Everyone’s favorite catcher, Gary Sánchez [2021 Season Review]

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No Yankee garners (mostly negative) attention like backstop Gary Sánchez. He’s been the team’s full-time catcher since the second half of 2016, and from that time and through the 2017 season, he looked like a lock to be one of the best catchers in the majors for years to come. Instead, Sánchez has regressed. His bat, which was his calling card and earned him the nickname The Kraken, has been league-average since 2018 (99 wRC+), albeit better than your typical catcher (89 wRC+). Sánchez’s defense has never been anything to write home about, but it was easier to overlook when he was raking early in his career.

The hot start to Sánchez’s career surely poisoned the well among Yankees fans. He set the bar so incredibly high, at least offensively, and now it’s difficult to recognize that he’s still better at hitting than the typical catcher. There’s no denying his poor glovework, however. Ultimately, some fans have wished for Gary’s departure for the past three or four seasons, and this offseason, they may finally get their wish after a pretty awful finish to the 2021 season.

A great month helps, but he remains wildly inconsistent offensively

When the calendar turned to July, Sánchez had a stat line that made it seem like he was back. He penned a .238/.347/.495 (128 wRC+) triple-slash in the first three months of the season, including 14 homers, a strong 13.1 percent walk rate, and a reasonable 26.3 percent strikeout rate in 236 plate appearances.

It seemed like maybe — just maybe — some semblance of the old Kraken had returned. But in reality, with the full season now behind us, it’s clear that wasn’t the case. June, and June alone, propped up Sánchez’s numbers significantly.

  • June (94 PA): .289/.372/.663, 8 HR, 11.7 BB%, 26.6 K%
  • Other months (346 PA): .180/.289/.357, 15 HR, 13.7 BB%, 32.0 K%

Obviously, one month doesn’t make a season. Sánchez was not good in the other portions of the year, albeit more so in the second half. Before his June tear, Sánchez had a 99 wRC+. That’s actually not bad, considering that the league average catcher posted an 89 wRC+ this season. But after that June hot stretch, he finished the year with a 67 wRC+ from July onward. Oof.

At the same time, we can’t just take June away from him. June was not a very good month for the Bombers (12-14), but if not for Sánchez’s torrid stretch during which he led the team in WPA, perhaps the Yankees miss the playoffs. Of course, there are always a bunch of “what ifs” for any team’s season, but the point is: those games do count and matter.

Is he homer happy?

Why can’t Sánchez be more like the guy he was in June frequently, though? And I don’t mean a consistently 1.000 OPS guy, but rather, why can’t he tap into his ability to at least be an .800 OPS hitter more steadily? We know that he hits the ball very, very hard. He’s lit up Statcast leaderboards for hard hit rates, barrel rates, and exit velocity over the years. And this season, he even made some strides in terms of chase rate (now 65th percentile), whereas that was always one of his weak spots historically.

One of my theories about Sánchez’s maddening offensive performance is his ever-climbing launch angle. His early career onslaught coincided with fewer fly balls and pop ups along with more grounders and liners.

As a guy who crushes the ball in terms of exit velocities, more lift can help generate more extra base hits. But at the same time, it’s not like he was a ground ball machine or not hitting for power in those early seasons. He still lifted the ball aplenty. And as you can imagine, hard hit balls at lower launch angles are less likely to be caught by defenders because there’s less hangtime to track it down. As such, Gary has seen his Under percentage consistently climb since his debut:

Essentially, under batted balls are balls that are popped up or routine fly balls. These are the easiest outs for fielders to record. MLB hitters had a .070 batting average with this contact quality in 2021. Gary went 4-for-84 (.048). It’s no wonder that his batting average has suffered over the years as his under rate climbs. Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about:

https://videopress.com/v/GucNZ45j?resizeToParent=true&cover=true&preloadContent=metadata

His frustration is evident once the ball leaves the bat. He could have done a much better job against that pitch. There are many more examples of routine flyouts like this that may have had a better result if he was able to get a tad more on top of the ball.

Maybe there’s a way for him square up the baseball going forward. Perhaps the new hitting coach(es) can help him get there. We’ve seen it before, albeit a few years ago now. Whether or not his swing is salvageable remains to be seen.

His defense isn’t coming around

The Yankees hired Tanner Swanson after the 2019 season to be the team’s catcher coordinator. At the time, there was some hope that he’d get the best out of Sánchez defensively. After all, it’s not like Sánchez didn’t have the tools to at least be tolerable defensively. He’s always had a cannon for an arm, and in the minors, he was typically a good framer.

