With the Yankees reaching the All-Star break, we’ll evaluate the team thus far, position by position, before play resumes. Yesterday, the rotation. Today, the catchers and DHs.
The 2019 Yankees have experienced a reversal at catcher and DH. After Gary Sanchez couldn’t hit amid an injury-plagued 2018, he’s turned back into one of the premier sluggers in the game.
Meanwhile, Giancarlo Stanton powered the Yankees in 2018 while taking many DH at-bats before ceding the spot this year to batters like Kendrys Morales and Edwin Encarnacion, neither of whom have lived up to their past power.
Let’s go player-by-player:
Gary Sanchez – B+
The Kraken has returned after a one-year hiatus to the Bronx. In 75 percent of the games, he’s already eclipsed his home run total from a year ago (18) with a team-high 24. Outside of a brief IL stint in April, he’s finally had a year of health after shoulder and groin injuries sapped at his talent in 2018.
Overall, he’s batting .245/.315/.556 (122 wRC+), one of the best marks among catchers. We’ve covered it before, but El Gary has done this by keeping the ball off the ground and hitting almost all of his balls in the air.
There are a couple question marks for him at the plate. First, he’s stopped drawing as many walks while his strikeouts have gone up. That’s fine — he’s selling out for more power — but seeing him be more selection would be encouraging. Second, he’s slumped recently with a rise in strikeouts and, as you can see in the top graph, a return to balls on the ground.
His defense appears to have taken a step back contrary to the heaping of praise from fans and analysts alike. How so? Well, he’s improved his blocking, though it’s likely to the detriment of his pitch framing, which has been near the worst in the game. He’s improved since I broke down his defense last month and has been worth +0.1 framing runs in that time vs. -6.8 runs in the first portion of the season.
Regardless of his defense, Sanchez’s turnaround plays a pivotal role in the Yankees’ AL East lead going into the break after facing a lengthening deficit a year ago.
Austin Romine – C-
Plenty of fans would give Romine an F for this season, and I can see why. After a career year in 2018, he’s regressed hard with a .231/.245/.315 batting line. He’s stopped walking almost entirely — he didn’t walk much before — and his power has evaporated, only hitting two so far this year.
So why a C- and not an F? Well, he’s provided defensive value. I hate saying this, but it’s the type that doesn’t show up in the stats. His arm is below-average and his framing is closer to average than Sanchez. Still, Romine manages a pitching staff well. Pitchers have been saying it for years and the Yankees wouldn’t keep around this below-average a hitter if he didn’t give that value. He seems to call a good game and the pitchers like him.
I don’t see the point in hating Romine. He’s the backup catcher. He’s going to give some mediocre — sometimes awful but sometimes clutch — at-bats once a week. With Sanchez killing the ball, Romine has seen less playing time and that figures to keep up if Gary stays healthy.
Romine is a free agent after this season and the Yankees will have an opportunity to upgrade. Still, I suspect he may be back in pinstripes considering how few players may want to enter a situation where they will play so little behind Sanchez. There’s value in Romine accepting his role.
Kyle Higashioka – N/A
Higgy has all of four games of playing time this year, hitting .200/.188/.333. The Yankees mostly stuck with Romine as the everyday catcher while Sanchez was out. Meanwhile, Higashioka has batted .257/.333/.566 with 13 dingers in Triple-A, often hitting in the middle of the order for Scranton Wilkes-Barre.
Since this is his third year on the 40-man roster while spending time in the Majors, I believe he’ll be out of options after this season. I’m don’t believe the Yankees can get a fourth option on him, but the rules with extra options evade me. Assuming he doesn’t get the extra option, the Yankees will have to decide whether they’ll keep him in the Majors as a backup catcher — made more possible with a 26-man roster — or find a new third catcher.
Kendrys Morales – F
It was a sad and short stint for Morales in pinstripes. The Cuban slugger came in with some promise after posting high exit velocities in Oakland despite poor numbers.
Morales homered in his second game with the Yankees and didn’t hit another ball out afterwards. In 19 games, he batted .177/.320/.242 and drove the ball into the ground consistently, unable to take advantage of his strength. He did show a tremendous eye — 12 walks to six strikeouts — but it wasn’t enough.
The 36-year-old was placed on the IL with a sprained ankle and was designated for assignment and subsequently released once healthy. Worth the flyer at the time, but he didn’t pan out.
Edwin Encarnacion – D
On June 15, Brian Cashman shocked many by acquiring Encarnacion, a DH added to a team full of power. All he cost was a little $$$ (less than Rays are paying him), a roster spot and a pitching prospect who hasn’t hit full season ball yet. Like Morales, worth the flyer.
But he’s surprisingly had just as little offense. He’s mustered four home runs, yet just a .123/.208/.338 batting line with 23 strikeouts in 72 PAs. That hasn’t come from him losing his batting eye. Instead, Matt detailed over the weekend how he’s swinging and missing more than ever at pitches in the zone.
Even without the production, he makes an impact with a fine glove as the backup first baseman and a staggering number of pitches seen, as he’s third in the game with 4.45 pitches per plate appearance. Still, if he’s going to hold Clint Frazier’s spot at DH, he needs to produce.
If the Yankees are going to maximize these two spots, Encarnacion and Sanchez need to get out of their respective slumps while Romine needs to play competent baseball, which he mostly does. He’s the backup, so please don’t get too aggrevated about his performance.
If Encarnacion continues to struggle, Frazier, Stanton or resting infielders can siphon his at-bats away. However, considering he was the AL’s top slugger just a month ago, Encarnacion likely has plenty of life left in his bat.