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Catchers: Sánchez seeks rebound, Higashioka’s second look, prospects, and more [2021 Season Preview]

With spring training now in full swing and a new season upon us, it’s time to bring back our season preview series. This year, we’re doing things a little bit differently. Instead of writing up each and every individual player, we’re doing top-to-bottom organizational previews by position. Not only will this provide a set up for the 2021 MLB season’s storylines, but it’ll also give us a look at what’s in store with the minor leagues returning this summer. Lastly, at the bottom of each post, we will have a depth chart by playing level.

Today, we start at catcher. A fitting place to begin given that catchers have been in camp for a few days already now. Let’s dive in.

Pressure on Gary Sánchez

Gary Sánchez, much to many fans’ chagrin, is the incumbent starting catcher. We’ve gotten a reprieve from the Sánchez discourse for the past few months, but things have kicked back into gear now that spring training has begun. And understandably so given how 2020 ended for the 28 year-old backstop.

2021 feels like a make-or-break season for Sánchez. He’s two years from free agency and has been on a roller coaster since 2018. A hot start would do wonders, wouldn’t it? Sure, there’s always a magnifying glass on his performance, but never quite like this. After all, last year was pretty embarrassing for Sánchez. He didn’t hit during the regular season (.147/.253/.365, 68 wRC+) and was a mess defensively. By season’s end, he was no longer paired with team ace Gerrit Cole and started just two of the team’s seven postseason games. So yeah, a torrid start to 2021 would go a long way for Gary.

Reviewing the Yankees’ 2021 Projections: PECOTA

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Baseball Prospectus unveiled its PECOTA projections for the 2021 season yesterday. As such, it’s time to take a dive into this system similar to what I did with ZiPS a few months ago.

Overall, PECOTA projects the Yankees to rack up 42.6 WARP, second-most in MLB behind the Dodgers (50.6). The next closest team in the American League is Houston at 40.0. In the division, Tampa Bay projects for 32.8, Toronto 29.6, Boston 28.2, and Baltimore 12.7. The Yankees are the clear AL East favorites, to no surprise.

Of the Yankees’ 42.6 WARP, 26.8 come from positional players and 15.8 come from the pitching staff. That position player total ranks third in the league behind the Dodgers (33.3) and Astros (28.0). The Yankees’ projection on the mound is fifth-best in MLB, trailing the Padres (19.9), Dodgers (17.4), Brewers (17.0), and Mets (16.2).

With that out of the way, I’m going to highlight some notable projections on the Yankees. Let’s get to it.

Betting the over

Hitters: I usually pick one hitter and one pitcher in each category, but I’m going to cheat here and choose two: Giancarlo Stanton and Gio Urshela:

PlayerPABA/OBP/SLGDRC+HRWARP
Stanton515.235/.337/.468117271.8
Urshela584.265/.315/.426102191.5

I think Stanton’s projected batting average and power output is bearish. That .235 batting average forecast seems to drag down his line as a whole, and considering that he’s a lifetime .268 hitter (.266 with the Yankees), I’d expect something a bit higher. Meanwhile, PECOTA projects just a homer every 19 plate appearances, more than his career mark of one per every 16. I just find it hard to believe he finishes with just 27 homers if he accumulates over 500 plate appearances.

Next, PECOTA clearly isn’t ready to buy into Urshela’s bat. This, in spite of Urshela posting 121 and 125 DRC+ marks in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Maybe there’s some regression coming, but Gio surely looks for real.

Pitcher:

PlayerIPERAFIPDRADRA-WARP
Clarke Schmidt594.965.115.431110.0

BP just ranked Schmidt 96th on its Top 101 Prospects list, but PECOTA doesn’t see him as a big contributor this season. We’ve heard a tad about Schmidt having some control issues at times, so it’s not a total surprise that the system spits out a 10 percent forecasted walk rate in 2021. The righty did post a 9 percent walk rate in the minors in 2019 and gave free passes to 5 out of 33 batters faced in 2020. That said, we know he’s got nasty stuff and that he’s very motivated to improve. I like his odds at a breakout this year.

