live!’ I speak a little Spanish. We were staying at Casa de Campo, [they’re] giving you the throat slice.”
This was the 2014 Dominican Republic Professional Baseball League experience for Sanchez after hitting 3 for 30, to go along with two throwing errors at catcher, for his team Toros del Este.
Sanchez was sent home early.
But despite how it sounds, as 2015 Pirates Spring Training games were getting underway, Sanchez was proud of his offseason, such that it was.
“I went to the Dominican in early November through December,” Sanchez said. “Got sent home a couple of days early. Went straight to New York to work with Brian Esposito, one of our catching instructors. I came straight to Mimicamp to continue working with ‘Espo’. Went home for a few days and then reported 2 or 3 days early to continue working with Espo.”
“I’m not trying to win a Dominican League title, not trying to be a Dominican League All-Star,” Sanchez continued. “I don’t care about driving in runs. I needed to figure it out behind the plate. And of course they want to win down there, and I don’t blame them, that’s their religion. But I was down there for a different reason. Call me stubborn, call me selfish, I don’t care. I needed to get my career back on track.”
The major league career of Tony Sanchez is still in its infancy. After what Tony describes as a “cup of coffee” in the Bigs in 2013, Sanchez got his first sustained action in 2014 when Pirates backup catcher Chris Stewart underwent knee surgery in March. Hitting was not a problem out of the gates for Sanchez, as in April-May he hit .306 (19 for 62) against right handed pitching, .278 overall (2nd among NL rookies at the time), with 12 RBI including a game-winning knock against the Baltimore Orioles. He hit safely in 17 of his 21 games, 20 of which were starts at catcher in the Pirates first 45 games as the team kept the load off of their number one, Russell Martin.
Hitting wasn’t a problem, but throwing was.
April 10th at Wrigley Field, a horrible throw into centerfield trying to catch Emilio Bonifacio trying to swipe second base, leading to a run. April 13th at Miller Park, as a simple strike three in the dirt and subsequent throw down to first was pulled into right field, leading to two Brewers runs. May 3rd at PNC Park against Toronto, another easy strikeout needing a putout at first that went well into foul territory. And two more errors in May on throws down to second base.
The throwing Yips.
For Sanchez, who was in part drafted 4th overall for his elite defensive ability at Boston College, it goes back to his first year in minor league ball.
“I started having some throwing problems in 2009 when I went to West Virginia and they kind of snowballed on me,” Sanchez explained. “I let them snowball on me. They’re more mental, more lacking confidence in myself. So I kind of struggled for a year or two. It really set me back defensively. I thought baseball wasn’t going to work out. Anxiety sets in. ‘Am I that guy anymore?’ I was the guy in college but this is a different world. I’m at my first big league camp,‘What the hell is going on?’ But now I’ve been through all that, it’s made me stronger. I’m a different guy now. Last year I had my issues, threw the ball away, can’t get any worse than that. I’ve seen what happens.”
Upon Chris Stewart’s return, Sanchez was sent back to AAA Indianapolis to catch everyday. For Sanchez it led to 81 games in Indy, including 70 at catcher, and 9 more fielding errors with only a 15% caught stealing rate (8 of 55). Plus, he only hit .235 despite showing some pop with 11 home runs. That led to another challenge with with his Dominican voyage, in trying to work on things with the bat as well.
“I like getting a fastball in the zone that I want to hit early,” Tony Sanchez said. “I’m not afraid to be deep in the counts, I’m just not as good at hitting deep in counts as I am in a 1-0, 2-0 count. So I wanted to work on that. I said, ‘I came down here to work on my catching, why don’t I comedown here to work on something I’m not good at offensively’. That’s what I did. Some people I talked to were like, ‘Well, you were 100% committed to that, better than doing it 50-50’. [Hitting Coach Jeff] Branson, he said ‘I love it. It’s going to make you a better player in the long run’.”
But others in the organization?
“They said it probably wasn’t the best place to take that approach,” Sanchez admitted. “I probably should have stuck to what I’m good at, as far as hitting. I really wanted to work on my weaknesses.”
“For me it’s do or die,” Sanchez said emphatically. “I let the organization down. I let the fans down enough. I’ve done everything I can but I felt it wasn’t enough. So this year, you’ve got to do more. I like to consider myself a hard working guy, worked for everything I’ve gotten. Nothing has been given to me. If anybody could step it up a notch it’s me. That’s kind of the mindset I took going into the offseason. Ok, you’ve got your couple weeks of downtime but then it’s grind. Watch what you eat but then it’s get in the gym, push yourself in the gym. Go to bed early. Don’t go out. Don’t have fun with your friends. This is my life, this is my job. I’ve got to be successful at it. If I’m not, I don’t want to find anything else to do. I love baseball. I said, ‘You’ve got to figure it out.’ That’s why I went to the Dominican. I don’t want to go to the Dominican. I don’t want to play Winter Ball. But I had to, I had no choice. I had to polish my skillset behind the plate. I didn’t care about my hitting. I can hit. I’m going to hit. I can hit in the show, produced in that back-up role. And I’m not even a backup player, I don’t know how to backup, I play everyday. So I went to the Dominican to see how I could be behind the plate. And I was pleased with what I was doing behind the plate down there in a hostile environment. Guys who I’ve never caught before who threw to me and said they wanted to keep throwing to me. That’s the biggest compliment a catcher can get. We had Brad Penny there who said, ‘Why aren’t you catching my ‘pen? I want you catching me! You’re not catching Tuesday?’ For me, that’s huge. It was a very productive offseason. Everyone can tell how much work I put in and how much it means to me.”
Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington sees that commitment, too.
“A year ago as we started talking about the potential loss of Russ Martin our hope and expectation was that Tony would transition in and between Tony and Chris Stewart we would have a catching tandem we felt very comfortable with,” Huntington said. “Unfortunately, as young players do, we caught some bumps in the road with Tony a year ago. Weren’t ready to anoint Tony as our regular catcher this year. Went out and aggressively acquired Francisco Cervelli who we have under contract for this year and next if everything works the way we hope it well. At the same time Tony Sanchez can still catch, and throw, and he can swing the bat, and can still block and can still game call. The throw has been a little bit of a challenge for him and if we can get that refined and back to what he’s capable of doing… I’ve not heard him as focused and as driven as he is, and as confident as he is. He absolutely feels that he should be our regular catcher and he’s going to do everything in his power to make our decision really challenging. And that’s a good spot for a young player to be.”
For his part, Sanchez doesn’t blame the organization for acquiring Cervelli. But yet it drives him.
“No I’m not upset because I didn’t help my cause,” Sanchez said. “I threw some balls away and to be a catcher in the big leagues you have to be dependable. I wasn’t dependable last year. That’s a part of the reason why I did so much in the offseason so I could be that dependable guy behind the plate. For them to go out and sign [Francisco] Cervelli is my own fault. But, Clint [Hurdle] asked us what we were hungry for. And the only thing I’m hungry for is to be the guy that allows them to stop acquiring other catchers. I want to be the guy they drafted fourth overall from Boston College. Live up to that. And prove to myself that I can be that guy because I’ve grinded. I’ve been to the bottom of the barrel as far as adversity goes. They keep signing guys and it’s no one’s fault but my own.”
And as for thoughts of a position switch? Sanchez doesn’t want to hear it.
“I hope not,” Sanchez explained. “Because I love catching, and they drafted me as a catcher. You’ve got twelve guys on that pitching staff that really look to you. It’s a special bond between a catcher and a pitcher. You communicate without saying one word to each other for nine innings. For me it’s like art. Putting fingers down, they’re executing pitches. When you make that right pitch and you get that strikeout looking and you’re both reaping the rewards of that communication. A lot goes into catching. After a game I’m just so mentally drained. There’s a lot going on. You’ve got to know who’s on deck, what the score is, who’s in your bullpen, the pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses, the batter’s strengths and weaknesses, who’s in their pen, who’s on base, you’ve got to get your signs from your coach to hold the running game. But I take pride in being good at doing all of that, being able to multi-task, being able to block, throw guys out. Do things that other that other guys can’t do. I just need to do it on a more consistent basis. And that was what the offseason was for, that’s what this spring training is for, to show them that I can be that guy that can be behind the plate and be dependable.”
As the Pirates wrapped up a few early Grapefruit League games against the Toronto Blue Jays, the new employer of Russell Martin, Sanchez can’t help but look across the diamond and see what could be if his hard work pays off.
“Russell has been the guy,” Sanchez explained. “It seems like I was drafted a decade ago, and I’m still not the guy. I love every second I had with Russell Martin because he helped me so much. He bent over backwards to make sure I was comfortable, that I was ready for the games I was going to catch. He took me out to dinner, fed my fiancee. He paid for our meals. Bought me a three-piece suit. He treated me awesome, like I was his brother. From the first day I met him, he made me come work with him, made me do catching drills with him. He’s one of the best catchers in the league. I think he’s the best, but I’m biased. I really appreciate what he did for me, but I want to contribute to the team the way he did. He helped carry this team into their first playoffs in twenty years. And he’ll be forever appreciated by that fan base.”
And as for his connection to that Pirates fan base, at least in the short term, it won’t be coming through Twitter and other social media websites.
“I love the fans, I love having fun with people, I love smiling,” Sanchez said. “Baseball is fun, I’m playing a game for a living. As hard as I’ve made on myself, it’s still baseball. It’s still fun. I’ve gotten my few cups of coffee in the show but it’s time to be that frontline guy, the guy that’s in the lineup ever night, the guy who gets one day off a week. I want to be that guy and have fun. Being in the show for a month or two here, somebody gets hurt, I’m the first guy up and I help fill that void as solid as I can but I want to be the guy that, God forbid something happens to me if I need a break they put somebody else in. I want to say ‘Hey, Clint, I need a breather’. So until I get to that point I won’t be satisfied. That’s what I’ve tried to come into this Spring Training ‘I’m not [bleeping] around’. I’m off social media. It’s a big distraction for me. Everyone knows how much I love interacting with other people and giving insight into my life. But I want to entertain people on the field. I’m done entertaining people off the field.