Yesterday, to begin a now-three-part series, I broke down Gary Sanchez’s problems framing pitches this season. Part III next week will focus on Sanchez’s early-season throwing errors. Here, in Part II, I take a look at how Sanchez has been better at blocking pitches in the dirt.
On Thursday, Gary Sanchez quietly did something for just the second time in his career; He put together his 18th consecutive start behind the plate without a passed ball.
That’s been Sanchez’ bugaboo for the past two years. As he’s emerged as the premier hitting catcher in baseball, he’s had to deal with constant media scrutiny over his inability to block pitches properly.
While the issue was entirely overblown, it was very real. His tremendous production at the plate in 2016-17 easily outweighed his numerous wild pitches and passed balls. However, with his hitting diminished last season, the blocking issues came to a head.
In 2017, Sanchez led baseball with 16 passed balls. In just 74 percent of the innings in 2018, he led baseball again with 18. He averaged a passed ball per every 36 2/3 innings. Whether it was from getting crossed up with pitchers, improper technique or nagging injuries, there was a real issue at play.
Whatever the issue, it appears the 26-year-old backstop has eliminated it. He’s allowed just four passed balls this year, or one per every 72 2/3 innings, which is the best rate in his brief MLB career. It’s not a great rate, but it’s not far and away the worst as 10 catchers have accumulated more this season.
Wild pitches are a similar story. The 98 WPs that skittered past him from 2017-18 was the third most behind Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado, but his 10 this year are only 22nd-most.
Overall, he’s been worth -0.3 Blocking Runs, according to Baseball Prospectus, which is 57th out of 86 catchers. Last season? He was 114th out of 115 with -4.3 runs. He was 108th of 110 in 2017 with -3.1 runs. While he’s not going to become elite, he’s serviceable, which is all the Yankees can ask for.
Just as I did yesterday, I wanted to see the visuals for myself. Let’s check out some of his failures first.
In James Paxton’s second start, Sanchez was behind the plate with second and third and one out and Paxton tosses a breaking pitch in the dirt.
Sanchez is quick, but he doesn’t move his body quite enough. Still, I’m willing to chalk this up to Paxton throwing a pretty difficult ball in the dirt. Kind of in-between hop for Sanchez.
Next up, catching Paxton on May 3, Sanchez’s penultimate passed ball so far this season.
This is a classic cross-up. Sanchez still may be to blame, forgetting what he called or using the wrong sign. But this isn’t a lack of effort or a glaring weakness.
Now, two days later with Adam Ottavino on the bump, his most recent passed ball.
Sanchez has to get this one. Ottavino’s pitches have insane movement, but he called for the slider and had caught Ottavino plenty before. This is more reminiscent of last season.
However, you may be able to see it in the clip, but it’s raining hard. An absolute downpour. You can get somewhat of a pass for that.
How would he do later that inning with Aroldis Chapman? Another wild pitch.
This one is a simple case of “How in the heck do you catch Aroldis Chapman?”
Let’s move on to three of Sanchez’s better moments blocking pitches this year. First up, back to that April 5 game with Paxton on the hill in Baltimore
A simple block and he’s able to use to unleash his best asset: His arm. Moves to his left to get his body in front and keep the ball from the backstop.
This has to be Sanchez’s most important block of the season. 5-5 game in the 6th inning in a battle for first place with the Rays and there are bases loaded, two outs. He calls for the Ottavino slider, hoping for the swing and miss, and instead Meadows lays off. Sanchez is quick to this and gets a nice back-hand stop to boot.
So here’s one theory for me: Part of Sanchez’s improvement is a better rapport and familiarity with Zack Britton. In August last year, a banged-up Sanchez was given Britton and a wild 95-mph sinker. That’s a recipe for disaster and Britton had five wild pitches in just 25 innings with New York last year.
This season, Sanchez and Britton have been on the same page, likely due to improved health for both of them. Sanchez blocks the above ball just a minute after taking a foul ball to the groin and he’s still hanging in there. Britton is going to allow men on base, so being on the same page with Sanchez is essential. Having Britton exhibit better command enhances the duo.
When you’re breaking down the factors that led to Sanchez’s blocking improvement, I think there are four primary ones: Health, offseason work, familiarity with pitchers and positioning.
The most important is his health. He was battling both groin and shoulder injuries. At the very least, that has to sap one’s focus over the course of nine innings, trying to manage a pitching staff, while catching/framing/blocking pitches AND hitting. It’s a catcher’s job, but it’s all the more difficult while injured.
Sanchez did deal with an injury in April, but it was relatively minor and he doesn’t seem to have missed a beat since his IL stint.
As for the second factor, Sanchez knew this was a problem. He has to have been hearing questions about blocking pitches in the dirt since at least 2016, but probably since he was in the Minor Leagues. Though he had shoulder surgery this offseason, he still had the winter to work on his conditioning and abilities behind the dish, as well as his positioning.
The final two factors go hand-in-hand. He no longer ever has to work with the mercurial Sonny Gray, nor does he have to handle a spiked curveball from David Robertson. He’s gotten more reps with Britton and hasn’t yet been forced to reckon with Dellin Betances’ wild stuff. Ottavino has been generally good about keeping his wicked slider out of the dirt, and Aroldis Chapman hasn’t yet seen a bout of wildness.
Sanchez isn’t going to become the best blocking catcher in baseball. It may not physically be in the cards, and he doesn’t need to be. He’s leading the American League in home runs … as a catcher. He just needs to not hurt the team back there or lose confidence.
His improved blocking and changes in positioning may have hurt his pitch framing, as I mentioned yesterday, but he can become a better catcher. At 26-years-old, he’s not a finished product and his improvements in blocking pitches this season puts that on display.
*All images from MLB.TV