Toronto's Steve Tolleson is tagged out by Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez in a game earlier this month.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The idea was, Tony Sanchez would spend this season playing for Class AAA Indianapolis. Not so much because the Pirates don't think he is ready for the majors, but to let him fine-tune his game.
Catching every day there, the thinking went, would benefit Sanchez more than playing once or twice a week in the majors. So the Pirates traded for Chris Stewart and began preparing for the day when Sanchez could take over for Russell Martin, who is a free agent after this season.
That notion lasted until mid-March, when Stewart needed arthroscopic knee surgery. A week after Stewart returned, Martin hit the disabled list because of a strained left hamstring, and Sanchez came right back up.
"I've tried to take advantage of each opportunity that I'm presented," Sanchez said. "I'm grateful that [manager] Clint [Hurdle] sticks me back there in meaningful games."
Sanchez started 20 of the Pirates' first 46 games and only five games for Indianapolis. He hit .278 with a .316 on-base percentage, a strong showing for someone who entered the season with 66 major league plate appearances.
"He really believes in what he can do when he gets in that batter's box, regardless of what's happened the at-bat before," Hurdle said. "He's probably more animated than you think he would be, the way he catches, but you see him in the box, working and moving, he's kind of like a dog wagging his tail. He just likes to hit."
Sanchez went back to Indianapolis Friday when the Pirates activated Jason Grilli from the DL. The Pirates hope he can stay there because it means health for their other catchers and consistent playing time for Sanchez. Sanchez understands.
"I'm not going to sit here and think that I'm the better option, and that just because I've had some success with the bat that I need to stay here," he said. "I know how good Russ is, I know how much he means to this team."
Playing every day for Indianapolis will help Sanchez continue his work at the plate. It will also give him more repetitions with his throwing. Inaccuracy with his throws has plagued him at times this season.
"There's no doubt in my mind Tony's got great experience while he's been here," Hurdle said. "He's been able to add and develop, and when that time comes he'll get to go down and continue to hone his skills and we'll see what happens from there. He's done a very admirable, professional job while he's been here."
Taking one (or two) for the team
When someone noted to Hurdle that the Pirates led the major leagues in getting hit by pitches, Hurdle deadpanned that he was the wrong guy to ask because he had coached for Don Baylor.
Baylor was hit by a pitch 267 times in his 19-year major league career, the fourth-highest total in history, and led the league in hit-by-pitches eight times.
"It's another play," said Hurdle, who coached under Baylor with the Colorado Rockies. "It's a play that's in the playbook. If it's tight, you can wear it, and there's ways you learn how to actually, not get in the way, but just take the hit."
The Pirates had reached base via a hit batter 26 times entering the weekend. Neil Walker led the major leagues with eight.
Hurdle and the coaching staff wanted an increased on-base percentage as part of their plan to improve offensive efficiency. Getting hit by pitches helps. Take away those 26 extra baserunners and the Pirates' OBP drops from .322 to .312.
"There's a mentality out there that the pitchers expect a guy, if it's close, to have a yard sale," Hurdle said. "And that's not the reality of a situation from a hitting standpoint. You're trying to hold ground, you're trying to cover away, you want to be in there if the ball's close. You just turn and it hits you, it hits you."
As easy as it can sound -- take one for the team, and so forth -- getting hit has its consequences. Players sport bruises and welts the size of cantaloupes after getting hit, and that's if they're lucky enough to take one on muscle. When the ball finds a bone, like a finger, hand or wrist, it can do some damage. Many players wear padding now as protection.
Getting hit by a pitch can mean the batter is entrenched in the box, not looking to bail at the first sign that the ball is coming inside. Hurdle, who has stressed the importance of pitching inside since taking over in 2011, looked at the flip side, saying it was possible that the increased home runs hit against Pirates pitchers resulted from that comfort in the box.
"We are just trying to make sure that we do a better job, we've got to do a better job, of owning the plate and owning portions off the plate," he said.
Looking ahead: Mets
Whoever starts Monday against New York at Citi Field will find a favorable matchup. The Mets' .234 average and .657 on-base plus slugging percentage ranked ahead of only the San Diego Padres in the National League entering the weekend. That OPS falls to .614 at home and the average to .213.
According to ESPN's Park Factor, Citi Field ranks 24th out of 30 ballparks in terms of allowing home runs and dead last in runs scored, though the Mets' poor offense likely contributes to both of those figures.
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