Tony Sanchez, Chris Stewart, and the Depth vs Best 25 Debate

The Pirates are going to have to make a decision on their backup catcher spot in the next week. Photo Credits: David Hague (Sanchez), WTM (Stewart).
The Pirates are going to have to make a decision on their backup catcher spot in the next week. Photo Credits: David Hague (Sanchez), WTM (Stewart).

Yesterday there were two events that took place which will raise controversy in the next week for the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the minor league level, Chris Stewart started his rehab work, catching five innings for the Bradenton Marauders. At the Major League level, Tony Sanchez delivered the winning hit against the St. Louis Cardinals — a two out, RBI double in the bottom of the 7th inning. It was the second game winner in the last week, with Sanchez also delivering an RBI single in the bottom of the 16th inning against the Cubs on Wednesday.

When Stewart comes back, the Pirates are most likely going to bring him up and send Tony Sanchez down to preserve their catching depth. Stewart is out of options, so sending him to the minors isn’t possible, unless the Pirates expose him to waivers. If that happens, Stewart would almost certainly be claimed, due to his strong defensive profile and rating as one of the better backup catchers in the league. With Sanchez being productive at the plate during the first two weeks of the season, this will create a debate between having the most productive player on the roster (The Best 25) or preserving depth and finding a way to keep both backup catchers.

The Best 25

“The Best 25” argument says that the team should carry their best players on the roster, with no concern for any other factors. Sometimes this involves sacrificing depth. Sometimes it involves bringing a prospect up early with no regard for Super Two status or an extra year of control. In this case, the debate involves sacrificing depth, rather than worrying about Sanchez as a Super Two player.

The argument for The Best 25 is in the title. You have the best possible team you can put together in the majors. This is often an argument used by people who are only focused on winning right now, whether “right now” means the current season, or the upcoming games.

One flaw with The Best 25 is that it can be over-simplified. Sometimes putting a player on the roster just because he makes up “The Best 25” doesn’t really add much value. For example, Tony Sanchez had a very limited time in the majors last year, and had a -0.1 WAR. It’s definitely possible that Sanchez could be better than a replacement level player this year. But as a backup catcher, his value is limited due to his playing time. Meanwhile, Chris Stewart has been worth half a win in each of the last two years.

Last year the best backup catcher was worth 1.0 WAR. So if Sanchez performs like the best backup catcher in the league, he’s only going to be worth half a win more than Stewart has been worth over the last two seasons.

Maintaining Depth

The argument to maintain depth considers that baseball is a long season, and the catcher position is a position that leads to a lot of injuries. The Pirates aren’t going to go through the entire season with just two catchers (and right now those two catchers are Russell Martin and Tony Sanchez). If you keep Sanchez in the majors, that means you have to designate Stewart for assignment, and likely lose him. Stewart is not a guy you want to lose.

For one, the Pirates are better off this year from a depth perspective by having Russell Martin/Chris Stewart in the majors, and Tony Sanchez in the minors. The alternative would be Martin/Sanchez, and a catcher who doesn’t belong in the majors as the primary #3 guy, like Nevin Ashley or Carlos Paulino.

Also, the reason people are high on Sanchez right now has been due to his timely hits. I think Sanchez is going to be a decent offensive catcher, and better than anyone thought he could be two years ago. But you have to consider the defense here.

According to the Baseball Prospectus Total Receiving Runs, Tony Sanchez has been worth 15.8 runs above average per 7000 pitches. That’s about 1.6 wins that could be added to his WAR over a full season, although as a backup he would probably get half of that at most. Meanwhile, Chris Stewart has been worth 36.6 runs above average per 7000 pitches in his career. That’s about 3.7 wins per year, but once again it’s most likely half of that as a backup.

