The San Francisco Giants officially started defense of their third World Series title in the last five years on Wednesday, Feb. 18, when pitchers and catchers reported to Scottsdale, Arizona. For the reigning champions, there are some concerns about the pitching rotation, but one thing for certain is who the starting catcher is, Buster Posey.
Giants’ Manager Bruce Bochy is prepared to pencil Posey’s name onto the lineup card for more than 140 games (Posey has played an average of 119.2 games per year since his rookie season of 2010, which is skewed by a season-ending injury in 2011 that saw the Giant backstop play just 45 games). The question remains, though, which player should backup Posey in 2015? This is a dilemma that San Francisco hopes to have a clearer picture of by the time Spring Training concludes.
Sanchez, 25, made his Major League debut on July 15, 2011. He currently has a little over two years of service time in the league. Sanchez began last season as Posey’s primary backup until multiple concussions ended his season prematurely, which opened the door for Susac to emerge as a possible backup option.
Susac, who will turn 25 years old on March 22, made his MLB debut on July 26, 2014, just three years removed from being drafted in the second round out of Oregon State University. He proceeded to play 35 games with the Giants and was a member of San Francisco’s playoff roster. Thanks to his performance during the 2014 season, Susac was recently named the Giants’ top prospect by several different scouting organizations.
With both players being similar in age, youth should not play a huge factor in the decision-making process. Instead, San Francisco will be looking at which player can provide the best results for the team.
Where Sanchez may have the upper hand on Susac is his familiarity with the pitching staff. Since debuting in 2011, Sanchez has had an opportunity to work with most, if not all, of San Francisco’s pitchers. He has become Tim Lincecum’s personal catcher. Conversely, Susac did fair well when tasked with handling the pitching staff during his 35-game stint last season.
In determining which catcher makes the most sense to be Posey’s backup, a look at some statistical data and gut feeling – which Bochy is good at – will go into making the final decision before opening day.
Offensively speaking, when comparing Sanchez and Susac based on their minor league statistics, it would appear, at first that Sanchez would be the better offensive player. During his time in the minors, Sanchez slashed .294/.366/.447 while hitting 44 home runs and 98 doubles. Sanchez also drove in 300 runs over the course of 460 career minor league games.
He is benefited by several seasons in the lower levels of the minors before skipping Double-A altogether. Sanchez played parts of four seasons in Triple-A for a total of 89 games, where his minor league numbers seemed to take a dip as he faced more experienced pitching. Over the course of 89 Triple-A games, Sanchez compiled a slash line of .246/.311/.349. He totaled just five home runs and 13 doubles during this span.
Susac has spent three seasons in the Giants’ minor league system, reaching Triple-A in 2014. Before being called up to the majors, he played in 63 games for the Fresno Grizzlies, slashing .268/.379/.451 with 10 home runs and nine doubles, nearly equaling Sanchez’s numbers in 26 fewer games.
It appears that as Susac has risen through the system, he has become more acclimated with hitting at the higher levels. This could a result of him playing at one of the top Division I baseball programs in the country in Oregon State University.
Minor league statistics are not the only way to judge both players offensively, as Bochy must also take into account how each player has performed at the MLB level. This is an area where one would think Sanchez has the advantage based on experience alone, but Susac showed an ability to handle major league pitching in his brief stint.
Over the course of four seasons, Sanchez has performed admirably when pressed into duty. He owns a career slash line of .246/.280/.349 with nine career home runs and 29 doubles.
Sanchez’s best season came in 2012. Playing in 74 games, he hit .280/.295/.390 with three home runs and 15 doubles, while driving in 34 runs. Unfortunately for Sanchez, because of injuries, 2014 was a disappointment. He played in 66 games with a slash line of .196/.237/.301. Sanchez did match his career-high for a season with three home runs.
Although a small sample to say the least, Susac showed a knack for handling major league pitching. In just 35 games at the major league level, Susac slashed .273/.326/.466 with three home runs and eight doubles. He also totaled 19 RBI while scoring 13 runs.
