The third time was the charm in Rome, Georgia as Gary Sanchez finally donned the tools of ignorance and led the Charleston Yankees against the Rome Braves. Having missed him twice previously, I found myself on edge during pre-game stretching, defensive drills and batting practice, finally able to breathe a sigh of relief after seeing Sanchez’ name posted on the concourse whiteboard where starting lineups are transferred to individual scorecards. Batting fifth, the two-time top-100 prospect displayed a set of tools worthy of such a lofty ranking. However, his present skills require quite a bit of faith in order to project Sanchez as a power hitting catcher at the big league level.
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Coming off a 2011 season considered a mixed bag with positives (10.5% walk rate, .229 ISO) and negatives (27.1% strikeout rate, suspension for “maturity” issues), Sanchez had become somewhat of an enigma within the scouting community. A strong spring training and glowing reports by prospect writers had twitter buzzing with predictions of a breakout campaign for the young backstop. Additionally, fall out from the Yankees deal of Jesus Montero, as well as the struggles of other catchers in the organization left Sanchez the heir apparent to the catching throne in New York.
But can Sanchez catch at the major league level? After seeing him in person, this has proven to be a much more difficult question to answer than I initially anticipated. In breaking down the skills needed for a catcher to be an adequate defender, Sanchez’ catch-and-throw ability is by far his greatest strength. Between innings, he had three throws in the 1.93 to 2.04 range (2.00-2.05 major league average) and gunned down a Rome Braves runner attempting to steal with a strike to second base. On pitches located between the shoulders, Sanchez displayed a quick transfer and release, along with arm strength in the above average range. However, on balls Sanchez needed to adjust to – especially to the back hand side – his footwork left him off balance causing his throwing motion to lengthen considerably.
This wound up being a recurring theme throughout the game as Sanchez struggled mightily with pitches outside the strike zone. When receiving, Sanchez set a low target, but frequently stabbed at balls instead of softly framing them. In fact, framing was a recurring issue as he had a habit of allowing the velocity of the pitch take his glove. Once again, Sanchez’ back hand was the biggest trouble area as a few balls even made their way to the backstop without bouncing in the dirt, including one on strike three which would have led to a base runner if not for an extremely generous hop back to him.
This left me wondering if his deep crouch and target was too low for him to maintain agility behind the plate and rock from side-to-side to get around pitches. This would also explain his dropping to a knee when attempting to frame balls just outside the strike zone. Handling routine pitches is enough to pass the sniff test for most, but limiting extra bases by reacting to and handling bad balls is extremely important in projecting a quality big league catcher. This is Sanchez’ most glaring weakness. Add to this the fact Sanchez will continue to develop physically and it makes him even harder to project.
At the plate, Sanchez unleashes electric bat speed from a moderately deep crouch. His swing projects for easy loft and he showed the ability to consistently drive pitches during batting practice. However, Sanchez’ swing is quite long at present. That length in the back of his swing needs to be shortened in order to limit the swing-and-miss in his offensive game. If this happens, Sanchez’ strikeout totals will come down raising his peak offensive projection. Shortening his swing may also improve pitch recognition skills as Sanchez was out front on just about everything he swung at – especially off-speed pitches.
In the end, his future behind the plate is reliant on the damage he does at it. Should Sanchez hit enough to profile well regardless of position, he may wind up in a similar situation to Jesus Montero serving as a designated hitter most nights while catching on occasion. However, having seen both Montero and Sanchez at the South Atlantic League level, the comparison is actually a poor one. Montero’s all-around game was heavily skewed towards offense in A-ball and he profiled as a much better pure hitter than Sanchez does at present. Sanchez is a bit more balanced in terms of all-around skill set, but his ceiling is likely that of a slightly below average catcher should he continue to develop without any setbacks. If Sanchez winds up being a .250/.330/.450 hitter and not plug the holes in his swing, the ability to stick at catcher will be the difference between occasional all-star appearances and his being just another power hitter.