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.