EVERETT — Is he the next Felix Hernandez?
The comparisons between Everett AquaSox pitcher Victor Sanchez and the Seattle Mariners’ ace are inevitable. Both are right-handed pitchers from Venezuela who were high-profile international signings by the Mariners. Both arrived in the Northwest League at the tender age of 17. And both took the league by storm.
And while it’s far too early to be projecting too deep into Sanchez’s future, it’s already clear he is one of the most exciting prospects on Everett’s roster this season.
“What can he be?” Everett pitching coach Rich Dorman asked. “A big piece of what we’re trying to develop here with the Seattle Mariners. He’s an important guy to have in our organization.”
Sanchez is having the type of season any pitcher in the Northwest League would be happy with. Through his first eight starts, he is 5-1 with a 3.70 earned run average. In 482/3 innings, he’s allowed 40 hits and walked 19 while striking out 37. He went at least six innings in seven of his eight starts, including taking a shutout into the ninth inning at Eugene on July 6. His only hiccup was last Wednesday’s start at Salem-Keizer, when he worked just four innings while allowing seven runs on six hits and two walks.
“I feel good,” Sanchez said about his performances with Everett so far, through interpreter David Villasuso. “I thank God that I feel very good every day. I’m learning more and more every day and I’m putting in the work and working as hard as I can.”
But while the numbers are solid, what makes Sanchez’s accomplishments special is his age. Sanchez is he the Northwest League’s only player born in 1995, making him the league’s youngest player by nearly a year. Spokane infielder Smerling Lantigua is the league’s only player born in 1994. Sanchez also is more than two years younger than every other active pitcher in the league, with no others born later than 1992.
“He’s that special type of player and person who’s just beyond his years,” Dorman said. “He handles himself as a professional. The ups and downs and the emotions of the game, you don’t see it (with Sanchez). He doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve like a lot of young pitchers. It’s fun to watch him pitch every fifth day and how he competes.”
It’s been a long time since the Sox had a player of Sanchez’s youth. The last 17-year-old to play for Everett was Hernandez in 2003. That season Hernandez went 7-2 with a 2.22 ERA, striking out 91 in 69 innings as he dominated the league.
But while Sanchez and Hernandez both proved capable of handling the Northwest League at 17, they have little else in common.
First, there’s the physical differences.
When Hernandez played for Everett he was the prototypical pitching prospect: tall and lean with long limbs. Sanchez is the exact opposite.
At a muscular 6-feet and 255 pounds, Sanchez is built more like a linebacker you’d see being recruited by the University of Washington than the standard pitching prospect. Indeed, when Sanchez was playing youth baseball in Venezuela, he was primarily a power-hitting outfielder before he was convinced to concentrate on pitching at 14.
“He’s stout, he’s like a fire hydrant,” Dorman said of Sanchez. “He’s not the tall, lanky pitcher by any means. Is his velocity going to jump up 10 mph? No, I don’t see that. Maybe he can add four or five mph. But he works hard and is very strong. He’s not weak and frail, he’s very durable, and he bounces back really well.”
Pitching styles also differentiate Hernandez and Sanchez.
When Hernandez pitched for the Sox, he blew opposing batters away with a fastball in the mid to upper 90s, then backed that with a devastating curve.
Sanchez doesn’t throw as hard, his fastball tending to sit in the lower 90s. But Sanchez has a changeup that belies his years. Most 17-year-olds haven’t even learned how to throw a change. Sanchez has complete command of his, and it’s been his strikeout pitch all season.
“I think Felix may have had a little more velocity than Sanchez does,” said Sox broadcaster Pat Dillon, who had a front-row seat to Hernandez’s tour of the Northwest League in 2003.
“Felix, when he was here, was a power pitcher. He struck people out and was tough to hit. Sanchez has shown himself to be a pitch-to-contact guy. He wants people to put the ball in play and will get his share of ground balls.”
The one thing Hernandez had at 17 that Sanchez also has now is attitude. Both have a take-no-prisoners approach on the mound where they know they’re the ones in charge.
“(Sanchez) will stare down a 22-year-old and mean it,” Dorman said. “I saw a piece on Felix where it was the same type of thing. They both compete, and I think the more Sanchez pitches, the more emotional he’s going to get. You see Felix after a big punchout doing his thing. I think Sanchez is going to be the same guy eventually.
“With his competitiveness, he’s not going to back down from a Yankee, he’s not going to back down from the Red Sox. He’s going to compete, and guys feed off a personality like his.”
Sanchez himself shows some of that attitude with his take on succeeding in the Northwest League at 17.
“I don’t really pay attention to age,” Sanchez said. “I feel I’m ready to pitch at any level. It’s a matter of overcoming the age and all the hype, just coming out here and working every day.”
While Sanchez might be following in Hernandez’s footsteps, he is his own pitcher. He admires Hernandez, but he signed with the Mariners because he and his mom felt comfortable with the organization, not because Hernandez pitches for the team.
But if all goes right for Sanchez, the Mariners may just have themselves another pitching gem from Venezuela.