That’s a very small sample size for Sanchez, as it only includes about 700 pitches in the majors so far. But it’s a large sample for Stewart, showing him to be one of the top blocking and receiving catchers in the game. Even if you cut the Total Receiving Runs/7000 in half, Stewart would be a 2.3 WAR player when adding his receiving to his projected 0.5 WAR. Taking the same approach with Sanchez, and assuming he could put up a 1.0 WAR as the best backup catcher in the league (and that stat for a catcher is mostly based on offense, with little consideration for framing or blocking), you’d get about a 1.8 WAR total.

When you add the defensive values, Stewart actually wins both arguments. He maintains depth, and he’s part of The Best 25. The problem is that defensive stats aren’t universally trusted. Even those who accept the stats don’t fully trust the values, especially when you’ve got a debate between offense and defense. Tony Sanchez hits a go-ahead double and everyone knows it was a key hit. Chris Stewart frames several extra pitches per game and people either don’t notice, don’t appreciate the value, or appreciate what he did, but don’t realize that this is a skill that, when repeated over and over in a game, is just as valuable as a big hit.

Tony Sanchez – The 2015 Starting Catcher

I think that the values with Sanchez and Stewart are close, with Stewart having the edge right now due to his defense. I also think that over time, Sanchez will be the better catcher. In fact, I’ve been saying often that Sanchez should be the starting catcher in 2015. I’m assuming Russell Martin gets a huge deal that the Pirates won’t be able to match.

That stance kind of makes this debate interesting. In one hand, I’m saying that Sanchez shouldn’t be in the majors when Stewart comes back. In the other hand, I’m saying Sanchez should be the starter, with Stewart likely serving as his backup, in 2015. But that’s only weird if you look at it from the “Best 25” perspective, without considering other factors.

I’m considering depth. The Pirates are stronger in 2014 having all three catchers in the system, and the only way that happens is if Sanchez goes down when Stewart returns. Also, if Russell Martin goes down with an injury, you want Sanchez at a point where he has been playing every day, ready to take over the daily job in Pittsburgh.

I’m considering the development. Sanchez still has some work to do with his defense to polish it for the majors. It was less than a year ago that he dealt with some throwing issues, which prevented him from getting the call to Pittsburgh when Michael McKenry was struggling. And while Sanchez turns 26 in May, he missed half a season in 2010, and was recovering from two separate jaw injuries in 2011 and 2012. The 2013 season was the first year where Sanchez played a full season with no health concerns. It would be nice to get him one more full season behind the plate as a starter before he has to do that in the majors.

I’m also considering the long-term. If the Pirates get rid of Stewart, and go with Sanchez this year, then they’ve only got Sanchez next year, with no backup. As shown above, Stewart has a lot of value as a backup catcher due to his defense. Getting rid of that wouldn’t just hurt the depth in 2014, but it would hurt the team in 2015 and possibly 2016 (Stewart has two years of control remaining beyond 2014). That’s a big future downgrade, and going with Sanchez this year might not be a big upgrade, if an upgrade at all.

This isn’t really a situation where there is one definitive stance and no value to the other line of thinking. It’s a difficult decision, because the Pirates have two very good backup catching options. That’s a great problem to have, and it’s also a problem that the Pirates haven’t seen in recent years. But it also means that the Pirates are faced with a choice of sending a talented catcher to Triple-A, or sending a talented catcher out of the organization. When faced with that kind of choice, I’d opt to keep as many talented catchers as possible.

  • I think there is one point many are missing here. That is that sending Tony Sanchez down to Indy in a week does not mean he will be there for the entire season, or even half of it. He will get everyday action there. Plus, if either ML catcher gets another injury (likely), Tony will be right back up. I also expect the Pirates to bring him up to DH when they play in an AL park, just like they did last season. Then he will be brought up for good some time in August. As others have said, the main role of the backup catcher is to sit on the bench. He is your last PH option, so he gets one or two starts per week and sits on the bench the rest of the time. I predict Sanchez will get over 175 ABs this season.