Finding an upgrade over Gary Sánchez is easier said than done

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The calls to replace Gary Sánchez behind the plate aren’t new to this year. He’s been the most scrutinized player on the roster for a few years now. But this time, moving on from him actually seems possible. Especially when the team’s general manager says so. In a press conference last week, Brian Cashman addressed the catching situation: “We’ll evaluate that particular position because we’ll be forced to now as we move forward…but, ultimately that will be a subject that we have to discuss as well and it could very well be a change. It could very well be a competition.”

By “forced to”, Cashman is pointing to Sánchez’s dreadful 2020. The catcher hit .147/.253/.365 (69 wRC+) in 178 plate appearances and struck out 36 percent of the time. Defensively, the new catching stance didn’t take. Gary ranked in the 37th percentile in Statcast framing and he allowed 5 passed balls (after 7 in a full season in 2019). This isn’t the first time Sánchez has had a bad season (hello, 2018), but this year may have pushed the Yankees’ over the edge. The problem: it’s not easy to find good and readily available catchers in baseball.

Wild Card Round Game 1: All you could ask for

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That was ideal, was it not? The Yankees clobbered Cleveland in Game 1 of this best-of-three series, 12-3. The offense was all over Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole mowed down his opponent. It’s not like the Yankees needed to blow out Cleveland to feel comfortable, either. In fact, this one felt over after Aaron Judge’s two-run blast on the fourth pitch of the game. An early lead with Cole on the hill against a scuffling Cleveland offense? Just what the doctor ordered. Let’s break it down.

The bats took Bieber off his gameplan immediately. The Yankees’ offense may have been frustrating and inconsistent during the regular season, but that was far from the case tonight. Intimidated by the presumptive American League Cy Young winner? Not a chance. The Bombers took a 2-0 lead four pitches into this one. It completely took Shane Bieber off his game. DJ LeMahieu led off with a single and Aaron Judge followed with this:

That was quick. Bieber had come out firing all fastballs and the Yankees made him pay immediately. The right immediately shied away from his heater thereafter.

Bieber threw 27 fastballs the rest of the game, or 26.7 percent of his final 101 pitches. He’s not necessarily a fastball dominant pitcher as he used the pitch just over 37 percent in the regular season, but still. The Yankees scared him off the pitch.

Cleveland’s ace had a chance to settle down after a scoreless second and two relatively quick outs in the third inning. But instead, the Yankees’ relentless offense made him pay. Bieber fell behind Aaron Hicks 3-0, got it to 3-2, but then walked him. Up came Luke Voit:

Not a fastball, but rather, a cutter right down the pipe. Voit made him pay to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead.

The Yanks tallied a couple of more runs against Bieber in the fourth. Brett Gardner jumped a first pitch fastball for an RBI double and DJ LeMahieu delivered an RBI single up the middle against a heater too. The Yankees may not have seen Bieber’s fastball much, but when they did, they pounced. And they weren’t done jumping on Bieber’s fastball there. Gleyber Torres delivered the knockout blow in the fifth.

That was the end of Bieber’s night. 4 2/3 innings and 7 runs for the starter with a 1.77 ERA this season. Welp!

The offense didn’t let Bieber capitalize on his curveball, either. As impressive as it was to see the Yankees punish Bieber’s sporadically thrown fastball, it was also great to watch them not flail at too many of Bieber’s curveballs. Opponents had a .095 batting average, .143 slugging percentage, and 51.5 percent whiff rate against his yakker this season. Tonight, it’s not what they did when they put the ball in play (1-for-6), but rather, what they did against it otherwise.

Sure, Bieber racked up four Ks on his breaking ball, but that doesn’t tell the story. They whiffed on 7 of 18 swings (39 percent) against the curve, well below his regular season rate. They also fouled it off 5 times. Plus, Bieber was only able to nab 3 called strikes on it. It simply just wasn’t his typical putaway pitch this evening.

