The inner machinations of Gary Sánchez’s play are an enigma.
The Yankees’ starting catcher rebounded from a disastrous 2018 to barrel through the first half, just to see injuries hamper him for the rest of the season. Despite impressive top-line numbers, the backstop’s season was a mixed bag and merely satisfactory rather than outstanding.
106 Games: 34 home runs, 77 RBI, .232/.316/.525 (116 wRC+, 121 DRC+), 9.0 BB%, 28.0 K%, 2.3 fWAR, 2.4 WARP
An All-Star Reborn
Sánchez dealt with injuries for the entirety of the 2018 season and became the face of the team coming up short as his ALDS Game 4 sacrifice fly against Craig Kimbrel fell just shy of a series-extending grand slam. His .186 average was unseemly and he was a below-average hitter. His defense was tabloid cannon fodder with an MLB-worst 18 passed balls.
With that in mind, Sánchez’s first two months of the 2019 season were about as good as you could imagine. Through May 28, he’d played in just 37 games and had 17 home runs, punishing the ball to the tune of a .993 OPS and .393 ISO. When you talk about why Sánchez is a difference maker, a two-month stretch like that is why.
In his All-Star first-half, he had some otherworldly stretches. He hit three home runs in an April game against the Orioles before taking the same pitching staff deep for three consecutive games in May. In June, he again smashed dingers in three straight, though he did so against the Rays and Astros, the Yankees’ chief AL competitors.
To close out the first-half, he added a few clutch hits to boot, namely the go-ahead hit in the second London Series game and a clinching three-run shot in the 10th inning against Tampa Bay.
How did Gary do this? He stopped hitting the ball on the ground. Between infield shifts and his slow foot speed, grounders are mostly auto outs for him, so he embraced the airball revolution in full force in the first half. Through June 30, he has a 0.56 GB/FB ratio while decreasing his groundball rate to 28.6 percent.
In place of grounders, Sanchez barreled up the ball more often. He led baseball in barrels per plate appearance for most of the year before finishing second to fellow All-Star Nelson Cruz. He hit one ball 118.3 mph and had an average exit velocity of 91.0 mph.
The negative consequence of selling out for more power and flyballs was a decrease in plate discipline. A career-best 12.3 walk rate had buoyed his lackluster 2018 campaign, but he lost his walks (9.0 percent) while seeing his strikeout rate increase for the third straight year (28.0 percent).
Then the Injuries
After doubling and scoring in the Midsummer Classic, Sánchez looked to have again reached back into his potential and pulled out the most dominant version of himself. The good times did not last.
Sánchez missed two weeks early in the season with a mild calf strain, but that hadn’t impacted his offense or his defense. In July, the backstop began to his the ball on the ground at an alarming rate and his performance crumbled at the plate. He strained his left groin in Minnesota late in the month and went on the IL, missing about three weeks.
That ended his woeful July which displayed the value of keeping the ball in the air for the Kraken. As you can see below, Sánchez’s wOBA was reversely correlated with his groundball rate in 2019, with his GB rate spiking in July.
The time on the shelf appeared to serve Sánchez well. In his first 19 games after returning on Aug. 10, he hit eight home runs and slugged .623. In Los Angeles, he hit his 100th career home run when he took Hyun-Jin Ryu deep, and he followed that up with two multi-homer games in the next few weeks.
Again, Sánchez couldn’t stay on the field. On a misty evening in Detroit in mid-September, the catcher decided to attempt his first stolen base of the season. Unsurprisingly, the ground-bound Sánchez was caught in the try. The confounding decision was amplified when he came up with a groin strain on the attempt and soon left the game.
With the recurrence coming on Sept. 12, that left him little time to get back for October. He’d return for 11 innings across two games in Texas at the end of the year, but he’d neither caught consecutive games nor a full game in over three weeks when the postseason began.
Overall, while his offensive numbers slipped in the second half (122 to 105 wRC+), that was mostly thanks to a -7 wRC+ in July when he batted just .102/.172/.186. That unfathomably bad month weighed down an otherwise great offensive year, particularly when you realize catchers league-wide had an 85 wRC+.
The Defensive Slip
For all the talk about Sánchez’s defensive struggles before 2019, he had been a fine player behind the plate. His wild pitches and passed balls were a problem, to be certain, but the Yankees’ catcher rated well as a framer.
As I noted in June, his defense was flipped upside-down this season. Sánchez spent the offseason working to improve his blocking and it worked! He had 11 fewer passed balls and 15 fewer wild pitches than a year ago while catching 89 2/3 more innings in 2019. At the same time, he allowed 36 stolen bases in 47 attempts, sporting a below-average 23 percent CS rate (27% is league average).
And his framing went in the tank. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was worth -5.1 framing runs, down from +3.3 runs in 2018 and +7.4 runs in 2017. It’s hard to isolate Sánchez, but that no doubt was a factor in the Yankees’ pitching staff going from top 10 in ERA to middle of the pack over the course of a season.
For as poorly as his defense rated out in 2019, we’ve now seen glimpses of quality in every aspect for Sánchez. He still has an elite pop time, has improved his blocking and could very easily re-work his framing to get back to 2016-18 results. As Brian Cashman said in his end-of-year press conference, Sanchez is part of the solution in the Bronx.
This is harsh to say, but Gary’s postseason was a failure, both at and behind the plate. He was merely OK against the Twins with a 1-for-8 line and three walks compared to four strikeouts. By WPA, he was the Yankees’ least productive hitter.
In the ALCS, Sánchez hit rock bottom as he went 3-for-23 with 12 strikeouts compared to one walk. He finally produced an extra-base hit — a home run, in fact — but it came with the Yankees behind 6-1 in Game 3. He had an opportunity to put New York in control in the first inning of that game, but swung through a hittable fastball with the bases loaded en route to a strikeout. He just didn’t have timing and was expanding the zone too often.
On defense, Sánchez allowed six wild pitches, three passed balls and three stolen bases, with no runners caught stealing. To be fair, the bases were mostly stolen off the pitcher. But the overall fielding issues were reminiscent of Sánchez’s nadir in the 2018 regular season when he seemingly couldn’t hit or block a pitch.
His most recent groin injury had to be lingering, right? If it was the middle of the regular season, Sánchez wouldn’t have been rushed back to catch two partial games before resuming full-time play, and he’d have had the benefit of rehab games to ease back in. Instead, he was tossed into the fire of hte postseason, and the combination of rustiness or continued discomfort showed. It was an unfortunate end to what could have been a banner season for the Yankees’ catcher.
Sánchez is now finally arbitration eligible. He’s projected to receive $5.6 million in his first time through arb as a two-time All-Star catcher with 105 career home runs. The Yankees have brought in a new catching coordinator from the Twins, and a strength and conditioning overhaul could also benefit Sánchez after groin injuries sapped his production.
Barring a blockbuster trade, Sánchez will be behind the plate on Opening Day 2020, remaining the Yankees’ starting catcher. If the Bombers could use him as the headlining piece for an ace in a trade, that would make sense, but there aren’t those trades to be had at the moment. Instead, the Yankees will have to mold Sánchez further into a reliable catcher and hope he stays healthy.