2015 is an important year for Tony Sanchez.
2014 was an up and down campaign for the catcher. He followed the year by signing a contract to play with the Toros del Este in the Dominican League, but struggled in his time there. He was sent home due to his poor play, which was a concerning development at the time.
The Dominican League is a very competitive, high-pressure and high stress environment with fans that are extremely passionate about their teams, and the clubs expect production from their players. Sanchez knew going in that the lack of reps he had prior to heading south would not to be an easy thing to overcome.
“When you take a month and a half off and you start swinging a week before you leave, you know that you aren’t going to have success,” Sanchez explained.
He knew he wasn’t going to light the world on fire, so he decided to take a different approach. He focused on the parts of his game that needed to be improved — hitting behind in counts, and his all around defensive game. Sanchez ended up hitting a miniscule .100 at the plate, and continued to have problems defensively. His lack of production was not beneficial enough for Toros del Este to keep him around.
Despite his poor Dominican League experience, Sanchez continued to stay positive and continued to believe in his ability. He believes that his offense is major-league ready, but knows that his defense is still a work in progress. His concerns about his defensive game led to him contacting his former Indianapolis catching coach and 2015 West Virginia Power Manager Brian Esposito when he got back to the United States. Esposito was Sanchez’s go-to-guy in Indianapolis, and Sanchez was confident that he could help him with his defensive game, especially with his throwing problems. Sanchez traveled up to New York to work out with Esposito as well as Pirates coach Brad Fischer for two weeks, and continued to work with them in Florida through Pirates mini camp.
“Esposito caught [in the Majors]. I soak in everything he tells me,” Sanchez said emphatically. “He’s got a lot of wisdom and he knows how to catch, he knows the ins and outs of it.”
The reasons for Sanchez’s throwing problems stem from his ball transfers from the glove to his hand, as well as how he was positioning his body as he was receiving pitches. Esposito explained that Sanchez needed to work on being more efficient with his body movements as the pitch was coming to the plate. The goal of the workouts was to heighten his awareness of where his body positioning was, and concentration on putting himself in the best position to get off a clean and accurate throw.
“You can’t get a good throw without catching the ball [in good position]. The way you catch the ball is going to allow you to transfer the ball more efficiently. And the way I was catching the ball in the past, I wasn’t putting myself in the most ideal position to get good throws off, so I was having a little trouble there,” Sanchez explained.
They worked on his mechanics by hiking up the velocity on the pitching machine to 127 MPH with cutting and sinking movement. The objective of this drill was to force Sanchez to execute his mechanics at a quicker pace without the wasted movement he had developed. Esposito was attempting to break Sanchez of his bad habits by running the drill at exceedingly high speeds, with the goal of allowing Sanchez to utilize his natural ability. When Sanchez would return to normal game-speed, the goal was that his improved, polished mechanics would become second nature.
“We elevated the game situation,” Esposito explained. “It was a workout where everything that he saw in that cage or in that building that we were doing exceeded far beyond what the game will ever bring to him, so when we back it down to the game-speed, it’s almost as if it’s too easy.”
The workouts helped raise Sanchez’s awareness of what he needed to do mechanically, and emphasized the need to focus on staying away from any extra body movement that could disrupt his throwing mechanics.
“We just isolated him to what’s important, and that’s making sure we see the ball out of his hand, catch the ball the right way…and all the other stuff is going to follow suit,” Esposito said.
Doing the workouts during the winter wasn’t enough for Sanchez since he describes himself as a “high-maintenance player.” Repetition is important for him to be successful. Just as when a pitcher makes adjustments and needs repetition to get used to a mechanical change, the same holds true for Sanchez. This is not a short-term fix, and he knows he has to work hard every day to re-master his mechanics.
Esposito is extremely happy with the progress Sanchez has made and is confident that he has the tools to take the next step — the arm strength is there.
“He’s a real talented kid,” Esposito said confidently. “He just needs to be who he is.”
Sanchez is thrilled with the progress he has made with his throwing, but the real test will come when regular season play begins. He will likely begin the season in Triple-A battling with emerging prospect Elias Diaz for the starting job in Indianapolis. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates share the starts in Indianapolis between Sanchez and Diaz to begin the season. Diaz has been praised for his defensive work behind the plate, and if Sanchez’s throwing issues still aren’t resolved, expect to see Diaz receiving most of the starts in Indianapolis, with Sanchez being the odd man out.