Overall, Bieber went to his curveball on 36 percent of his pitches this evening, 10 percent higher than in the regular season. That would have been a decent plan tonight had his curveball been fooling Yankees’ hitters. Instead, the offense was locked in. They hunted fastballs while spoiling Bieber’s curveball.

Game 57: Another loss in Buffalo

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I’m glad there are no more games in Buffalo. The Yankees lost to the Blue Jays tonight at Sahlen Field, 4-1. Toronto trails the Yanks by two games with three to be played. There’s no reason to doubt a second place finish yet, but it’s getting uncomfortable. Also: the Yankees missed a chance to gain on the White Sox for the fourth seed. The South Siders lost but remain two ahead of the Yanks.

We’re doing abbreviated takeaways tonight as all of us are a bit busy today. Here they are:

  • Jordan Montgomery’s roller coaster regular season ends on a high note. What a strange season for the lefty. There was a bit of hype after some impressive performances in spring training and summer camp, but his regular season was all over the place. There were some strong outings and some awful outings. Overall, including tonight, he finished with a 5.11 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 10 starts and 44 innings pitched. He allowed 3 runs (1 of those was inherited by Adam Ottavino) in 5 1/3 innings and looked sharp. Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s homer was the big blow, but Monty also struck out 8 and walked nobody. I presume that he’s the teams fifth starter this postseason if the Yankees advance past the Wild Card round.
  • More than a personal catcher? It now looks like Kyle Higashioka could be more than Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher. Aaron Boone dropped that bomb before today’s game. Starting for a second straight night, Higgy went 0-for-3 today, though he was pinch hit for by Gary Sánchez in the 8th inning. More on that Sánchez in a moment. I think some forgot that Higashioka was hitting .188/.188/.281 (20 wRC+) in 32 plate appearances before that three homer game last week. Or that he was a career .164/.212/.336 (41 wRC+) hitter in 156 plate appearances at the big league level entering 2020. It can be worse than Gary Sánchez has hit this year (66 wRC+), folks. And it’s not that I don’t like Higashioka. To the contrary; he’s hit well in the minors and has a good defensive reputation. But if you think you’re getting an offensive upgrade with him instead of Gary, think again. Defensively? I won’t fight you on that.
  • 2020 has shown no mercy on Gary Sánchez. As if the batting line wasn’t bad enough, Sánchez ran into some bad luck as a pinch hitter tonight in the eighth. Up in place of Higgy and as the tying run, Gary barreled one to left center that Randal Grichuk made a leaping catch on for the final out of the inning. Gary has mostly earned his stat line this season, but he didn’t deserve the below tonight. Would have been a two-run double to make things 4-3. And it had an .880 expected batting average, per Statcast.
  • The bats don’t show up on the road again. The Yankees have knocked around Hyun-Jin Ryu a couple of times in the last year (once with the Dodgers, once with the Blue Jays). Not tonight. He twirled a gem this evening. He blanked the Yankees across seven innings and barely gave up any well-struck batted balls. The Yankees’ average exit velocity against Ryu was 83.4 MPH in this one. It was yet another instance of the Yankees’ offense struggling away from the Bronx. The Yankees did hit Ryu well at Sahlen Field earlier this month, so maybe credit to him for adjusting. Or, maybe the Yankees are just going through the motions at this point. Or maybe there is a problem away from home. Who knows for sure, but the numbers are glaring:
    • Home: 176 runs, .276/.366/.588, 150 wRC+
    • Away: 124 runs, .221/.318/.354, 87 wRC+
  • I was about to say that Adam Ottavino has looked better lately. Entering tonight, Ottavino hadn’t allowed a run in his last five outings. He had faced 18 batters, allowed 3 hits, walked 1, and struck out 7 while not allowing a run. This came after that horrendous performance in Buffalo when he faced six hitters and didn’t record a single out. Tonight, the bad Ottavino returned. He gave up a two-run double to Alejandro Kirk in the sixth which put the Yankees behind 4-0. One of those runners was on Montgomery’s line. Sigh. Ottavino is an enigma.

Three games remain, all at Yankee Stadium. The final regular season series begins tomorrow with the Marlins in town. Have a good night everyone.

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