Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area wrote on Sunday that backup catcher Hector Sanchez reported to camp without exactly being in the best shape of his life, either. Baggarly wrote:
Add Sanchez to the list of Giants who will be doing extra conditioning work this spring, Bochy said. They aren’t just picking on Pablo Sandoval. Sanchez arrived a bit heavier than the club wanted, too
It's one thing for Sandoval, the reigning World Series MVP and No. 3 hitter, to show up carrying extra girth. Sandoval's weight issues are far from ideal, but it's even less acceptable for a reserve player to pull the same thing. Sandoval has a guaranteed contract, and the Giants don't have an alternative at third base or in the middle of the lineup.
Sanchez doesn't have the same pedigree or leverage as Sandoval. He's a reserve player under the club's control for the next two years before he can become eligible for salary arbitration. He also has a minor league option remaining, so theoretically his spot with the big league club is not guaranteed.
However, Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle reported via Twitter that even though Sanchez isn't in great shape, his bat could force him into the lineup more often this season.
Bochy had another interesting take. Said Hector could force his way into the lineup more with his bat, not just when Posey is off. #sfgiants— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) February 17, 2013
And so begins the Hector Sanchez narrative: he's young, out of shape, but boy do Giants need to get his bat in the lineup.— Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) February 17, 2013
Sanchez has other things he needs to worry about besides conditioning. His physique should be a given. As a professional athlete, his job is dependent on being in top physical shape.
Beyond his conditioning, Sanchez needs to clean up his game both behind and at the plate. Defensively, starting catcher Buster Posey ranked as the fifth-best catcher in baseball, according to Matt Klaassen's advanced catcher ratings—saving the Giants about seven runs with his astute glove work. Sanchez was on the exact opposite end of the spectrum with only five catchers ranking below him defensively.
Sanchez has good arm strength, but his lack of athleticism behind the plate makes it hard for him to frame and block pitches. He tends to stab at the ball and either pull pitches on the black off the plate or back over the plate—which makes it obvious to the umpire that the borderline pitch was a ball. Posey, a converted shortstop in college, is much more athletic and therefore more quiet and subtle with his movements.
With Posey catching last year, the Giants had a 3.50 ERA. When Sanchez was catching, the team ERA shot up to 4.00. To be fair, those numbers are somewhat misleading because Posey predominantly caught the three most consistent starters on the team in Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong.
The Giants ultimately went with Sanchez over incumbents Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside last year because they wanted his bat on the roster. The switch-hitter rewarded the organization by hitting .280 with 18 extra-base hits despite being limited to part-time duty and finishing the season with only 227 plate appearances.
It's hard enough to hit big league pitching as a rookie when you are getting regular at-bats. To break into the pros as a player starting only once or twice a week is a nearly impossible task, but Sanchez managed it fairly well.
However, his 5-to-52 walk-to-strikeout ratio suggests that his offense needs more seasoning as well. Sanchez skipped Double-A entirely and has only played 50 games at the Triple-A level. Most of his 1,291 plate appearances in the minor leagues came at the lower levels.
Still, Sanchez is a coveted asset because of his youth and upside. The 23-year-old hit .292/.369/.438 in his minor league career, and the organization believed strongly enough in his abilities to install him as the backup to Posey last year despite his lack of professional experience. The Giants also felt confident enough in Sanchez to deal top catching prospect Tommy Joseph in the trade that netted Hunter Pence at last season's trading deadline.
Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News reported that there was an equal amount of interest around the league between Joseph and Sanchez at the trading deadline last year.
One last interesting note from Sabean’s talk with the media today. He said there was actually just as much interest around the league in Hector Sanchez as there was in Tommy Joseph. Given how Joseph is praised by scouts and talent evaluators, that’s good to know.
Clearly, the Giants' talent evaluators and talent evaluators from other teams believe in Sanchez's potential. For him to maximize his abilities, he's going to have to take his conditioning more seriously, improve his pitch-framing abilities and show a more advanced approach at the plate.
Sandoval might be able to get away with carrying extra pounds and hitting pitches out of the zone, but he's a unique talent. In recent history, only Sandoval and Vladimir Guerrero have had the ability to consistently square up pitches well off the plate.
For Sanchez to reach his ceiling, he'd be wise to avoid following Sandoval's path at the plate both on and off the field.