A few weeks ago, I wrote an article arguing that San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy was wrong to play catcher Hector Sanchez over Brandon Belt. I based my argument on Belt's superior minor and major league statistics as well his higher prospect pedigree, according to publications like Baseball America and prospect experts like Keith Law of ESPN.
The problem with that analysis is that the players with the best minor league statistics and prospect rankings don't always turn out to be the best professional players.
Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies is an excellent example of a minor league player short on pedigree and tools who has since turned himself into one of the best catchers in the game.
Meanwhile, Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles—who was seen as close to a sure thing after being ranked the No. 1 prospect in baseball in 2009—is still struggling to meet those lofty expectations in his fourth big league season.
Jorge Arangure, Jr. of ESPN wrote an excellent profile on Ruiz, and the one thing that stood out from the article is that analysts like myself have a hard time projecting future performance because we cannot easily measure intangible things such as work ethic, leadership and the desire a player has to improve.
That brings me back to Sanchez.
There are obvious things he needs to improve upon. Sanchez is not very athletic behind the plate, which affects his pitch-framing and ball-blocking. When he frames pitches he tends to stab at the ball instead of slightly moving his body to get around it.
This technique issue costs his pitchers strikes on the corners. He also will take the pitch just below the knees and bring it completely out of the strike zone at times by stabbing at the ball instead of keeping his glove firm. Sanchez has a hard time moving his body to get in front of the pitch in the dirt, giving him problems with ball-blocking as well.
Offensively, Sanchez is too aggressive at the plate right now—walking just six times in his first 177 big league plate appearances.
That number is the key to evaluating Sanchez, though—not the six walks but the 177 plate appearances. Sanchez is only 22 years old, and he has less than a third of a season of playing time in the major leagues. That makes any evaluation of his game unfair at this point.
Sanchez also never played at Double-A, he only received 183 plate appearances at the Triple-A level and just 228 plate appearances at High-A.
In short, he was rushed to the big leagues out of necessity, which is why he is far from a finished product as a receiver and as a hitter.
Buster Posey's ankle injury accelerated Sanchez's clock; this season, he should probably be playing at Double-A to clean up his game, but because the Giants need to closely monitor Posey's playing time,—and due to their desperate need for offense—they couldn't afford to go with a defensive back-up catcher like Chris Stewart.
Sanchez is an excellent bet to improve with playing time. Pitch-framing and patience are two skills that he will improve with experience, and he also could make himself a much better defensive catcher by getting into better physical shape.
Although Belt did have better minor league numbers, was ranked higher by prospect experts and has gotten off to a slightly better start early in his big league career, those aren't the only important factors in determining who ultimately will be the better pro.
Their past performance is one factor, as are their tools. However, we can't accurately measure the intangible factors that go into making a solid pro like work ethic, mental toughness and dedication. Yet those intangibles are what separate the men from the boys at the highest level of competition.
In the end, there's a lot to like about Sanchez. He hit .292/.369/.438 in his abbreviated minor league career, and he's hit a very respectable .280 at the beginning of his big league career in limited playing time. Right now, there aren't many back-up catchers in all of baseball who provide as much offense as he does off the bench.
However, for Sanchez to become more than a very good backup, he has to get into better shape, improve his pitch-framing and become more selective at the plate.
The tools are there, but only Sanchez and the Giants know if the desire for excellence is underneath the hood.