Tanner Swanson helped Mitch Garver; is Gary Sánchez next?

Earlier this year, Steven wrote a three part series about Gary Sánchez’s defense. As Steven noted, Gary was much improved in the blocking department, but it came at a cost. His pitch framing, an area where The Kraken was historically solid, took a step back in 2019. Per Baseball Prospectus, Gary ranked 99th of 113 catchers in framing this year. Last year, he was 23rd of 117 and 16th of 111 in 2017.

How such a stark drop occurred is unclear. One theory is that he had to sacrifice some of his framing to be in a better receiving position of errant pitches. Whatever the case may be, it was a bizarre occurrence for a catcher who’s done well in this area in the past, especially considering how much the Yankees have emphasized framing since the Jorge Posada era ended. Surely, Sánchez and the coaching staff will work to improve this come spring training. This time around, there’s a new face to assist: Tanner Swanson.

Swanson, formerly the Twins’ minor league catching coordinator, is now the Yankees major league catching and quality control coach. So, not all of his responsibilities consist of helping Sánchez and other team catchers, but he’s regarded as something of a catcher whisperer. Swanson has received a load of praise for his work with Mitch Garver, who went from an atrocious defensive catcher to a respectable one behind the dish.

This year, Garver ranked 24th in framing and 23rd in catcher FRAA, Baseball Prospectus’s defensive metric. He did this after placing 109th in framing and 110th in FRAA a year ago. Meanwhile, his pitch blocking stats remained steady year-over-year. So the idea that framing and blocking are inversely correlated, at least in this one instance, may not be true.

The Athletic’s Dan Hayes and Eno Sarris co-authored a piece on the Twins’ work to improve catcher framing before Garver’s defensive breakout. Within, there’s a note about how much Swanson helped a number of catchers within Minnesota’s farm system improve in framing. Hearing this, Garver sought out Swanson’s assistance.

As the numbers bore out, Garver improved significantly from ’18 to ’19. Keep in mind that this article was published way back in February — well before anyone knew if this stuff would work for Garver. Now, Swanson had some success with minor leaguers as noted, but Garver had a long way to in order to improve. Some improvement was expected, or at least hoped for. But to the extent advanced metrics indicate? Remarkable.

Mitch Garver by zone per Statcast. (Baseball Savant)

Minnesota sought to help Garver (and all of it catchers) obtain more called strikes down in the zone. Judging by the above graphic, Garver exhibited significant improvement in zones 17, 18, and 19 year-over-year. Now, let’s look at Gary’s career.

Gary Sánchez by zone per Statcast. (Baseball Savant)

Per Statcast, the 26 year-old regressed on pitches down in the zone, particularly in sections 17 and 18. That certainly seems like an area Swanson can help, at least based on what he did with Garver. At least some part of Garver’s success may have to do with the down-on-one-knee stance Swanson is a proponent of.

“Being on the one knee gives the umpire a much better look and you can present the ball much better to them. If they can see it better you have more chance at getting a strike.”

tanner swanson to the athletic

That said, Gary already employs this positioning frequently. Take a look at just one example:

This isn’t one reference I’ve cherry-picked either. He and Austin Romine went with this method quite often this year, at least on pitches intended to be down in the zone. They didn’t get into that stance for elevated fastballs, which is makes sense.

So, rather than a stance adjustment, it may require drills such as the following to help the Bombers’ starting backstop:

This may look like a typical drill, but it’s interesting to see that Garver has a resistance band on his catching hand here. The goal here is to encourage smoother reception of borderline low pitches, as a herky jerky catch discourages a called strike. Strengthening those muscles and reflexes theoretically helps. Of course, this is just one drill highlighted. Certainly, there are a number of other things that went on behind the scenes with Swanson and Garver.

Now, we already know that Gary is more than capable of being a good framer. After all, he’s done it before at the big league level without Swanson’s assistance. Perhaps 2019 was just an aberration or the increased focus on blocking pitches hurt his framing. But in any case, I think we can expect defensive improvement from Sánchez coming into 2020. This time, hopefully it can be the best of both worlds: blocking and framing.

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6 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    Gary’s been a good pitch framer, which slipped some last year, but his blocking improved. If Swanson can bring both skills together in one season, Gary will win a gold glove.

  2. The best way to solve this problem is robot umps. The discussion shouldn’t be if it should be done, the discussion should be when is it ready for the field. If you keep the human umpire and the machines fail every now and then, we’d still have a better true strike zone.
    This talent of placing outside pitches as strikes is going (or should be going) the way of the dodo (which sadly is gone, unless dna revival brings it back [but why would they? It’s not a mammoth/dinosaur/etc… and was known to be a pest]).
    If Gary could relax more, he may produce even better offensive numbers.

    • DJ Lemeddardhieu

      Good point, Tom. For years I’ve been beating the drum for robot umps. There shouldn’t be different strike zones for each ump and frankly the umpiring in the World Series was embarrassing. And supposedly those are the best of the bunch. The only argument against robot umps is “we can’t get rid of the human element.” But nobody likes the human umps. They do nothing but screw up and slow the game down. And people love the addition of replay in all sports because it overturns the humans. If they really want to speed up the game they need to go to robot umps and it’d be cheaper because robots don’t get salaries and pensions.

  3. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Here’s hoping, Derek, but I doubt it. If Pena and Girardi couldn’t help Gary I don’t know what this Sampsonite character is going to do. I’d rather he work with Jorgie Posada if he’s going to learn from the best. But none of this gets to the root of the problem, his ever ballooning weight. I’d hire Tom Brady’s chef and have him live with Gary year round. Get a legitimate athletic trainer(Not Stevie Donahue) to work with him to lose weight. That’s why he’s slow and can’t move behind the plate and why he gets injured whenever he tries to run faster than a slow jog.

    He also needs to work with a hitter like Paulie O’Neill to cut down on his strikeouts. Judge struck out half the time when he first came up but worked on it to become a .280 hitter. Why can’t Gary do that? Jorgie was always such a weapon not just because of his power but because he also hit .280 and could work Pedro to fatigue. Unless he shows the willingness to improve I shop him in the trade market and go with Austin and Higgy next year. They did nothing but mash when Gary was hurt last season and there’s no reason to believe they can’t do it again.

    • Dan

      “BACK IN MY DAY…..”

      Man, your posts come off as so negative about everything, just reminiscing on the “glory days”. Have you ever tried just being a fan and enjoying things?

      Also, Aaron Judge has struck out in 32% of his plate appearances in his career (also 32% in the 2019 season). Gary Sanchez has struck out in 25% of his career plate appearances (28% in 2019, slightly elevated). Swing and a miss on that point (pun 100% intended)

      • Colombo

        This is just his Eddard schtick. You learn to appreciate it for his commitment to it, but ignore it past that.

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