Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran on May 31, but will no doubt be interesting to everyone right now.
It isn’t every day that you hear a young player cite Yadier Molina as his role model, but Tony Sanchez doesn’t approach the game like most young players. Widely regarded as the top college catcher available in the upcoming draft, Sanchez swings a potent bat-the Boston College backstop hit .355/.455/ .640 on the season with 14 home runs-but his primary focus is on the defensive side of the ball. A 21-year-old native of Miami with emerging power to go with his unselfish approach and strong arm, Sanchez is projected by Kevin Goldstein to be selected late in the first round on June 9. After the Eagles’ final regular-season game, Sanchez talked about his approach behind the plate, and his maturation into a top-round talent.
David Laurila: I understand that your favorite player is Yadier Molina. What does that say about you?
Tony Sanchez: It says that, for me, it’s all about defense, and hitting is a bonus. I pride [myself on] defense a lot and work really hard on catching; I work hard on throwing guys out, blocking, receiving, and everything that goes with the job. I’d much rather throw a runner out than hit a home run, and that’s the same mindset as Yadier Molina has. He really loves his defense, and he works harder for his pitchers than he does for himself in the batter’s box. That’s the way I try to play.
DL: What is your personality behind the plate?
TS: I’m a grinder. It’s about hard work and not letting anything get by you. You do your best work and try your hardest for those guys out on the mound, so they can do their job. If you do that, you’re going to have success in most of your games.
DL: How do you approach working with a pitching staff?
TS: I’ve been with these guys all year, and some of them for three years, and you learn how to deal with certain guys. Some guys need to be left alone, some guys need to be calmed down, and some need to be hyped up. You need to know who you can yell at and who you need to take it a little slower with. But I let them all know that I’m back there working for them, and they know that. They have confidence in me, and I have confidence in them.
DL: After the draft, you’ll be moving into a situation where you’re catching guys you’ve never seen. How difficult will that transition be?
TS: It’s going to take some adjusting. I’m going to have to get used to their pitches; I’m going to have to see what they’re throwing, what their curveballs are doing, and what their fastballs are doing-maybe some guys’ fastballs will be running and others won’t. Those are things I’ll have to get used to, hopefully as soon as possible.
DL: Like most college catchers, you don’t call pitches. Does that make your job easier, or does it actually make it harder?
TS: It’s kind of easier in that it’s one less thing I need to worry about, but when I talk to scouts, and they ask me what the weakest part of my game is, I tell them that I haven’t called pitches since high school. So I’m always trying to see what a batter is doing-what he’s doing with his swing and his feet, and if there are any patterns. I’m trying to pick up things that will help me down the road. Certainly, having coach call pitches makes it a little easier, but it’s something I need to learn and get better at.
DL: Your perspective from behind the plate is obviously different from what the coach sees from the bench. How much communication do you have with him to make sure that you’re both on the same wavelength?
TS: I’m usually on the same page as he is, and if I don’t think we should throw a certain pitch, I can call my own pitch. I can tell him that’s what I wanted and he’ll be fine with it, but, for the most part, he takes control. I’ll let him know what the pitches are doing when he asks, but I can sometimes go in there and call my own pitch.
DL: You just finished a three-game series against the University of North Carolina. How did your staff pitch to Dustin Ackley?
TS: Oh, gosh. There’s no right way to pitch him; there is absolutely no right way. Every time he comes up… you might be safer pitching to him with an 0-0 count than you are with an 0-2 count, because either way, if the pitch is in the strike zone, he’s going to barrel it up. At 0-0, he might take it rather than put it in play and find a hole somewhere, like he almost always does. Mostly we were trying to set him up away, and then bust him in hard, if we could, on 0-2, but he hit the ball really well. He’s one of the best hitters in the country, so it’s going to be tough to get him out. He hit the ball well yesterday, we got to him a little bit today, and that’s just baseball.
DL: Jason Varitek gets a lot of accolades for the preparation he puts into calling a game. Do you think that’s overrated at all?
TS: That’s certainly underrated. A lot of people have no idea what Jason Varitek means to that team. The Red Sox don’t have two world championships if he’s not on that team. I mean, what he’s doing proves… he’s catching for them even after having a sub-par year, because he’s the best catcher in the big leagues. He means the most to that team with what he does. Nobody knows what he does with pitch calling and what he does with his pitchers between innings, and how he works with them out there. I can see it, because I’m a catcher and I know how we do it; I know how we work. Not many people notice that.