  • a player can rehab for 30 days in the Minor leagues before having to be activated- they don’t need to make a quick decision on Stewart unless they are itching to get Tony back to the everyday lineup in AAA

  • Why has there been no information about Vin Mazzaro? Isn’t the ten days up?????

  • Well it’s a done deal no matter what Tony does in the next few innings he plays because the plan was Stewart backing up all along and that’s not changing. All I know is when Barmes and Stewart are playing at the same time we better hope the other six position guys are having good at bats and the pitcher is putting up zeroes.

  • Sanchez v.s. Stewart is a good argument, but for me I’ve got to look at the team’s belief and confidence. Sanchez looks like a pro at the dish and behind it. I keep him up and give him a few more games than a typical backup… maybe 70-80 games. I also play Martin at 3rd or 1st a few more games against tough lefties to give Pedro a blow.
    The argument of keeping Stewart around for a few more years is tempting, but I also think you can acquire another back-up catcher if you need to. Especially one that doesn’t hit. Sanchez is ready and I’d like to have him be a part of this pennant chase and all the experiences that come with that.

    • the Pirates are averaging 2 pinch hit appearances per game. When you add in the platoons in right and at first having a bat off the bench becomes more valuable. If there was a solid starting 8 rather than starting 6 I think you could carry the extra glove. But when you have pitcher, rightfield and first as positions that you may pinch hit for from 7th inning on you need to have some options.

  • Why are many acting like Tony has been knocking ‘clutch’ pinch hits for a decade?

    we’re talking about a few big hits in week 1. I LOVE Tony Sanchez as a player. but he hasn’t proven anything. Let the kid cook in AAA and we can get 550 clutch ABs of a fully cooked Tony Sanchez in 2015. Catchers are slow to fully develop.

  • If Sanchez is tearing up AAA through mid season you could possibly trade Martin for a large return before the trade deadline and bring Sanchez to PIttsburgh to start. The assumption’s are:
    1) Martin is unsignable in 2015 because he’ll command a large contract somewhere. If he is signable, do the Pirates keep him over playing Sanchez?
    2) Sanchez’s value with the bat compared to Martin outweighs the drop in defense from Martin to Sanchez.

  • This is a tough call, but I think you need to keep sanchez. When they signed Stewart, I think they expected Lambo to be here and Tabata and Snider to be hitting better. If they send Sanchez down, they might have the worst bench in baseball, hitting wise. Look at it from the other direction, is having a great defensive catcher for one game a week worth it? At least they can sub in Barmes on most days in late innings.

    They are already carrying a defensive specialist in Barmes. Maybe they can keep three catchers and send Harrison down (it has been mentioned on here before)? Then Sanchez can hit without sacrificing catching depth. Its not like Harrison is playing anyway. Also, I am of the opinion once a player reaches a certain development, going to AAA to get more playing time does not really accomplish anything. Being a backup and learning at the major league level is better then getting AB’s in the minors.

    • but is having the great (in a very small sample size) PH backup catcher worth it? you hardly ever PH your backup catcher! it just seems like it because Sanchez was the hero in extra innings a few nights ago!

    • i agree that eventually going back to AAA doesn’t do much…..

      But is Sanchez to that point yet? it’s not like Sanchez has been in AAA for several seasons. Catchers are slow to develop.

    • I thought Go Bucs comment was the most hilarious I have seen here,but your’s is a very close 2nd. And,I am sure the Pirates’ front office would be sure to take your advice about being a MLB backup. Ha ha…..oh man,where do these ideas come from ?

  • Hey, I just noticed something. Reese McGuire is a left handed hitter. Hmmmmm.
    In a few years could we see the second coming of “SlaValliere” or “LaSlaught” where we had an excellent catcher who only played against the pitchers he hit best? those were some good years for Bucco backstops!
    “Sanguire?” “McChez?”

  • For Tim or anyone who follows Indianapolis closely is there still concerns about Sanchez’s throwing mechanics?

