Angel In The Infield

added 8/16/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Of all the surprises in the Astros' 2010 season, perhaps the most curious belongs to their new shortstop, Angel Sanchez. Since he was acquired on July 1st from the Boston Red Sox for light-hitting catcher Kevin Cash, Sanchez has taken advantage of the injuries to Tommy Manzella and Geoff Blum to become the everyday shortstop in the Houston lineup.

Through Sunday, Sanchez has hit .286 with seven doubles, two triples, 14 runs and 15 RBIs as an Astro. After a few weeks at the bottom of the batting order, Manager Brad Mills moved him into the number two slot where he proved adept at moving along runners and taking pitches for Michael Bourn to steal on. Such things don't show up in the box score but they are noticed in the dugout.

On three occasions, he has deftly laid down a bunt in tense situations. Twice they plated runs and the third took a great defensive play to prevent a base hit. Defensively, he has three errors and a .974 fielding percentage while holding down one of the toughest defensive positions. One error occured this weekend when Carlos Lee was at first base and didn't adjust well to the throw.

On his best day, Sanchez drove in six runs wih a single, double and triple on August 3rd to lead an 18-4 trouncing of the Cardinals.

Surely if the Red Sox had known he was this good, they wouldn't have offered him for a 32-year-old catcher with a .184 career batting average. The Astros chose Sanchez because they needed depth on the infield and Oswaldo Navarro wasn't working out. They're just as surprised as everyone else that he's hit so well. Where did all this production come from?

Born in Puerto Rico, Angel Luis Sanchez was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 11th round. He hit .248 on the rookie-league level, a .575 OPS. On the A level, he hit .261 with a .622 OPS. At AA, he hit .276 with a .681 OPS.

Angel got his first taste of the majors in 2006 when the Royals called him up, at age 22, in late September. He appeared in eight games and got six hits in 27 at bats.

Sanchez was injured and sat out all of the 2007 season then hit .212 for AAA Omaha in 2008 and was waived after the season. The Toronto Blue Jays claimed him and he hit .305 (.791 OPS) at AAA Las Vegas in 2009 but did not get a call up to the majors. He opted for free agency after the season and signed with Boston last November.

At AAA Pawtucket, Sanchez hit .274 (.675 OPS). He had a brief call-up to Boston and went 0-for-3 on May 20th before being sent back to Pawtucket which was where he was when the Sox traded him to Houston.

It's rare to see a player get better at each level of the minors when the curve is typically just the opposite. As the competition level gets better, player stats tend to level off. While some get stronger as they physically mature, and no doubt that is part of the reason Sanchez, now age 26, has improved.

Sanchez credits new hitting coach Jeff Bagwell with helping his approach at the plate. He understands what his role is in the lineup and is glad to do whatever it takes to benefit the team. He claims he couldn't crack the lineup at previous stops because there was always somebody ahead of him. Now that he is proving himself in the big leagues, he doesn't intend to let go of his chance.

Will he be able to keep up his hot start? Probably not. But Manzella was hitting below .220 before his injury and Blum is a spot starter, not a full-time shortstop. There's nobody in the high minors who is likely to present a challenge.

So Sanchez will get all the chances he could possibly want to be an established major league starter. If he hits in the .250s and plays solid defense, he can probably keep his job for the next couple of years.

Had he not come along, the Astros might be struggling to find a shortstop who can hit above .200. So perhaps one could look at Angel's arrival as, well, divine.