What on earth happened to Gary Sánchez? [2020 Season Review]

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What a nightmare. Not only did Gary Sánchez have the worst season of his career, but he was also one of the worst players in the league in 2020’s 60 game sprint. His once potent bat vanished and his catching left a lot to be desired. By postseason’s end, he wasn’t even number one on the depth chart. Let’s try to sort out the mess that was Gary’s disappointing campaign.

Power, but almost nothing else offensively

There’s simply no way to sugar coat a batting line of .147/.253/.365 (69 wRC+). That’s what Sánchez did in 178 plate appearances this season. After showing so much potency with the bat in 2016, 2017, and even last year, this is now two out of the last three years where Gary has been downright bad offensively. Remember, he hit under the Mendoza line in 2018 as well, though he did muster a 91 wRC+ that season.

As dreadful as Sánchez was this season, he still hit for power and drew a decent amount of free passes. Sánchez hit 10 homers, posted a .218 isolated power, and recorded a 10.1 percent walk rate. The problem? He struck out 36 percent of plate appearances and had a .159 BABIP. Just terrible.

That strikeout rate was easily the highest of Gary’s career, with last year’s 28 percent mark the previous high. It’s actually a bit of an alarming trend, as he’s gone from 22.9 percent in 2017, 25.1 percent in ’18, 28 percent last year, and now 36 percent. Sure, Sánchez is still crushing the ball when he makes contact, as evidenced by the exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and barrel percentage marks. But the key phrase is when he makes contact, of course.

Perhaps most troubling is that Gary’s getting beat on fastballs a whole lot more than he used to. Pitchers exploited him by increasing fastball usage against the backstop by more than four percent year-over-year. By the way, his whiff rates against other pitch types are pretty high but nothing abnormal for him even when things are going good.

I don’t know if he’s lost bat speed or his mechanics are out of whack, but something’s really wrong with Gary at the plate (obviously). He shouldn’t struggle against fastballs, but here we are.

We have to talk about his defense

This is everyone’s favorite subject when it comes to Sánchez. In particular, folks love to pile on him when he surrenders a passed ball or wild pitch, which in fairness, he does allow more often than anyone would like. But aside from throwing, blocking pitches is the most apparent thing for an observer to see. What’s next to impossible to evaluate from the naked eye is framing.

We didn’t talk much about Sánchez’s blocking in 2019 because he took a big step forward. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

YearInnings CaughtWild PitchesPassed Balls
2017881.05316
2018653.04518
2019742.2307

Unfortunately, he took a step back this year and allowed 19 wild pitches and 5 passed balls in 321.2 innings. It’s quite possible that it’s related to adopting the one-knee stance promoted by new catching coach Tanner Swanson. The hope was the stance would help Gary’s (and all Yankees’ catchers) defense, particularly pitch framing. And it actually did per FanGraphs and Statcast.

Still, Gary wasn’t a plus-framer. He was below average per both FanGraphs’ and Statcast’s metrics, albeit slightly. He was much worse a year ago, so there was improvement. That said, it’s almost impossible for us to observe that improvement, so it’s easy for the overall takeaway to be that Gary regressed defensively.

I’m not going to argue against anyone who believes that Sánchez was worse all-around behind the dish. The framing metrics are a tad murky, and it’s not like he’s some elite framer per them anyway. There’s no question that pitch blocking was a real problem again. One thing’s for sure: if he hit like he was expected to, much less would be made about his glovework.

Gerrit Cole and the postseason

By season’s end, Sánchez no longer paired with Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole. Instead, Kyle Higashioka became Cole’s personal catcher from September through the playoffs. We all know that Cole’s numbers were far better with Higgy behind the plate, and considering Gary’s lack of offense, it was difficult to complain too much about the situation.

It turned into more than just a personal catcher thing, though. Gary started just two games in the playoffs, Higgy the other five. At least Sánchez had a couple of good offensive moments in Game 2 against Cleveland.

That homer against Triston McKenzie gave the Yankees an 8-6 lead in a wacky game and the sacrifice fly tied it against Brad Hand in the 9th.

Gary returned to the lineup for Game 2 against the Rays, but it was the final straw. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and didn’t hit again. He came in late in Game 5 after Mike Ford pinch hit for Higashioka, but Gary didn’t come to the plate.

What’s next?

Trading Sánchez seems more likely than ever, right? Still, the Yankees should proceed with caution if so. I just wrote about the dearth of catchers in baseball and the likelihood of finding a certain upgrade.

For what it’s worth, in his end of season press conference, Aaron Boone said that he liked Sánchez’s at-bats later in the season. That same day, Brian Cashman noted that Gary’s still extremely talented and that his numbers were better than they appeared, but that they do have to evaluate the position for 2021 because of the results.

If Gary stays, hopefully he can unleash the Kraken in 2021. Sure would behoove him as free agency comes closer. He’s under team control through 2022. Would help the Yankees a good deal too, of course.

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9 Comments

  1. Frankie Ho-Tep

    He beat the ball on the ground into the shift with teams shifting on him more than ever before combined with a very real struggle to make contact. The end.

    Oh, and he’s also a catcher. Catching and hitting are extremely difficult.

