Gary Sanchez turned his defense upside down: Part 1

Today and tomorrow, I’m going to break down Gary Sanchez’s mysterious defensive numbers in 2019. Part II will focus on his throwing and blocking performance. First up, his framing abilities:

(MLB.TV)

We all saw Angel Hernandez’s gaffe Tuesday night. On the 0-1 pitch to Randal Grichuk, he called a pitch down the middle of the plate a ball. It was egregious and is a case for electronic assistance for umpires.

Both Gary Sanchez and Masahiro Tanaka were baffled.

However, there’s a reason Hernandez missed the call, and it’s not because he’s blind.

Gary Sanchez sets up up and in on the pitch while Masahiro Tanaka’s fastball tails into the plate. Sanchez reaches over and catches the ball, but to no avail. Hernandez was similarly situated to Sanchez, anticipating a ball inside and was duped by a pitch way off its intended target. He still should have called it a strike, but you can understand how he was thrown off.

Here’s where Sanchez was set up and where the ball ended up:

Meanwhile, while much of the blame goes to Tanaka for missing his target significantly, the missed call underlined, at least to me, Sanchez’s main defensive issue in 2019: Pitch framing.

The 26-year-old catcher has greatly improved his blocking, as I’ll detail tomorrow, but a new problem appears to have replaced it, one tough to see by the untrained eye.

Sanchez has rated as the third-worst catcher in all of baseball with -6.8 Framing Runs, according to Baseball Prospectus, ahead of just Wilson Contreras and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Fangraphs’ new framing metric has him only ahead of the same two backstops. He’s behind framers with poor reputations like Omar Narvaez and Robinson Chirinos.

The concept of pitch framing is simple: It’s how the catcher presents the pitch to the umpire. The best pitch framers, such as San Diego’s Austin Hedges or Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto, are able to get their pitchers more strike calls and minimize mistakes like the one above by presenting the ball well.

Sanchez generally has been an above-average pitch framer. In 2018, he had 3.3 Framing Runs, good for 23rd in baseball. In 2017, 7.4 Framing Runs, 16th in baseball. Fangraph’s framing statistic put him 21st of 37 catchers with at least 1,000 innings behind the dish from 2017-18, but he was still a positive.

That makes this season’s numbers all the more confounding. The Yankees’ All-Star backstop worked to improve his defense this offseason and came out worse? It doesn’t make sense. I thought this may be small sample noise, so I decided to take a closer look.

First, Sanchez had another obvious strike called a ball in that fifth inning Tuesday in an even more critical at-bat. With a runner on first and Freddy Galvis at the plate, Sanchez catches this 1-0 slider.

That call was missed because Sanchez sold out to throw out Cavan Biggio. And his throw beat Biggio. You can live with that and it counts against Sanchez despite doing essentially nothing wrong.

A batter later, Danny Jansen comes to the plate and Sanchez catches what should be strike three.

Like in the pitch to Grichuk, Tanaka badly misses his pitch, though he keeps this one high. Sanchez still has to move his body and that clinches the call.

Sanchez can still frame with the best. Here he is from the next game, turning an obvious ball that went around the zone on Cavan Biggio into a strike.

To try and get a better read on Sanchez’s precipitous framing decline, let’s go back in time to May 26. Sanchez was catching against the Royals in Kansas City with umpire Kerwin Danley at home plate. The game caught my eye because of the following charts.

(Brooks Baseball)

See the green triangles inside the square? Those are balls called against the Yankees are in the strike zone with Sanchez behind the plate. This is the type of game that hurt his framing numbers.

Before I go pitch-by-pitch, I have to give this caveat: This is cherrypicking an off-game for Sanchez. I selected specifically for that and am only showing called balls. Framing isn’t just about the catcher and, as we can see with the pitch to Grichuk up top, the pitcher has a lot to do with it as well.

Anyway, here are five would-be strikes that went awry:

On this pitch to Hunter Dozier, Sanchez is set up inside for a Domingo German fastball. Only problem? It’s closer to the outside corner and Sanchez is thrown off balance. He has to stab at the ball and contorts his body. Hard to get that call.

This one’s a curveball at the top of the zone when Sanchez sets up low, though with a man on second, that may be a diversion. He has to reach up to get the ball, then bring it back down to showcase it.

