Phillies

'Electricity' of big-armed Phillies prospect Sixto Sanchez gaining steam at Lakewood

'Electricity' of big-armed Phillies prospect Sixto Sanchez gaining steam at Lakewood

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — The first pitch of Wednesday’s game turned into a groundout. But then with one away in the top of the first, the Sixto Sanchez Show began.

On the big screen in center field at FirstEnergy Park, the pitch speed flashed: 102 mph.

The next one was the same: 102 mph.

There were at least five or six triple-digit pitches thrown in the opening frame by the BlueClaws’ 18-year-old righty, but that’s almost what’s expected from him nowadays. Still a few weeks away from his 19th birthday and just 136 innings into his pro career, Sanchez is turning heads and drawing comparisons that no one could’ve predicted two years ago.

As Lakewood’s pitching coach Brian Sweeney explains, even the casual fan will notice Sanchez’s tempo, his pattern of outs early in the count and certainly his triple-digit speed.

While the speed is obvious, the young ace’s other patterns are, too.

“I wish I knew [where his command comes from.] I’d bottle it and I’d be a millionaire,” BlueClaws manager Marty Malloy said. “Or if I knew that, everyone on our staff would be like that. It’s something he’s worked on. 

“He works every day, he throws his bullpens, he does his side work, he does his touch-and-feel, he does his dry work. But his fastball command is ahead of most people his age.”

Sanchez’s command is, in a word, impressive. In 56 1/3 innings at the Low A level, he has 54 strikeouts to only six walks. Opponents are hitting .199 against him, and Wednesday night, he carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning.

And oh yeah, he needed just 62 pitches — 45 of which were strikes — to go six innings. The game was wrapped up in a crisp 2:05 and Sanchez had his fourth win of the season.

It’s easy to forget that he’s still a ways from the majors, even when his stuff compares with that of just about anyone.

“His delivery is well beyond his years for pitching for such a short time. He really does a good job of using his legs efficiently, which in turn makes him pitch efficiently,” Sweeney said. “It’s something we preach as an organization — attacking the zone, a repeatable delivery that helps you attack the zone, and it starts right from when he was down in the Dominican Republic at our academy.”

The Rome Braves’ hitters tried attacking Sanchez’s fastball early in the count to no avail. It was pop up after pop up with a couple of broken bats in between.

When they tried to be patient with the fireballer, he threw it past them pretty much every time. And if he didn’t, there was a slick changeup and a nasty low-80s spinner waiting in the wings.

Since the Phils plucked Sanchez from San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic just two years ago, this is what he has done time and time again. Only now, though, is he getting the attention worthy of his stuff. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 18th overall prospect in its annual midseason rankings released last week.

Still, you wouldn’t know it just by looking at the 6-foot, 185-pound righty. And even if he knows the expectations have risen, you can’t tell it when he’s on the mound.

“I don’t think [the expectations change anything] in his development because he’s a happy-go-lucky guy,” Malloy said. “He’s the same guy every day, too. He’s a great kid, got a smile on his face every day, he knows the day he takes the ball, it’s business.

“Obviously, he’s on pitch limits, pitch counts, and that’s just to protect him for the future. But as far as his arm, it’s electricity. He’s [hitting] triple digits, he’s got a major-league changeup right now, he’s doing some stuff with his breaking ball to get better right now, but he’s got all the gas in the tank.”

On the field, it’s all there for Sanchez. Off it, there is still plenty of room to grow.

For one, he still only speaks Spanish, but is learning English with the help of his teammates and the Phillies’ organization. On top of that, he has plenty of body to fill out.

Lakewood is just the third stop in a series of experiences at the minor-league level, and there is no reason to think Sanchez’s growth is going to slow anytime soon.

“There are things he has to develop,” Sweeney said. “This is his first full season. He’s never played more than 70 games in a season, so he’s going to get the most innings he’s ever had this year. He’s going to take the most bus rides, he’s going to be in different states in the United States eating different food.

“These are all important parts of his development because as he goes up, he’ll be flying somewhere. The more you learn each year, the better you develop as a man and as a pitcher.”

Sanchez could have very easily finished out Wednesday’s start. He probably would have been able to throw a complete game with less than 100 pitches.

But one could legitimately argue his right arm is the most important body part in the entire organization. If you asked any one of the handful of scouts in attendance, they would probably tell you the same.

Remember, the kid is 18 years old. You probably won’t see him on the mound at Citizens Bank Park anytime soon.

So until then, the message from his coaches is short and sweet.

“Toe that rubber every sixth day and be consistent,” Sweeney said.

Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Updated, 10 p.m.

Now that is the version of Jake Arrieta the Phillies need, the kind that can solidify a rotation. 

Arrieta pitched a gem and the Phillies hit two homers in a four-run fourth inning to beat the Braves 5-0 in Saturday's series opener at Citizens Bank Park.

The win gets the Phillies to .500 at 4-4. The Braves are 9-6.

J.T. Realmuto and Jay Bruce both homered in the decisive fourth. Realmuto's was a bomb to the last row of seats in the first deck in left field. It was his fourth already this season, in 73 fewer plate appearances than it took him last year.

"He's really turned into a premium offensive player over the last couple years," Bruce said of his teammate.

Bruce's came on the first pitch against Braves right-hander Kyle Wright. He started in left and Andrew McCutchen was the DH. The Phils have benefitted from Bruce's extra bat in the lineup with a couple of homers.

Arrieta cruised

It was a strong outing from Arrieta, who was locked-in and efficient and sounded encouraged after the game. He put only two Braves on base over his first five innings on a pair of singles. He struck out six and his sinker sat 93-94 mph. 

