The kid on the mound stood 6' tall, maybe a tick under. He had signed a couple of years earlier out of the Dominican Republic, and right away it was obvious he had a strong right arm.
Comparisons were made to Pedro Martinez. That was no surprise, because there are always Pedro Martinez comparisons for right-handed pitchers out of the Dominican Republic, especially the ones a tad shorter and slimmer than normal by major league standards.
But for one National League scout who showed up to watch Sixto Sanchez last summer at a Class A ballpark down by the Jersey shore, there was no need to imagine if this was what Pedro Martinez looked like at the same age. The scout had seen the young Pedro, well before he was winning Cy Youngs in Montreal and Boston and making All-Star teams and eventually riding an 18-year big league career right into Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame.
He'd seen Pedro as a thin kid pitching in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and now he was watching Sanchez and having flashbacks.
"It was like he was a clone," the scout said a few months later. "Physically, he looks like him. He has the same style of pitching, the same delivery. And for a young guy, I loved his poise and presence. For me, he is Pedro Martinez."
Or as close as you're going to get at age 18, anyway.
Sanchez will turn 20 in July. He could be in Double-A by then, on a fast track to the big leagues and perhaps even to stardom. He could be a guy for whom one name is sufficient, where you just say "Sixto" and everyone knows it's him, just as you say "Pedro" and everyone knows which one you mean.
For now, he's Sixto Sanchez, one of the crown jewels of the Phillies system, a talent ranked 26th on MLB.com's list of the Top 100 prospects in the minor leagues, up from 47th a year ago. Baseball America has him one spot higher, at No. 25, up from No. 80 a year earlier.
MLB.com wasn't around when Pedro was young. Baseball America left Martinez off its Top 100 when he was 19, then listed him 10th when he had just turned 20. Brien Taylor, Todd Van Poppel and Roger Salkeld (all pitchers) were the top three prospects on that 1992 list—a rough reminder that prospects don't always develop as planned.
So far, there's no reason to believe Sanchez won't.
"He's one of those guys where you can't wait to see what he'll be in a couple years," said Shawn Williams, who managed Sanchez at Class A Clearwater, where he finished the 2017 season.
"I know I'm biased because I was his manager," said Marty Malloy, who had Sanchez at Class A Lakewood, his first 2017 stop. "But this kid is special. A special talent."
Watching Sanchez now, it's hard to imagine there was a time when he wasn't special. But back in the fall of 2014, he was just a 16-year-old shortstop who had just started learning how to pitch. A Phillies scout named Luis Garcia liked him enough to bring him to a workout at the Phillies' academy in the Dominican Republic.
Sanchez was not the featured player at the workout. Instead, he was there to throw batting practice to Lednier Ricardo, a Cuban catcher the Phillies wanted to check out. Ricardo was a big enough deal that then-Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. sent special assistant Bart Braun to take a look.
"I remember calling Ruben and Mike [Ondo] and telling them, 'We're not going to sign the catcher, but we might have found a pitcher,'" Braun recalled in a 2016 interview with Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "It was kind of an accident, a luck deal. We were in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, when you keep working, you bump into stuff."
The Phillies signed Sanchez for $35,000. Ladnier eventually signed with the New York Mets, never made it past Class A and was released after the 2016 season.
By then, Sanchez was on his way. He'd made 11 starts in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, pitching 54 innings and allowing just four runs (three earned) to go with 44 strikeouts and only eight walks.
"You want to see this kid," GCL Phils pitching coach Hector Mercado told Aaron Fultz, who was the pitching coach for Clearwater.
Fultz went to see Sanchez. Then he went to see him again.
"I must have seen five different starts that season," Fultz said. "He was already as good as any starter I had on the high-A team. He had poise, and he was as dominant a pitcher as I've ever see in the Gulf Coast League.
Sanchez was just 17, but he was already throwing his fastball 97-98 mph.
"It would be like [Justin] Verlander facing a team of 13-year-olds," Fultz said. "It was that dominating."
While the stats weren't there in five late-season starts with the Class A Threshers in 2017, the "stuff" was. Hidden in a 4.55 ERA was a fastball that has been clocked as high as 102 mph and a changeup Sanchez throws with great arm action. There's also a slider that shows potential and a curveball he can throw for strikes. Then there's the fast pace at which he works. He gets the ball and wants to throw the next pitch. There's no self doubt, no overthinking.
"He didn't act like he was 19," Williams said. "He wasn't scared at all. He wants to pitch every day, the whole game."
The Phillies didn't let him do that, choosing to put the same type of pitch and innings limits on Sanchez that just about every organization now imposes on young pitchers. Sanchez never exceeded 80 pitches in his 13 starts for the Lakewood Blue Claws, the Phillies' Class A affiliate, and never threw more than 85 pitches in a game all season.
He threw enough strikes to make it through five innings in all but one of his final 15 starts. There was even some concern that he threw too many strikes at times, that he still needed to learn how to spot the ball on or just off the corner with two strikes.
It's all part of his learning process. It wasn't long ago he was a shortstop.
"They made me a shortstop because I was little," Sanchez told Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer last winter. "I wasn't strong."
He's still not big, but there's no questioning his arm strength. His managers and coaches speak glowingly about his dedication to work, on the mound and also in the weight room. Even with the electric stuff, Malloy said Sanchez impressed him just as much with what he did when he wasn't pitching.
"Just the way he handled everything," Malloy said. "The smile on his face every day of the week. But maybe if I threw 100, I'd have that smile, too."
Scouts are always looking for comparables, using the image of a player you know to help you picture a prospect you haven't yet seen. Johnny Cueto, Jose Fernandez and Luis Severino come up as Sanchez comparables, but it's the Martinez correlation that may have the best chance to stick.
That would no doubt be fine with Sanchez, who told Gelb he admired the Hall of Famer.
"He's good-looking," Sanchez said. "And he's tough."
Martinez rode that toughness to Cooperstown. Sanchez has just reached Class A. Given his age and experience level, he'll begin this season back at Clearwater.
"The Florida State League is a good challenge for him," Phillies minor league director Joe Jordan said. "He's going to tell us when he needs a new challenge. If he stays in the Florida State League all season, that would be fine. But if he performs the way he has, that likely won't be the case."
Pitchers can move fast, particularly pitchers with 102 mph fastballs. And once a pitcher with Sanchez's potential gets to Double-A, he's only a hot streak, an injury-created need or a phone call away from his major league debut.
"To me, this year will be a big sign of where he is, how good he is, how good he's going to be," Malloy said. "It was easy for him last year. That's why, in my opinion, this year is going to be important."
He's still just 19. His birthday is July 29. Pedro was a month from turning 21 when he made his major league debut in 1992.
Sanchez isn't Pedro, not yet. But the potential is there. And the reason to watch him is, too.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.
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