    • Stewart is not a bad back up catcher and Barmes is not a bad back up infielder. Having both on the bench at same time though makes it a weak bench.

      • Stewart on the bench doesn’t matter IMO. How often does the backup C pinch hit anyway? Only in like… 15 inning games. how often does a game actually go 15 innings?

        and the goodness I feel from having barmes able to come in at SS instead of Harrison if Mercer gets hurt outweighs the badness I feel if he has to pinch hit. How often do you pinch hit more than 3 guys anyway? It’s probably a relatively low fraction of games.

        then take the difference in a good pinch hitter and a bad pinch hitter’s averages. let’s say the good PH gets a hit 28% of the time and the bad one gets a hit 20% of the time.

        Then the probability that the extra hit 8 % of the time from the good pinch hitter will actually impact the outcome of the game. probably lower than you think.

        Multiplying the P(pinch hitting 4 or more guys in one game) x P(good PH BA – bad PH BA…. .08 ) x P(that the extra hit actually matters) and you end up with a very small difference in runs scored for the team… and therefore a very small difference in expected wins.

        • you could probably make a similar argument by saying that the probability that Mercer gets hurt is relatively low… but don’t you just feel better with Barmes at SS than you do with Harrison at SS?

        • I believe there is an accepted 10% penalty for pinch hitters, so a career .333 wOBA hitter would be expected to perform .297 wOBA as a pinch hitter. In addition a good offense catcher is not necessary a good offensive player, the absurd idea of moving him to first disregards the entire principle of position adjustments. If anyone is suggesting long term roster moves be made because of 8 PAs they are doing it wrong.

        • I was hoping that the bucs would have grabbed Eduardo Nunez from the Yanks. It looks like the twins got him for a small price. He could take the place of both Barnes and Harrison. Plus provide some insurance in case mercer doesn’t work out.

  • The simple interim solution would be to keep all 3 on the MLB roster. How can they cut Sanchez? The team requires more clutch hitting (not less). Go with one less pitcher or middle infielder. If Stewart is so valuable then package him up with some pitchers for prospects.

    • Maybe Stewart is more clutch!!!

      • How many game winning hits does Stewart have this season? He is known on the defensive end. That comment makes no sense.

        • yeah he hasn’t played any games so we don’t know how clutch he is or isn’t. Sanchez has the early 2-0 clutch hit lead, but maybe Stewart will be even better!

    • That might be the most hilarious comment so far.

  • It just seems silly to send a bat down ,for a team that has a hard time scoring runs. maybe martin can play some rightfield and 3rd base versus tuff lefties to get sanchez some starts.Also when does travis snider get the dfa boot?

    • I think the point is…. how often does the backup C even play?
      They never even pinch hit with the backup catcher until games hit like 13 innings.
      If Tony’s hits had been with bases empty, we probably wouldnt even be having this conversation.
      And why the Snider hate? it’s not like he’s been bad. no power (through 6 games…), but he’s been fine.

  • You should keep the best players in the system period.

    That means keeping some people off the 40 man until you’ll lose them and keeping people with options down in favor of people without options.

    The best 8 should start unless there is a Polanco type situation. The best 5 starters should start but need to be at 200 innings before they are on the 40 man.

  • What I got out of this article is the Bucs have a great problem to deal with in 30 days. I love Tony and I think he will get 60 starts if history holds up and Martin does go down a couple of times this year. Sending him down is a good baseball decision that will payoff now and in the future.

    • Bob: They will have to deal with it in 10 days or less, and I am thrilled that Tony Sanchez has done as well as he has and leads the Pirates in RBI. I watched him work the game Sunday and thought that he did very well with Volquez. He is a very hyper pitcher and the Catcher has his hands full when he is on the rubber. He never let him give into himself when times got tough and kept him on task. He blocked everything and gave his pitcher the confidence of a leader. There are good “send downs”, and this is one of them – he proved himself to this team. We got Stewart for a reason and we need to follow that plan.

