New Detroit Tigers catcher Donny Sands’ biggest challenge: A good fastball

Detroit Free Press

Donny Sands relaxed on his couch, enjoying a typical morning in Arizona, when Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Mark Appel, a former No. 1 overall pick, sent him a text message he wasn’t expecting.

The Phillies were finalizing a trade with the Detroit Tigers.

“He said I was going to Detroit,” Sands said. “I went to Twitter, and nothing had happened. He definitely leaked the news.”

On Jan. 7, the Tigers acquired Sands, outfielder Matt Vierling and infielder Nick Maton from the Phillies in exchange for closer Gregory Soto and utility player Kody Clemens. Not long after Appel’s unexpected 9 a.m. text, Sands watched everything unfold on social media before the deal became official a few hours later.

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Reflecting on that day, Sands said he felt surprised — not shocked — to learn he would be playing for the Tigers. It wasn’t the first time he had been traded. Back in November 2021, the New York Yankees sent Sands and reliever Nick Nelson to the Phillies for a pair of minor league pitchers.

“Baseball is baseball, right?” Sands said. “You understand it’s a business, and you’re just grateful for the opportunity. It’s an exciting feeling, of course, to be wanted and stuff like that, but it’s just an overall excitement to get to Detroit and start winning there.”

Sands, a catcher who was homeless and lived in a 2006 Toyota Camry for seven months in high school, is obsessed with winning.

The 26-year-old tasted the Phillies’ winning culture last season, thanks to a two-game cameo in the big leagues when rosters expanded early September, plus another game later in September, and he’s hungry for a key role in recapturing the vibe as a member of the Tigers.

“I want to help take the Tigers to the playoffs,” Sands said. “That’s why we do this, to win. I want to make other people better around me and learn from guys I’ve been watching since high school, like Javy Báez and Miguel Cabrera. But also, I belong here, too, and we’re all in this — no egos — to bring winning back.

“I’ve seen it. I got to be around superstars last year, and it really opened my eyes because nobody on that Phillies team had an ego, no matter if they were making $700,000 or $400 million. They made it very clear: Everyone in here is the same. That’s how you win.”

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He remembers watching Tears of the Sun, an action thriller film starring Bruce Willis, on his iPad in Norfolk, Virginia, when the Phillies called at 1:30 a.m. Sept. 1 to inform him of his long-awaited promotion for his MLB debut. Sands, a self-proclaimed movie buff, broke down in tears as he called his mother to share the news.

Sands entered his first game for the Phillies on Sept. 2 as a pinch-hitter against the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park. He struck out looking in the seventh inning and grounded out in the ninth inning. Ahead by 13 runs, Giants position player Luis González pitched the ninth to preserve the arms in the bullpen.

“I’m still holding a grudge on my buddy,” Sands said. “I grew up with Luis González, and he got me out on my debut. We grew up together in Tucson playing high school baseball together. That was surreal. But I’m definitely excited to get that first knock out of the way.”

In his MLB career, Sands is 0-for-3 with one walk and one strikeout.

For those three games, though, Sands acted like a leech as he followed catcher J.T. Realmuto and outfielder Bryce Harper around the clubhouse to learn their routines and pick their brains. They welcomed his questions and taught him to believe in himself as a big leaguer.

“I didn’t play much up there, but we were in a playoff race,” Sands said, “and it was unbelievable to watch how winning is done.”

‘We got to be the predator’

A few months following the 2015 draft, the Yankees moved Sands — an eighth-round selection — from third base to catcher. The Yankees’ minor league catching coordinator, Josh Paul, suggested the position change and helped Sands transition.

Paul, 47, served as the Tigers’ quality control coach from 2020-22, first under former manager Ron Gardenhire and then under current manager A.J. Hinch, but the former MLB catcher wasn’t asked to return to the organization for the 2023 season.

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Sands, known for his offense, evolved into a reliable defensive catcher under Paul’s mentorship. His framing, according to advanced analytics, has earned above-average marks in every season of his professional career, meaning he has a knack for turning borderline balls into strikes.

