Gary Sánchez ushered in a new era for the Yankees. While Aaron Judge ultimately and deservedly became the face of the Baby Bombers, The Kraken is the one who excited many about the team’s future after a dreary few years. His unbelievable late summer performance in 2016 jump started what was expected to be a return to glory for this franchise.
In retrospect, Sánchez torrid start may have done him in over the long run. Posting a .299/.376/.657 (170 wRC+) batting line with 20 homers in merely 229 plate appearances as a 23 year old rookie was simply too high of a bar to set. Granted, he was pretty terrific offensively in ’17 (131 wRC+, 33 homers), his first full season as a the club’s backstop, but that was also the year folks really started to scrutinize Sánchez’s defense behind the plate. The easy explanation for what happened next is that things snowballed and the criticism and/or pressure got to him.
Sánchez’s glove was never great, but it was very easy to live with as long as he raked. He was a below average framer, and as you well know, he struggled to block pitches. His throwing arm was a saving grace, but in an analytically inclined era where stolen bases were devalued, he did not get to show it off all that often (though his throws were very fun to watch). All that said, I don’t remember anyone really caring about the defensive woes through his sophomore season in 2017. Sure, he allowed 16 passed balls during the regular season, but he also was the league’s leading catcher in wRC+ and home runs.
Then the postseason came around. Sánchez struggled, posting a .633 OPS, though he did have one huge moment that I will get to. But first, there was the ending of Game 2 of the ALCS in Houston.
Didi Gregorius’ relay throw wasn’t necessarily an easy pick, but also one that a catcher should handle in the context of the series. Had Sánchez caught it, a good tag gets José Altuve at the plate to preserve the tie. That play is etched in every Yankees fans memory, unfortunately. The scrutiny of Gary’s glovework only intensified from there.
Fortunately, Sánchez redeemed himself later in the series:
What a friggin’ moment, to say the least. Had the Astros not cheated, Gary would be considered one of the heroes of that series. Maybe his entire career goes in a different direction. That’s a big leap perhaps, but it’s hard not to wonder what could have happened sans trash can banging.
Following elimination in 2017, the Yankees moved on from Joe Girardi at the helm and inserted Aaron Boone. There were numerous reports that Girardi, along with coach Tony Peña, had difficulties with Sánchez. Whatever the case may have been, those reports didn’t cast a very good light on Sánchez.
I’ve seen some folks try to tie Girardi/Peña’s departure to Sánchez’s downturn post-2018, but to me, that’s a huge stretch. The coaching staff doesn’t swing the bat or squat behind the plate for a catcher, and ultimately, a good chunk responsibility lies on the player. Anyway, for whatever reason, Sánchez was dreadful in 2018. He hit .186/.291/.406 (90 wRC+) and spent 63 days on the injured list in two stints (both groin strains). He also allowed a career higher 18 passed balls.
Sánchez was oh so close to a postseason redemption in 2018. He blasted two homers and drove in four runs in Game 2 of the ALDS against Boston at Fenway Park, helping level that series at one a piece. And in Game 4, he just missed hitting a walkoff grand slam against Craig Kimbrel to force a Game 5. Instead, it was a sacrifice fly, and the Yankees were knocked out the very next batter. Alas.
The Kraken bounced back during the regular season in 2019, to an extent. While his .232/.316/.525 (116 wRC+) triple-slash wasn’t necessarily a thing of beauty, it was terrific for a catcher in the grand scheme of things. That said, a lot of that production came in June, when he posted a torrid 173 wRC+ and hit 8 dingers. His second half (78 wRC+) was quite dreadful. He also posted a rough .476 OPS in the playoffs. At least he only allowed 7 passed balls, a significant improvement.
Enter Tanner Swanson and the knee-down catching stance. The Yankees hired him from Minnesota after the 2019 campaign, and his work with Mitch Garver was lauded. There was hope Gary’s defense, particularly his lackluster framing, would improve.Embed from Getty Images
Obviously, 2020 was not a normal year, but yet again, Sánchez couldn’t find semblance of his 2016-2017 self, or even what he was a year before. He had a career worst .147/.253/.365 (69 wRC+) and lost playing time to Kyle Higashioka. Higgy became Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher, which was yet another ding against Sánchez. Then, he started just two of the team’s seven postseason games. Oof. The Yankees clearly lost faith in him, and not just because of the offense or Cole’s desire. His defense suffered too, with the new stance causing significant trouble blocking pitches. It seemed inevitable that the Yankees would part ways with Sánchez after the season, particularly after Higgy essentially took the reigns in the playoffs.
Yet, Gary was back in 2021, and it was a better campaign as a whole. Sánchez hit .204/.307/.423 (99 wRC+), which I understand looks ugly, but was undeniably better than your average big league catcher (89 wRC+). Still, he lost playing time to Higgy in spurts, including the continued battery mate situation with Cole. Moreover, Sánchez’s framing took a step back, which was yet another indication that the knee down stance simply wasn’t taking.
Before the lockout, it seemed like Sánchez would be back for one more season before hitting free agency. There were rumors that the team would non-tender him, but instead, they kept him aboard. And with no obvious upgrades available in free agency or trade, it seemed like he’d get one last stand in the Bronx. Instead, the Yankees dealt him to the Twins just a couple of days ago. It was an unceremonious end to a career in New York that once showed so much promise.
A lot of people are relieved that Sánchez is gone. Predictably, there have already been clickbait articles from certain media members who have quoted scouts saying that the pitching staff must have thrown a party. Go find it yourselves, I’m not linking to it. Sánchez was dragged through the mud in the Bronx, constantly had his techniques tweaked and adjusted, and simply was never going to be able to live up to his ridiculous 2016-2017 run. It was never fair to have those expectations, and ultimately, that may have been the death knell.
I know we defended Sánchez like hell on this blog. It wasn’t always easy, admittedly. His long stretches of ice cold offense and defensive struggles were incredibly frustrating. Still, it’s hard for me to believe that the Yankees are better off right now behind the plate without him. That said, I also think the Yankees did the right thing for The Kraken. A change of scenery could do him good, and if he has a big walk year, he’ll be in for a nice payday. I’ll be rooting for him from afar.
Thank you New York. Thank you to the Yankees organization, its front office, coaches and my ex-teammates. Thank you to the fans and Yankee Stadium employees. I take with me a part of you. And I hope I leave a a bit of me with you all, as well. Love you all. #iamgary— Gary Sanchez (@ElGarySanchez) March 15, 2022