  • Tony Sanchez is almost directly responsible for 2 wins this season. Everything can’t be broken down into WAR. When Stewart is healthy, I don’t see why the Pirates can’t carry 3 catchers. Josh Harrison can be optioned to AAA. Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer are capable of playing SS, 3B, and 2B. You already have 4 OF on the roster, along with 2 1B, and Russell Martin who can sub at 3rd in an emergency situation. Harrison would only be a phone call away if someone were to go down with a long-term injury. Having Sanchez on the roster makes the bench better.

    Also, even though he wouldn’t be playing everyday, I think Sanchez would benefit more being in Pittsburgh with Russell Martin, Ray Searage, and the MLB pitching staff.

    • MDFitness1975
      April 7, 2014 8:25 pm

      You nailed it Ron. I remember last year when all the saberheads (who incidentally i have learned more about baseball from in 2 years than I did in 10 years of looking at the backs of baseball cards) kept dismissing virtually every potential trade deadline bat because “they will only amount to a fraction of a win anyway”. They even said it with Byrd, and I dont care what his Pirate WAR was, the guy single handedly won like 3 games plus had 2 or three MASSIVE game-influencing hits in the play-offs, to say noting of the things that are impossible to measure with metrics like Cutch seeing better pitches to hit because Byrd was hitting behind him, etc.

      Regarding Sanchez – Im torn. I still have nightmares about The Dusty Brown Era, and Stewart has unquestioned value as a back-up catcher, and even more as a 3rd catcher. But with the Pirates being a team that can win NOW, and the bench as currently constructed being so pitiful, Tony Sanchez to me needs to be on the roster. And I said that before his game-winners this week – the kid cant flat out hit. The metrics are trending his way to support that, but the eye test shows me a guy who is as comfortable and natural as anyone on the team at hitting the ball where its pitched and driving it from gap to gap.

      If it means JHay gets sent down when Stewart is healthy, Im all for it. The need for a 3rd SS is minimal from day to day as compared to the need for a competent bench bat and spot starter for Russ Martin.

      • The stathead argument that i’ll make is… that if Sanchez gets that double with bases empty, we aren’t even having this discussion. Those are great moments… the Byrd dinger in the wildcard game…. the sanchez walkoff… the sanchez rbi double…. but if we let these little moments makes let go of a legit major league C in Stewart for free in order to keep Sanchez for the 1% of games that go 15 innings (backup catchers are the last off the bench to hit…) then we might lose sight of important things…

        like if Martin and/or Sanchez get hurt, we’re stuck with Nevin Ashley. It’s about minimizing losses as much as it’s about maximizing wins.

        • Ron Loreski
          April 8, 2014 8:06 am

          But the bases weren’t empty when he hit the double. Winning baseball games are not LITTLE moments. Sanchez is showing the ability to hit in the clutch, which isn’t exactly an easy thing to do.

    • Agree with EVERYTHING you said here, except that Sanchez would benefit more from playing than sitting due to his injury time lost which is huge.

  • lonleylibertarian
    April 7, 2014 11:14 am

    Get Sanchez a first baseman’s mitt – have him spent a month learning the position in Indy after Stewart is healthy and call him up to play first once Gabby and Ishikawa prove how awful they both are offensively

    • I’d much, much rather have Tony Sanchez spend that time with the catcher’s mitt, learning to play better defense at the position he will be playing full-time for the next six years at least.

