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.
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.
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.