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.
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.