by John Toperzer
Gaby Sanchez is 30 years of age. Players that old typically don’t offer future potential upside. According to Pirates general manager, Neal Huntington, there’s a chance he enters 2014 as the right-handed hitting portion of Pittsburgh’s platoon at first base. But does his play warrant another shot?
In 2013, Sanchez busted down the fences in spring training. He led the Bucs with four homers and 11 RBI. He came to camp in great shape and was pounding the ball. Then the regular season started.
Manager Clint Hurdle put Sanchez in the lineup three straight times against the Cubs in the opening series, even though Chicago threw three righties against Pittsburgh. So much for the strict platoon. Sanchez went 1-for-10 with two walks.
For the season, the first baseman hit .254/.361/.402 with seven homers and 37 RBI in 264 at-bats (320 plate appearances). A 44:51 BB:K ratio was by far the best on the Pirates.
Does that merit another shot at first base?
Let’s take a look at some of his numbers, both offensively and defensively.
At the plate, Sanchez put up a .987 OPS against left-handed pitching, .619 against righties. What’s interesting here is that Sanchez made 102 plate appearances against lefties and 162 against righties, (hitting .333 vs. lefties and .204 vs. righties). That goes against his strength as a batter.
His fine .987 OPS mark stands on it’s own, but hitting lefties is not one of Pittsburgh’s problems. Andrew McCutchen, Jordy Mercer and Starling Marte all posted 1.000-plus OPS levels against southpaws.
Even Josh Harrison (.981) compiled a nearly identical OPS against lefties as did Sanchez.
How important is it to slot a tough right-handed hitting first baseman against lefties? Of course, every at-bat, every out is huge, but the Pirates faced lefty starters only 31 times last season. The team faced right-handed starters 131 times in 162 regular-season contests.
For his part, Sanchez’s power evaporated as the 2013 progressed. He hit his last homer of the season June 25, going homerless with a .694 OPS over his final 142 plate appearances. At times, it seemed as though the only way Sanchez might collect a hit was if the pitcher made a mistake. He wasn’t often able to go out and hit a tough pitcher’s pitch.
On defense, Sanchez posted a -1.7 UZR and -3.6/UZR 150. That means he was below average. Perhaps he was better than Garrett Jones, but metrically he was still worse than the average fielding first baseman. Certainly, his throws from first base to second didn’t help his cause. He seemed to cup the ball or hook it on numerous occasions, throwing to the left side of second base.
Unfortunately, Sanchez also struggled coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter, too. He batted just .172 (5-for-29) with three doubles and zero home runs.
On the bright side, Sanchez provided support on the bench to young guys like Jose Tabata and Starling Marte. He has a strong veteran presence and it appears that other players listen when he speaks.
The Pirates need someone who can fill in at first base when slumps or injuries arise. Designating him as a first base platoon partner weakens the offense, but as a backup playing mostly against right-handed pitching might best fit his skillset. He might be the slowest running non-catcher in the organization.
He’s eligible for arbitration and due a raise from the $1.75 million he made in 2013.
As a team, the Pirates saw 4923 plate appearances against right-handed pitching last year and 1212 against lefties. If Sanchez bats primarily against lefties — something he didn’t do in 2013 — then he retains some value for the Bucs.
Most likely, the Pirates will deal for a starting first baseman before the season starts. Other organizations envy Pittsburgh’s young pitching prospects and making a trade would likely prove more cost effective than acquiring a first baseman from the slim free agent pickings.