A 29-year-old infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Freddy Sanchez won the National League batting title in 2006, posting a .344 average. A lifetime .313 hitter in 1,104 big league at-bats, the native of Burbank, California also led the NL with 53 doubles while pounding out 200 hits and knocking in 85 runs. Originally taken in the 11th round of the 2000 draft by the Red Sox, Sanchez was traded from Boston to Pittsburgh, along with Mike Gonzalez, for Brandon Lyon, Jeff Suppan and Anastacio Martinez on July 31, 2003.
Last Wednesday, Sanchez was named the winner of the 17th annual Tony Conigliaro Award, which honors a major-league player who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage. David Laurila sat down with Sanchez for BP to talk hitting, awards and the thrill of being a big leaguer.
David Laurila: You’ve always hit for a high average. What makes you a good hitter?
Freddy Sanchez: A lot of it has to do with good hand-eye coordination. I have an ability to put balls into play, and fortunately they’ve been finding some holes. Another thing is that I’ve put in a lot of hard work. Repetition is a big part of hitting, and I’ve spent countless hours in the batting cage, trying to make myself better.
DL: I’ve read that your approach at the plate is primarily “see the ball and hit it.” How much attention do you pay to charts?
FS: I don’t really look at them at all. Pitchers don’t always work the same, and come game time they’re pitching mostly to the situation. I will look at video, to see tendencies and arm location. I mostly want to see where a pitcher’s release point is so I can pick up the ball better.
DL: If you were a coach, what would you stress as the most important part of the hitting process?
FS: To start early. You want to get your front foot down and be on time. If you get yourself in a good position early, you’ll see the ball longer. But I wouldn’t want to try to change someone’s game, because not all swings are the same. I’ve had hitting coaches tell me that my swing is unorthodox, but I’ve been doing it for years and it works.
DL: When you’re facing a pitcher, how important is his velocity?
FS: It’s not really important. I suppose it matters a little if a guy is throwing in the high 90s, especially if they’re following an off-speed pitcher, but then you just get set earlier–you get your load ready earlier. If you get yourself in a good position to hit, how hard someone is throwing isn’t a big deal.
DL: Is there a difference between velocity and perception of velocity?
FS: Definitely. You’ll see that a lot when you’re facing taller, bigger guys, because they’re usually coming at you with a different arm angle. Some pitchers will short-arm the ball, too. They’re hitting 90 on the gun, but it jumps on you like it’s a lot quicker because you don’t pick it up as early. And, of course, a fastball will look harder when someone is throwing a lot of off-speed stuff with the same arm action.
DL: You have a knack for spoiling tough pitches, and some have argued that it’s actually possible for a hitter to foul pitches off on purpose. Is that possible? And do you do it?
FS: I think it’s possible. If a pitch is close, you may want to do something at the last second, kind of play pepper with it. Do I do it? It depends. I can reach out and spoil pitches, but I’m not really conscious of it. I’m just reacting.
DL: You were in a close race for the batting title in the final weeks of the season. How different is the game mentally when you’re in that situation?
FS: It’s a lot different. It’s tough, because you go the whole season without thinking about it, and then it’s impossible not to think about it. I was also going for 200 hits, so the last few days it was hard not to try to make things happen. But it’s all feel as a hitter, so you can’t do that. You can’t force hits. You have to keep a grip and stay focused, or you’re going to get yourself in trouble. Baseball is a game where you can feel great and do everything right, but still make outs. The one thing you have control of is your approach, so you have to stay with it.
DL: Along with winning the batting title, you also played in the All-Star Game. Which accomplishment is more meaningful to you?
FS: The All-Star Game, because it was a sign of respect. I got a lot of write-in votes, but more importantly, it was mostly my peers, and the coaches, that chose me. To have a great former player like Phil Garner want me on the team was meaningful. As a player, respect is the most important thing you can have.
DL: In 2003, you had 10 assists in a game while playing third base for the Red Sox. Looking back, does that mean much to you?
FS: Oh, yeah. It means a lot, because I’ve always worked hard on my defense and I was one assist away from the record. I got to a lot of balls that game. I take pride in my defense.
DL: You caught a line drive for the final out of that game. Maybe you should have dropped it and thrown the guy out at first?
FS: I’ve never thought about that. But no, I didn’t even know about the record at the time, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have done that. You have to play the game right.
DL: You suited up for your first big-league game in September of 2002. What are your memories of that?
FS: It was in Yankee Stadium, the place was packed, and it was the loudest crowd I had ever experienced. Being my first big-league game was probably part of it, but everything happened so fast. Even though I didn’t play, it was unbelievable. It was Red Sox/Yankees. What more could you ask for?
DL: What about the first time you got into a game?
FS: It was at Tampa Bay, and I batted for Rey Sanchez. We were up by a lot of runs and Rey went up to Grady Little and asked if I could hit for him. The bases were loaded with two out, and I singled up the middle to score a couple of runs. It was a real thrill.
DL: Is it the biggest thrill you’ve had in your career?
FS: No, my biggest thrill would be the All-Star game in Pittsburgh this past summer. Hearing my name announced as an All-Star, in front of the home crowd, was even bigger. Winning the World Series would be the ultimate, but that was a great moment.
DL: Outside of winning a World Series, what would you most like to accomplish in the game?
FS: I’d like to play for a long time. One thing I never lose sight of is that there’s nothing like putting on a big-league uniform. Back when I was a utility guy, I wanted to play every day, but I couldn’t complain. I was in the big leagues. I remember when I was drafted. Ernie Jacobs, the scout who signed me, said the team could only offer me a thousand dollars. But that was fine, because all I wanted was a chance. Now that I’m here, I want to stay as long as I can.
DL: One place you didn’t get to stay was Boston. Tell us about being traded to the Pirates.
FS: It was a shock. It was a deal where I was new to baseball, or at least to the business side of baseball. So I was disappointed. The Red Sox were the only team I knew, and I wanted to be part of that great history. I also had some great teammates, guys like Johnny Damon, Todd Walker and Bill Mueller, so it was sad saying good-bye. Of course, looking at it now, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I enjoyed playing in Boston, but things have worked out very well in Pittsburgh.
DL: Any final thoughts?
FS: Just that I have a great family. I love spending time with my wife, Alissa, and our son, Evan.
DL: No messages for any of your teammates in Pittsburgh?
FS: Actually, I do have a few. A bunch of us are in a fantasy football league, and I want to remind Jason Bay that he managed to go from first to worst in a year. And I want Jack Wilson to know that if I play him in the finals, I’ll win. Guaranteed.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Interviews from Red Sox Nation which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press. He can be reached here.