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What I wouldn’t give for the next Manny Sanguillen

Pittsburgh Pirates Manny Sanguillen Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Although there’s no telling when baseball – and life in general – will get back to normal, there’s still plenty to think about when it comes to the sport, whether that’s the long haul, the short-term future, the distant past or any point in between.

I tend to lean toward the past, in part because my Bucs Dugout cohorts do such a good job of shining a spotlight on the prospects preparing to make their way through the system and in part due to the demographic in which I reside.

A former Pirate standout celebrated his 76th birthday over the weekend – Saturday, to be precise – and it got me to thinking just how fine of a player he truly was.

And how underrated he is.

Sometimes, as the days and years pass, we forget just how good of a player Manny Sanguillen was for the Pirates. I’m not saying that he’s been forgotten. To the contrary, the native of Panama is beloved by Pirates fans everywhere. But I wonder if it’s mostly his good nature and ready smile – and his barbecue stand at PNC Park — that endear him to those fans. Do you know just how talented he was?

If he’s not the greatest catcher in Pittsburgh Pirates franchise history, he’s ranked no lower than No. 2 behind Jason Kendall. But an argument could be made that Manny is No. 1.

The raw numbers might give the edge to Kendall, who during a 15-year major league career put together a career .288 batting average, 744 RBIs and a .744 OPS to go along with a career war of 41.7 according to Baseball Reference. He spent the first nine of those years with the Pirates and finished with a .306 batting average and an .805 OPS. Quality numbers for sure. And consider that he suffered a horrific ankle injury in his fourth season; there’s no telling what he might have done had he avoided that.

Sanguillen wasn’t far off, though. During his 13-year career, 12 of which came with Pittsburgh, Sanguillen compiled a .724 OPS with a .398 slugging percentage – 20 points higher than Kendall. Four times he batted over .300 and twice more he hit at least .290. In fact, he never batted below .282 in his first go-round with the Pirates, which lasted from 1969 through 1976. He checked in with a career 27.6 WAR, again according to Baseball Reference. He rarely walked; in his first six seasons as a regular he never took more than 21 free passes in a season. In 1975, though, he drew 48 bases on balls, a year that he batted .328 with a career-high .842 OPS. He also didn’t strike out much; in more than 5,000 big league at-bats, Sanguillen fanned just 331 times.

Sanguillen also added value when his bat was in the bat rack. He threw out 39 percent of all would-be base stealers – 10 percentage points higher than Kendall – and was lauded for his presence behind the plate.

As a youngster, I watched in amazement at how low Sanguillen could get in the crouch behind the plate. He would stick that right leg out and nearly touch the ground with his rear end, but could somehow release the ball in an instant and deliver a quality throw to second base seemingly every time. Simply put, he was fun to watch – but more than that, he was outstanding.

I admit I’m biased in favor of Sangy. I watched the better part of his career, and his first full season in Pittsburgh coincided with the onset of my impressionable teen years. Sanguillen was part of a young wave of Pirates that included Al Oliver and Richie Hebner – among others – that helped make the Pirates one of the stronger teams in all of baseball during the decade of the 1970s. He was a vital part of the 1971 World Series champions and although he was a part-time player on the ’79 world champs, he played a key role in that second win over Baltimore, driving in the game-winning run in Game Two.

That was no fluke, either. During the Bucs’ 1971 postseason run, which included the NLCS win over the Giants and the seven-game struggle with Baltimore in the World Series, Sanguillen went 15-for-44, and the following season – which ended with Bob Moose’s wild pitch eluding a helpless Sanguillen in the deciding game of the NLCS against Cincinnati – he went 5-for-16 with a home run and two RBIs.

Kendall, meanwhile, toiled in Pittsburgh while I was living 3,000 miles away, so I wasn’t able to follow his career nearly as closely as I did Sanguillen. During his time in Pittsburgh, from 1996 through 2004, Kendall never had the chance to show what he could do when the lights were brightest, as the Pirates never once finished above .500 — and in fact never won more than 79 games in a season. Obviously, Kendall was not to blame, and he was recognized for his individual performances by virtue of his selection to three All-Star teams.

Both Sanguillen and Kendall had the misfortune of playing in the National League when a future Hall of Famer occupied the same position. Mike Piazza cornered the market on All-Star starting spots for most of Kendall’s time in Pittsburgh, and Sanguillen played second fiddle – but a Stradivarius-level second fiddle – to one Johnny Bench during his run in Pittsburgh. Piazza ranks high on the list of all-time catchers – perhaps in the top five – but Bench ranks even higher, at least in my book.

Arguments could be made for both Sanguillen and Kendall being the Pirates’ greatest catcher ever. All I know is, with all due respect to Jacob Stallings and Luke Maile, either one of those former stars would represent a major upgrade over what the Pirates figure to trot out there when the 2020 season finally gets under way. And as Ben Cherington and his crew begin to lay the groundwork for the franchise’s next run, it would behoove them to keep their eyes peeled for the next Manny Sanguillen – or even a reasonable facsimile.