This is one he really should have gotten. With Nestor Cortes Jr. on the mound, Sanchez puts himself in place to catch this one. Does his shoulder movement lead Danley to believe the ball’s lower? Though not shown in the gif above, Sanchez looked frustrated with himself afterward for not picking the call.

Similar to the second pitch, Sanchez is set up low and the pitch is high and away, but on the corner. His body movement is more subtle, but this looks like more of a Cortes mistake than a Sanchez frame gone wrong.

The previous frames from the Royals games were ultimately meaningless. Either the players got out, or the inning didn’t lead to further runs. This one hurts because Whit Merrfield would hit the walk-off single three pitches later.

Sanchez moves his entire body on this one and that’s gonna make this easy strike a ball most times. Holder probably doesn’t want this pitch to bleed into Merrifield’s wheelhouse here. Again, not sure if this is on Sanchez or Holder, but it doesn’t look great.

So, as you can see with both the May 26 and June 4 games, there’s definitely some noise in Sanchez’s framing failures. Still, there’s the potential that in changing his preparation to properly block pitches, he’s created a deficiency in his positioning to frame pitches. I wouldn’t rule it out. Still, Austin Romine’s framing numbers are also down, so the decline may have more to do with the pitching. When we get later in the season, it’ll be worth revisiting his framing with updated numbers and new games to view.

Tomorrow, I’ll cover Sanchez’s improvement in blocking pitches in the dirt, take a view at his passed balls and see what’s going on with his throwing. To leave you off, here’s the slow-mo of Sanchez’s frame on Biggio from above.

That’s framing at its best.

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9 Comments

  1. Frank Bellocchio

    Seems like more of an umpiring problem. They shouldn’t be so easily tricked by whether the catcher has to move or not. It’s especially frustrating when a catcher has to pop up quickly to throw to a base and umpires miss would-be easy strike calls. I see it all the time.

    Call balls and strikes based on where the ball crosses the plate to the best of your ability, period. Unfortunately, ” to be best of your ability” ranges from inconsistent most nights to inexcusable when Angel Hernandez is behind the plate.

  2. RetroRob

    Be curious to see if this carries forward, or if we’re dealing with sample noise. Framing can vary within season and from year to year. I do agree, though, that it’s possible that be strengthening his blocking he’s losing a little on the framing. If so, the Yankees will address it. As Ben Linbergh noted in an article a couple years ago, the Yankees pretty much were at the forefront of pitch framing, going back to 2009. No surprise they began to push Posada more into the DH slot in 2010 and most, if not all, of their catchers since then were regarded as good pitch framers, whether they came up through the farm system, or were acquired. From Molina to Martin to McCann to Cervelli, etc. Even if Montero hit, he never had a chance of remaining behind the plate with the Yankees.

  3. Don’t blame Gary for Kerwin Danley.

  4. Wire Fan

    Two things I wish Sanchez would stop doing:
    1. Overshifting his entire body off the plate when he wants a pitch inside. ANY pitch in the strikezone is going to require reaching back with this setup. He should split the inside edge so half his body is in the zone and half isn’t. This will still allow him to frame pitches just off the plate and he won’t have to have an exaggerated reach back if the pitch is in the zone.

    2. Stop laying his left leg on the ground before the pitch is delivered. When he does have to move his glove, his body movement becomes that much more exaggerated when one leg is pinned to the ground. A lot of the gif’s in this article have that and I don’t think it is a coincidence.

  5. Adam S

    This is great. Very thankful that you guys started the site!

  6. macaroni100

    I read this article as “Gary Sanchez leads the AL in Homers, even though he doesn’t have enough PA to qualify for any of the other categories!”.

    All kidding aside, this is really interesting. My real take aways are:

    A lot of those bad calls were because of the pitcher missing his spots by a bunch, and;

    The umpires needing a refresher course on how to call the game.

    That said, the idea that Sanchez’s framing is weaker to help him block the ball better is very intriguing.

    I look forward to you updating this in a few months and looking at the league at macro level to see how the other catchers have fared under this new stat.

    Great job Steven!

  7. Paul P

    Love this site! It seems the problem is the pitchers actually,

  8. Harristotle

    This is amazing analysis. You fellas have really hit the ground running.

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