With Spring Training now a week underway and Opening Day about a month away, we’re going to start our season preview series. We’ll be taking an in-depth look at every player on the roster (or with a legitimate chance to be on the roster) with an eye toward 2020 and beyond. Today it kicks off with everyone’s favorite polarizing Yankee: Gary Sánchez.
No current Yankee is more polarizing than Gary Sánchez, save perhaps Giancarlo Stanton. Something about the Yankee backstop just gets people going. It’s not difficult to see why: he’s been in the system for a decade (since 2009!), always with a lot of promise, and he’s a very boom-or-bust type hitter at the plate. Moreover, his defense is controversial, to say the least. That, plus a huge 2016-17 followed by a 2018 campaign in which he really struggled, is a recipe for controversy.
Last season didn’t help matters much. It was yet another interesting one for Gary. He hit .232/.316/.525 (116 wRC+) with 34 home runs in 106 games for the Yanks. That was good for 2.6 fWAR or 3.1 bWAR, depending on your fancy. Unfortunately, it was an injury-filled campaign – he missed about eight weeks with various injuries – and those injuries came just as he was getting really hot. I’ll have more on this below, but his defensive season was also strange: he cut back on the passed balls but lost a lot of pitch framing value.
Sánchez, now in his fourth full season as the Yankees’ primary backstop, is entering into a critical stage of his career. He’s now in his arbitration years, finally earning above the league minimum, and will look to finally put together that one monster season that will earn him a huge payday – and perhaps even a contract extension with the only organization he’s ever known.
Doing so will require him to answer three big questions. Let’s get right into them.
Can He Avoid the Huge Slump?
There is no doubt that Gary is one of baseball’s premier offensive backstops. As frustrating as he can be at the plate at times, the data is clear. There is no arguing with that data. Here are Gary’s ranks among the 22 catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances from August 2, 2016 – August 2, 2019. (I chose that somewhat limited time frame because FanGraphs limits searches like this to three years, so we’re missing only September 2019 – a time when Sánchez was mostly hurt anyway.) So, while thats not ideal, it’s still a good illustration:
- wRC+: 122 (1st)
- wOBA: .353 (1st)
- Slugging: .516 (1st, next closest is .475)
- Isolated Power: .268 (1st, next closest .229)
- Home Runs: 95 (1st, next closest 77)
- fWAR: 10.6 (4th)
In other words, by many offensive metrics, the Kraken is one of the best in the game – and he is certainly the most powerful catcher. There’s no doubt about it. But he’s not without his flaws at the plate: he is prone to some serious slumps. Check this out:
Friends, those are some peaks and valleys right there. We all know this, though. When Sánchez is locked in, he’s not just one of the best offensive catchers in the game, he’s one of the best offensive players in the game writ large. When he’s not locked in, though, he can look really, really bad at the plate. This happened to him last year, too, when he cratered after getting hurt:
Avoiding slumps like this can help Sánchez put together the one consistent offensive year he really needs to silence his doubters. The good news? He certainly is capable. Even when slumping — and even during his frustrating 2018 campaign — he’s always hit the ball hard. Check it out:
In other words, Gary consistently smacks the ball. If he keeps that up in 2020 – and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t aside from health – then I have a really good feeling about the season.
Can He Put His Defense Together?
Sánchez’s defense, of course, is frequently discussed. That came to a head in 2018, when he led the league in passed balls but also was a very good pitch framer (22nd out of 66, per Baseball Savant). Last year, he cut down on the passed balls but got worse at framing (49th out of 66). That’s not an ideal setup, because experts view framing as a more valuable skill set.
In other words, it is going to be crucial for Gary to combine his 2018 framing prowess with his 2019 blocking ability. Fortunately, that’s exactly what he is working on with new catching coordinator Tanner Swanson. As I wrote yesterday, they’re working on a new stance that would allow Gary to focus on being in position to block balls in the dirt without compromising his framing. There is a general sense in the league that a focus on framing tends to result in more passed balls and vice versa.
That’s because a catcher will get out of framing position to get into blocking position if stopping passed balls is his priority. On the other hand, prioritize framing, and a player drops into the blocking position too late. Makes sense, right? Correcting that involves some tweaks to a catcher’s stance – and that’s exactly what Gary is doing. The change is obvious.
Here is a screengrab of Gary in the first series of the 2019 season (the ball was targeting the lower outside quadrant):
And here’s what he’s working on this Spring Training:
Noticeable! It makes a lot of sense to a layman like me it certainly worked for other Swanson acolytes like Mitch Garver. It should especially help with balls at the bottom of the zone which is also an area where Sánchez has struggled historically. In fact, even in 2016 and 2018 — his two best defensive seasons by framing — he was below average at framing pitches at the bottom of the zone. That trend was also true last year, for what it’s worth, when he was not as prolific a framer.
In other words, this new stance could be a way for Sánchez to be more adept at blocking balls, therefore quieting his most vocal critics, while also providing the maximum value to the team defensively. I personally find this the most interesting question facing Sánchez entering the new year. It’s the thing to watch this Spring.
Can He Stay Healthy?
Finally, there is the question of health. Gary is a catcher, and catchers are always brittle. It’s a physically demanding position and that’s why catchers often get days off. Still, even with those caveats, Gary has not been on the field enough recently. He became the full-time catcher at the start of the 2017 season. Over that period, the Yankees have played 486 games. Sánchez has been on the field for only 317 (65%) of them.
Even with the understanding that this percentage is always going to be lower for a catcher, it would be nice for Sánchez to avoid the injury bug and stay healthy for the entire season. Or, at the very least, limit his time on the IL. Gary is so valuable because he’s an offensive monster playing a weak position. Staying on the field is obviously crucial, though, and he hasn’t done it yet. Taking the next step in his career will require him to stay healthy – and it will probably help him avoid those slumps, too. I’m crossing my fingers for a clean bill of health in 2020.
2020 Outlook: What They’re Saying
Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:
- ZiPS: .244/.323/.524 (121 wRC+) for 2.6 fWAR in 467 PA
- Steamer: .242/.324/.516 (117 wRC+) for 2.6 fWAR in 459 PA
- PECOTA: .236/.311/.488 (111 DRC+) for 2.6 WARP in 473 PA
Obviously, the projections find Gary poised for a big offensive season. There is no reason to believe he is not. Each also projects limited action on the field. That’s a fair assumption given his career to date — but hopefully a concern he can put to bed in 2020. Finally, while I’d take each of these seasons in a heartbeat, he can be better by staying on the field and improving his defense. Good news is that’s exactly the priority for now.
Those are the three big questions as Gary heads into 2020. I have always been a huge fan of Sánchez and I have the utmost faith in him. (That was true last year, too.) In other words, I believe that Gary Sánchez will remind fans just why he’s one of baseball’s premier backstops.