However, in the majors, Sánchez’s difficulty to keep balls in front of him has been a sore spot. It’s the easiest thing for the average fan to see on a daily basis, and as such, where he gets ridiculed the most. Analytically, we know that other things like framing are much more important than blocking, but it’s very hard to see that with the naked eye. With Swanson, Sánchez’s framing was supposed to get better after taking a big step back from 2018 to 2019.

Below are Sánchez’s ranks among MLB catchers during the Aaron Boone era per Baseball Prospectus’s catching metrics (they have the best publicly available catcher stats). Note that all seasons require a minimum of 8,000 pitches received, except for 2020 when I reduced it to 3,000.

Metric2018201920202021
FRAA26/4232/3930/4031/38
Framing13/4229/3926/4028/38
Blocking41/4225/3933/4037/38
Throwing35/424/3940/4034/38

Not good! And this year, across the board, was arguably the worst of them all.

While blocking hasn’t been a big concern for the organization given Swanson’s emphasis on the one knee down stance, we haven’t seen the benefits of it helping Sánchez’s framing. The same goes for Statcast’s framing metric, which has Gary at -14 runs since 2019 (he was positive 4 runs in 2018).

To make matters worse, there were some mistakes this season that were inexcusable on Sánchez’s part. I think the following video sticks out for everyone:

At this point of his career, it’s hard to imagine Sánchez becoming adequate defensively. As I wrote earlier, it was easy to tolerate his shortcomings a few years ago when he was a young backstop who tore it up with the bat. Now, he’s a veteran who hasn’t improved behind the dish and has seen his offense regress substantially.

What’s next?

There’s a chance that Sánchez will be in a different uniform next season, though as I wrote previously, it won’t be easy to find an upgrade. Since writing that post and in writing today’s review, I think I’ve soured a bit more on Sánchez. That said, I still believe in the premise that it will be hard to improve catcher on a whole.

Contractually, Sánchez will be in his final season of team control in 2022 and has an arbitration award projection of $7.9 million. I highly doubt the team non-tenders him, even if that amount sounds steep given his performance. A trade is more likely than a straight non-tender. But again, even below average catchers are hard to find. Gary just posted 2.0 WARP in 2021, even as rough as his season looked.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sánchez back not only in 2022, but also thereafter. The catching prospects in the system are still a few years away, and it’s not like they are without their own defensive warts. And if we’re being optimistic, perhaps the new hitting coach(es) can help Gary square up the ball better as I suggested.

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4 Comments

  1. Here’s my not-so-bold prediction for Sanchez this year.

    Reports will come through over the winter that he’s been doing some new workout routine to increase mobility, he’ll come into ST feeling like he did in 2016, have a decent ST, I’ll get excited that this is the year and then by May he’ll be hitting .135 or something and I’ll be sad all over again.

  2. MikeD

    The main hope, if he remains, is the new hitting coaches might stress a different approach that enables him to return to his peak self the first few seasons. It didn’t escape my attention that Marcus Thames, right as he was exiting, suggested the MLB coaches weren’t in synch with what the minor league coaches were doing related to analytics and approach. Very weird if so.

    One conclusion is unavoidable. Once he arrived in the majors, his offense AND defense backtracked. He actually had much better framing numbers upon his arrival. He certainly was a more impactful hitter. I do believe better days are ahead for Sanchez, but it may not happen until he’s in another team’s uniform.

    Tucker Barnhard is no longer an option. Not sure he was to begin with. If the Yankees replace Sanchez, it will be with a surprise move, something not yet discussed. I doubt the Yankees goal is to replace Sanchez with a .170-hitting catcher with decent catching stats. They’ll aim higher.

  3. Jim

    Tigers To Acquire Tucker Barnhart From Reds

  4. Anthony Rizzeddardo

    He ain’t my favorite catcher, Derek. I just heard that Tom Friedman is working on his next book Fat, Dumb and Lazy and the subject of the book is Gary Sanchez. We need to move on from him. He’s just not a major league catcher. Maybe another club can fix his swing and turn him into a part time 1B with the majority of his playing time coming at DH. Look at the Braves Travis d’Aarnaud. Not a single ball got past him the entire postseason. He was a rock for that pitching staff. He’s not the greatest hitter but he contributed with the occasional dinger. That’s what I’d like to see in our next catcher. He doesn’t have to hit 50 home runs a year but just be solid defensively, handle the entire pitching staff well and hit above .220. Is that too much to ask? 40% of the rotation didn’t like pitching to Gary and I venture to guess the other 60% wasn’t too thrilled either. He doesn’t block anything, he doesn’t game plan well and he’s hard to communicate with. The Gary lovers on this blog like to cite his WAR and his VORP and his BEEP and his BOP but none of that crap matters. The catcher is the quarterback of the ballclub and we need a better leader at that position if we want to make it back to prominence. And we saw that with the clubs that went deep in the postseason.

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