DL: Do catchers approach hitting any differently than do infielders or outfielders?
TS: I think so, yeah. We have that advantage of knowing how far the umpire is giving off the plate and what his strike zone is; we have that in the back of our minds. And, as a catcher, I try to read the ball out of my guy’s hand so that I can get the best read on it, in order to have the best chance of blocking it, or just receiving it. I have to beat the ball to the spot, so as early as I can see that ball, and what it’s going to do, the better chance I have to do that. So, when I go up to hit, I can pick up pitches a little earlier than I think other guys can. Part of it probably also comes with maturity and growing up.
DL: According to an article in Baseball America, as a freshman you were “an overweight contact hitter.” Is that accurate?
TS: Definitely. When I came here from high school, the gym wasn’t a big part of my game. I didn’t work out and I wasn’t disciplined with what I ate, so I was definitely overweight. I was soft and didn’t have a lot of muscle, so I couldn’t put the ball over the fence a lot. But as I got older and matured, especially with the strength-and-conditioning program we have here… those guys are the best; they take care of you. I started eating right and getting more muscle, so my sophomore year I hit a little better for power. This year I’ve done a better job as well. It was mostly just a case of working hard.
DL: When you were in high school, you worked with Pedro Grifol, a former minor league catcher who is now the director of player development for the Mariners. What did you learn from him?
TS: He actually sculpted me into the catcher I was before I got here. He got me here, and I owe him a lot for that. Every Sunday, the best catchers in Florida would go out and work with Pete Grifol. We’d be out there for three hours and my mom would be sitting there waiting; she would not let me stop. I would just work my butt off. We’d be out there in the 95-degree sun, working on receiving, blocking, throwing; we’d work on bunts and pitch calling. We’d do everything. He was out there, grinding away for 10 hours, throughout the whole Sunday. He’d probably have 25 kids coming from different age groups and we’d all work.
DL: Grifol’s organization has an increased emphasis on statistical analysis. What do think the Mariners’ front office would think of you saying that you’d rather throw a runner out than hit a home run?
TS: I think they’d love it. I mean, who doesn’t love a catcher who is a grinder and works harder for somebody else than he does for himself? I’m out there for those guys. I’m working my butt off for my nine teammates out on the field. If I strike out the worst thing I can do is let that carry over to the field and have a bad inning. If I’m being lazy, maybe a ball will get by me and runners will advance and a couple may score. That’s the biggest thing I do. I erase bad at-bats, and play my game behind the plate.
DL: It is often said that runners don’t steal on the catcher, but rather on the pitcher. How much control do you have on the opposition’s running game?
TS: I do a good job of holding runners on. Guys coming in here know that I’m going to do a good job of getting the ball to second base as quickly as I can. Sometimes our pitchers will take a little longer to get me the ball, but that’s baseball and you can’t do much about that. If a pitcher gets me the ball in a reasonable amount of time, I’m going to have a decent chance of throwing the guy out, as long as I make a good throw. And that comes with hard work. We’ve done countless days of practicing, doing all of the drills, and finally it’s paying off now.
DL: What has the scouting process been like for you?
TS: It’s been surreal, actually. I mean, out of high school, I wasn’t highly recruited. I came here and knew that I could be an impact guy from the beginning, but ever since my Cape summer… I played really well there; I hit well and these guys started coming out and showing interest. It’s been a dream come true. Still, it’s the first step in a long process, and I’m just trying to enjoy it.
DL: Most guys say that they don’t care which team drafts them. Is that really true?
TS: Whoever gives you the best opportunity to play, that’s all we want, really. I mean, I’d love to play for the Boston Red Sox; I’d love to play at Fenway Park in front of 30,000 fans and the best fan-base in the game. But if Kansas City is going to give me a chance to be a successful major league catcher, I’m going to work just as hard for them as I would for the Red Sox. I’d love to go home and play for Florida, and have my friends and family watching me, but if that doesn’t happen, I’m not going to be upset about it. Anywhere that I play, I’m going to be just as happy.
DL: Any final thoughts?
TS: No, there’s not much else to know about me. I’m just a hardworking catcher.