“I pride myself on being one of the top receivers,” Sands said. “I want my pitchers to confidently throw the ball in the zone and know, ‘If this ball gets anywhere close, my guy Donny is going to take care of the rest.’ We got to be on the attack. We can’t be the prey. We got to be the predator. My receiving ability allows them to be more confident.”

The Tigers took notice of Sands’ defensive strength.

What he does defensively aligns with the “dominate the strike zone” mantra from Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris, part of his three-pillar approach to revolutionizing the organization. Basically, Harris wants pitchers who throw strikes and hitters who practice plate discipline.

“We really like his ability to help our pitchers in the strike zone,” Harris said. “We really think that he’s going to be a strong defensive catcher for us. … We’re going to get him behind the plate as much as we can because we think he can help get the most out of our pitchers.”

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As for handling new pitchers, Sands plans to prioritize non-baseball conversations before digging into on-the-field talk when he arrives in Lakeland for spring training. Building trust, especially as the psychologist of the pitching staff, is the foundation for future success.

And then, he wants to take advantage of his pitchers’ strengths.

“Everybody has a certain ability,” Sands said. “I need to know how to talk to these guys, what they like and don’t like, what pisses them off, what makes them go and how I can get them best out of them. At the end of the day, we want to be the best pitching staff in baseball.”

‘Looking to be a complete hitter’

On offense, Sands exemplifies what Harris is looking for in position players because he controls the strike zone and could unlock more power by making adjustments. He hit .308 with six home runs, 39 walks (15.4% walk rate) and 46 strikeouts (18.2% strikeout rate) over 60 games in the minor leagues last season, missing six weeks in the summer due to a foot injury.

He had a 17.3% chase rate.

Sands, in more ways than one, dominates the strike zone.

“Really good hitters are annoying at the plate,” Sands said. “They’re tough outs and don’t give at-bats away. They’re stingy, stubborn with what they do and know their strengths. A complete hitter can walk, not strike out, put the ball in play, hit doubles and slug. I’m looking to be a complete hitter.”

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His best work occurs against fastballs (four seamers and sinkers) from left-handed pitchers. He received 168 lefty fastballs last season and hit .556 with a 1.478 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

He faced a total of 558 fastballs in the minors last season, which includes heaters from right-handed pitchers, and hit .347 with a 1.017 OPS, 83.4% contact rate and 87.3 mph average exit velocity. His fastball splits are better against lefties, but he can handle fastballs against righties, too.

“Elite hitters in the big leagues can hit a fastball,” said Sands, who has a natural leg kick and long swing. “I train at high velocity and like hitting off the fastball machine. I mean, you got to be able to hit the fastball to play in the big leagues.”

High-end velocity could be the biggest hurdle in his pursuit of an everyday role.

In his career, Sands has struggled against fastballs that register at least 94 mph on the radar gun. He has a .277 xwOBAcon (expected weighted on-base average on contact, which measures contact quality) and a .696 OPS. The average player at the MLB level has a .376 xwOBAcon and a .726 OPS.

Although Sands’ overall production improved in 2022, he was actually worse against fastballs at 94 mph and above with a .222 xwOBAcon and a .573 OPS. After acquiring Sands, Harris said he noticed there was “a little bit more in the bat” for the Tigers to optimize.

“Since the moment we got him, he always looked very comfortable in the box,” Preston Mattingly, the Phillies’ director of player development and the son of baseball lifer Don Mattingly, said. “A guy with feel to hit who makes a lot of contact. He didn’t hit for a ton of power last year, but I think there’s more power in there.”

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Sands’ ability to hit in the majors remains unknown, primarily because he has just three games at the highest level, but his advanced plate discipline — combined with above-average pitch framing — suggests he deserves an opportunity.

Entering spring training, Sands is one of three catchers on the Tigers’ 40-man roster and could compete with Jake Rogers, returning from Tommy John surgery, for an Opening Day backup role behind starter Eric Haase.

“I’m ready for my opportunity,” Sands said. “I’m ready to show what I can do. I knew what my role was last year being on that team, but everybody needs that opportunity to show what they can do. I’m excited.”

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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