While the offensive numbers are similar between the two players, it appears that Susac is trending upwards while Sanchez has begun to plateau, which gives Susac an inside track to being Posey’s backup.
While it is nice if your backup catcher can hit, it is more beneficial to a team if they are a capable defender. Defense and the pitching staff’s confidence in the backup could be the ultimate deciding factor in who begins the season as Posey’s backup.
When breaking down who the better defensive catcher is, it is important to remember that statistical data does not always tell the whole story. Catchers are afforded plenty of chances, which can skew numbers. When determining who the better catcher may be, the San Francisco coaching staff will be looking at each player’s throwing abilities, pitch receiving skills, and pitching blocking skills.
When watching Sanchez behind the plate, one thing is clear; he is not always the smoothest player, but he gets the job done. He has earned the trust of two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, becoming his personal catcher.
During the 2014 season, Sanchez compiled a fielding percentage of .990 with a range factor per nine innings (RF/9) of 7.88. His RF/9 numbers were below the MLB average of 8.41. He allowed four passed balls and 16 wild pitches, which can be attributed to handling Lincecum – who has some of the best movement on pitches in the league. Sanchez did show improved throwing last season, nailing 31 percent of runners trying to steal, which is better than the league average of 27 percent.
Sanchez’s 2014 fielding numbers for the most part are below his career standard fielding numbers. For his career, Sanchez has played 145 games at catcher. He has compiled a career fielding percentage of .988 with an RF/9 score of 8.15, which is below the average MLB catcher mark of 8.30. The one area he showed improvement was throwing, where he has thrown out 26 percent of runners during his career.
Another stat that has become important over the past several seasons is pitch-framing. Posey routinely ranks at the top of the list, which is important because he is able to steal strikes for his pitchers from time to time.
Sanchez caught 2,651 pitches last year. He does not possess a great skill at framing pitches in the favor of his pitchers. According to www.statcorner.com, Sanchez allowed 12.1 percent of pitches caught in the strike zone to be called balls, while only garnering 7 percent of pitches outside the zone to be called strikes.
Susac again has a small sample size to look at when it comes to the deciding if he is ready to assume the backup catching duties on the MLB level, or if he needs a little more seasoning in the minors.
Last season, Susac had a 1.000 fielding percentage over the course of 35 games with an RF/9 of 8.29; better than Sanchez, but still below the major league average. He did allow two passed baseballs and 10 wild pitches, which could be attributed to a short amount of time working with Giants staff. He showed smooth technique in blocking pitches and seems to move better behind the plate than Sanchez.
Susac also displays a strong, accurate arm that allowed him to throw out 32 percent of runners trying to steal, which was slightly better than Sanchez.
To truly judge Susac’s catching capabilities, the San Francisco coaching staff will need to take into consideration how he performed at Triple-A during 2014. Susac had a .987 field percentage while at Triple-A with a RF/9 of 8.09. He was extremely effective in helping to control the running game, nailing 36 percent of runners trying to steal.
Where Susac lags behind Sanchez in the defensive category is pitch framing. During the 2014 season, he caught 1,542 pitches. Susac allowed 15.2 percent of pitches caught in the strike zone to be called balls, which is a detriment to the pitching staff. He also was only able to get 6.2 percent of pitches caught out of the strike zone to be called strikes.
The pitch framing skill is something that both Sanchez and Susac could improve on, especially under the tutelage of Bochy, a former MLB catcher.
Taking into account the factors of age, hitting, defense and throwing; it appears that Susac should be the choice of the San Francisco coaching staff as Posey’s backup during the 2015 season. Ultimately, the Giants could decide to carry three catchers on their opening day roster, with Sanchez serving solely as Lincecum’s personal catcher, although, Spring Training provides the perfect opportunity for Lincecum and Susac to develop a strong working relationship.