    Forget 2016. That player is gone. And that was before teams started shifting on him in earnest (37% in 2016 compared to 89% in 2020). He’s becoming more Mike Zunino-ish by the season. At this point, we (and the Yankees) have to hope he can be a passable defensive catcher while hitting ~30 home runs all while going weeks at a time looking absolutely lost at points during the season. That’s Gary Sanchez. Expecting or anticipating him to be more is foolish, in my opinion.

  2. The Sanchez problem. Drafting catcher the last couple of years should have told all of us that management did not think he was the long term answer for the position. Nonetheless, they removed all the hurdles, let Romine go, got Sanchez a personal coach and talked him up to the press.
    So here we are yet again, wondering what is wrong with Sanchez. Boone is part of the problem. After two years of happy talk, and being a “players manager” no one pays much attention to what he says, but Cashman was right on and now he has a problem.
    There is no money folks!
    Hal is not George. Hal has not a competitive bone in his body. He wants to be under the likely 210 cap for next year. Well, with the current salary commitments, that leaves 40 million. LeMahieu is a must sign, figure 20-25, have to resign Britton, now we have about 5 – 10 million left, lets go find a shortstop, a catcher, a #2 pitcher, not going to happen.
    So get ready for Sanchez, more drama about Andujar, Devi and Clark.
    I see maybe 3rd, could be 4th next year in the East after Tampa, Boston and maybe the Os.
    Seems the days of CBS ownership are on us once again. 🙁

  3. Let Gary & Higgy share catching duties in 2021 50/50 – it will be interesting to see how they match up.

  4. MikeD

    Frustrating. That’s the word to describe Gary. We know the talent level is so high that it’s unfathomable that he could hit .147. I doubt he lost bat speed at age 27. Likely a mechanics issue, coupled with pressing. He seemed caught between quite a bit. HIs batting approach is to always try to hit a HR, never adjusting, and pitchers make him pay. His .159 BABIP is unsustainably low. Remember, this was not a full season. Sanchez likely would have had one of his scorching hot streaks if we played 162.

    Regardless, the expectations on Sanchez from the beginning were very high, and he tantalized us with his explosive 2016 rookie season. Disappointment set in immediately when he was only very good in 2017, putting up a 131 wRC+, which crushing 33 HRs. And it’s easy to forget that in his most recent full season, 2019, he had a career high in HRs with 34, with a 116 wRC+. We’d love 2017 again, and we’d be happy with 2019.

    I simply no longer know what to expect from Sanchez, but I do know the talent is still in there. He needs to adjust to unlock his tremendous power more consistently. Trading him is pointless. You’ll get a low return for a player who a high ceiling and no replacement. Getting rid of him because fans are frustrated is not a sound baseball decision. I do think 2021 is his do-or-die season with the Yankees. And the next level of frustration will be watching Gary crank out 40 HRs for some other team not named the Yankees.

    I find funny, if not disturbing, that Girardi was the ‘tough love’ manager, and many thought that was holding Sanchez back. Well, Sanchez has his two worst seasons in the last three years under Kumbaya Manager Aaaron Boone.

    • CentralScrutinizer

      Sanchez can’t hide behind his low BABIP. That’s a result of striking out so many freaking times that he didn’t have enough hard-hit balls to make up for the ones that were turned into outs. Performing poorly and being (somewhat) unlucky are not mutually exclusive things. I’ll give him one more year to get his act together. It’ll be too bad if he’s traded or released and blossoms somewhere else but sometimes you have to accept that it’s not going to happen for a player in a specific organization. Is it partly the organization’s fault? Sure. But the organization is not going to be traded and plenty of other guys have reached their potential under the same circumstances.

    • John LaMarca

      I couldn’t agree more…. you said everything I was thinking. Nice job.

    • Frankie Ho-Tep

      The last thing I would call “unfathomable” would be Gary Sanchez hitting .147. He hit .186 two years ago! You want to say he would have inevitably gone on one of his “hot streaks?” Okay. But that’s ~550 PA of sub .200 hitting combined. The shift is destroying him, as per my separate comment on this thread. He’s not about to suddenly hit for average going forward.

      I personally think his approach SHOULD be to hit a home run. That’s literally the only thing he’s good at. He needs to hit the ball hard and in the air to have success. Unless he suddenly develops an all-fields approach to hitting, power is his calling card and he should use it as often as possible. It’s up to the Yankees to improve the margins and depth of their roster and maybe have a more balanced lineup. More guys like Urshela, Gleyber and hopefully DJLM making contact. That way when Gary hits .220 with 30 home runs and 32% K batting 9th in the order, we’ll all gladly accept it.

  5. Trading now would be selling really low. Bring him back next year, hope he picks up and then either keep him or trade him for a better return. Sanchez’s 69 wRC+ this season is still better than Kyle H’s career wRC+….

    • brian

      You trade Gary now, what are you getting back? The league knows exactly what he is at this point. A dude with huge power potential that we’ve seen, but somehow got lost at the plate. He’s in his prime age right now, but he’s also expensive for his production level. Even in his arb years, he was still like the 8th highest paid catcher and ranked 66th in fWAR this year among all catchers (SSS obviously an issue here, but still). Trading Gary would be a pure, transparent salary dump. You’re not getting anything back for him.

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