      • lonleylibertarian
        April 7, 2014 11:39 am

        Sanchez is not seen by most as a long term solution at catcher – bridge to,one of three catching prospects led by Reese McGuire

        Having him at first will make him more valuable and could be a long term solution at a position with little or no organizational depth

        • Theres nothing to suggest he might not be the long term solution at catcher. Speculating on prospects, particularly ones in low A, is a risky move. Plus, the move from C to 1B has been done multiple times recently (Posey, Mauer, etc) and wouldn’t be a major problem if McGuire or others arrive and force a position change

          • lonleylibertarian
            April 7, 2014 12:08 pm

            This team is not very good offensively as it currently stands – Barmes is a wasted AB when he has to hit – Stewart will be similar by all accounts – I just want to have somebody who can scare the other team coming off of the bench – my preference would be to cut Barmes but that won’t happen – the idea mentioned above of sending Jay Hay down to make room for Tony is a decent plan b

            • and then have one backup infielder? I guess Gabby can play third, but wow…..that’s risky. I guess you could do that, but there just isn’t that much upside. Sanchez needs ab’s, and needs playing time at catcher so he can be the full time starter next year. There just isn’t enough benefit from having him on the team right now vs. sending him down, he isn’t exactly babe ruth

        • Sigh_OhWell
          April 7, 2014 5:41 pm

          Sanchez is not seen as a long term solution at catcher? Are you kidding me? When we drafted Sanchez in the first round at 4th overall back in 09 people said it was his defense and game calling that was already major league level, and that his meh offense is what makes the pick a reach at 4th. Sanchez is easily the ready for behind the plate. He’s the only solution we got at catcher right now for the next 3 years, as McGwire won’t be ready for that long. We aren’t gonna find another Russell Martin free agency gem, finding a 5 WAR player for 17 mill/2 years is….lucky as hell.

          • You won’t be seeing Reese until mid 2018, IF he doesn’t get hurt or not adjust to hitting

            • lonleylibertarian
              April 7, 2014 8:42 pm

              2016 or 17 – jhang will be ready before 2018

              • So you are saying a rookie Jhang is going to unseat a higher ranking prospect whom will already have 3 full years of ML experience? – in the world of unlikely events, that one is at the top of the mountain

                • lonleylibertarian
                  April 8, 2014 9:31 am

                  Not a sure thing – but Jhang is moving along nicely – and is seen as having solid offensive skills with a plus defense – he or McGuire are both solid prospects – and the Pirates have several other interesting catchers in the system – they moved one of them – Matheson to third base because of the log jam.

                  To be clear – I LOVE Tony Sanchez – thought he earned a shot at a roster spot with his performance last September and spring training. And IF the Pirates were loaded with offensive depth I would have no issue with the idea of letting him play catcher every day at Indy for this year.

                  BUT – as I noted elsewhere – the end game for this year is being ignored. If Martin has a solid offensive year and a WAR of 3+ then a QO would make sense. If he signs it they have him for a fair price for 2015 – and still have a hole at 1st base against Lefties – why not use a resource that makes the bench better – and have the flex to let Gabby go after the year if Martin signs the QO. If he gets a big deal and signs elsewhere they get a draft pick and put Tony at catcher for 2015

    • Do you just not have any idea who Gaby Sanchez is?

      • lonleylibertarian
        April 7, 2014 12:02 pm

        I do – a decent defensive first baseman who can only hit LHP – which the Pirates do not see much of. Overpaid – but might be useful as right handed bat off of the bench – and start at 1st the 30 or so games the Pirates face against lefty starters.

        • Kevin_Young
          April 7, 2014 1:36 pm

          Since 2000 he has the 4th best wRC+ of any 1b against lefties behind Pujols, Goldschmidt, and Cabrera. I don’t see how that “proves how awful they both are offensively.” I love Tony Sanchez (a right-handed hitter) but he doesn’t bring that level of value with the bat.

    • man. You’d rather have Tony at 1b than a Gaby-Ike Davis platoon. I hope you’re right about Tony’s bat! That’d definitely be nice!

      • I’d rather have Ike if Ike came without a trade and was a ML min. player

    • You just won’t give up, will you ? No wonder you are lonely.

  • This is not just depth vs Best 25. It’s also – or even mostly – about giving Sanchez regular playing time.

    • Mark Phillippi
      April 7, 2014 11:15 am

      that would be the one argument about sending Tony Sanchez down I would agree with