Arrieta pitched out of a potential jam in his final inning, finding fortune in the form of a Dansby Swanson line drive right at shortstop Didi Gregorius, who threw to second to double off Adeiny Hechavarria.

Through two starts, Arrieta is 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA. 

"What I've seen in the first two starts is extremely impressive in its execution," manager Joe Girardi said of Arrieta after the game. "He was really sharp tonight again. It's really encouraging. I feel really good about what he's going to do."

Arrieta pitched through an elbow injury last summer. He did not have the proper feel of his breaking ball and it affected his entire repertoire. There were nights when he didn't seem to know where the ball was going. 

Different story so far in 2020.

“I have more weapons at my disposal than I’ve had the last couple years," Arrieta said. "I feel like I’m gonna be able to maintain the feel of my stuff deeper into games.”

Gotta love those three-run dingers

Bruce's three-run homer in the fourth inning was the Phillies' fourth in eight games this season. Realmuto has two; Bryce Harper and Bruce have one apiece.

The Phils have hit 12 homers in their eight games. They entered Saturday night ranked first in the majors in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging and fourth in OPS. The offense would be receiving more credit if it wasn't overshadowed by the bullpen's early-season meltdowns.

J.T. is on fire

An inning after hitting his fourth homer, Realmuto flew out to the scoreboard in right-center, just missing another one. He lined out to sharply to center in his final AB. Even the outs are crushed right now.

Realmuto has been the Phillies' best offensive player so far. They needed him to start fast and he has. Last season, Realmuto was still hitting in the .250s in July with an OPS in the mid-.700s. He drove the ball over his final 200 plate appearances to finish with a solid offensive year.

Over his last 55 games dating back to last July 27, Realmuto has hit .305/.356/.634 with 17 home runs and 46 RBI.

"J.T.'s super talented. He does so many things for this team," Girardi said. "As good as he is offensively, he puts his heart and his soul in defense and calling games. J.T.'s a player you don't have to worry about being prepared. That's what every manager wants.

"I hope he stays really hot for like three months."

Bullpen holds up again

Jose Alvarez, Tommy Hunter and Deolis Guerra combined for three scoreless innings and allowed just one baserunner. The Phillies' bullpen has allowed two runs in eight innings in its last two games, two steps in the right direction.

Before the game, pitching coach Bryan Price talked about the need for the "second layer" of Phillies relievers to step up with so many doubleheaders on the schedule.

Harper does it with defense

Harper, who reprioritized defense prior to a strong 2019, continues to impress in the field. He made this diving catch in the fifth inning Saturday. He also went 2 for 4 with a double.

The Phillies' defense has not been an issue so far. They've committed just three errors in eight games, none from their new left side of the infield. Jean Segura bobbled a hot shot to third base in the first inning but recovered to get Swanson by a step at first base. It was the kind of play that could have altered the game early if it wasn't made, especially ahead of Freddie Freeman.

Twin bill on Sundee

The Phillies play a seven-inning doubleheader against the Braves Sunday beginning at 1:05 p.m. Game 2 will begin 40 minutes after Game 1. 

Vince Velasquez will start in one of the games and top prospect Spencer Howard will make his MLB debut in the other.

The four-game wraparound series ends Monday night when Aaron Nola faces Atlanta.

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What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

Spencer Howard is coming. The Phillies said everything they could say Saturday without making it official that Howard, their top prospect, will start one of the two games of their doubleheader Sunday.

Manager Joe Girardi really left things up to interpretation before the Phillies' series opener against the Braves, saying the nod would go to a young right-hander with the initials S.H. A few minutes later, he said that he was "not ready to make an official announcement until tomorrow, but if nothing changes, you can expect it to be Spencer Howard."

Plenty of hype surrounds the 24-year-old Howard, the Phillies' second-round pick in 2017. He has the tools of an ace.

"Big fastball, really good slider-changeup combination, emerging curveball," pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday in a 15-minute Zoom call that was almost entirely about Howard. "And he throws strikes, he competes well, controls the running game. He's a very polished young guy with a big arm. 

"Quite often when you find guys with velocity, it takes time for them to figure out command or how to sequence their pitches. I just think he's a polished kid. I think he's ready to come up and help us."

That description of the typical young pitcher with velocity who takes time to figure it out applies to the pitcher Howard is poised to eventually replace in the Phillies' rotation: Vince Velasquez. Velasquez, at 28, doesn't have much rope left. He has a 4.75 ERA in more than 100 appearances as a Phillie (93 starts). He's allowed 1.53 home runs per nine innings as a Phillie, easily the highest home run rate of any pitcher in Phillies history with as many innings.

The Phillies could still end up starting Velasquez throughout the 2020 season because they have six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, i.e. six instances when they'll need a sixth starting pitcher.

It will be interesting Sunday to compare and contrast Howard and Velasquez in the two starts. It would not be a surprise to see Howard strike out eight Braves over five scoreless innings. Nor would it be a surprise if he struggled in his first start against a potent big-league lineup.

"He has deception, he pitches with a high fastball but can also create good downward angle," Price said. "I think getting the first one under his belt — hopefully there are many more to come in Philadelphia — is something we're all excited to see."

Howard was a late bloomer. He did not start games until his junior season at Cal Poly. His freshman season, he was one of the last players to make the roster. In the span of just a few years, his velocity rose from the upper-80s to the 90s to the point that he touched 100 mph in the minors.

"One of the great things about the sport of baseball is that not everybody is a prodigy. Not everybody is Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper, on the map at 15, 16, 17 years old," Price said.

"I think in Spencer's case, he had to have that skill set in there. The aptitude and the feel. And so as the arm strength built, he had enough feel for pitching to make some really significant strides in a short period of time."

The next step: A start in South Philly against the NL East favorites.

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