Gary Sánchez is arguably the most polarizing player on the Yankees. Since his breakout after being called up in 2016 he has had an up and down career, most recently having a very bad season in 2020.
My view on Sánchez is that 2021 is his year to either sink or swim. But despite the struggles I am optimistic about what Sánchez can do for the Yankees this year.
— YES Network (@YESNetwork) March 1, 2021
The first notion I hear a lot about Sánchez from many fans is that he has not been good since 2017. This is blatantly untrue. Sánchez had an .841 OPS with a 116 wRC+ and had the most home runs by a catcher at 34 in just 106 games played in 2019. That is undeniably a good season, especially when you consider what all of the other catchers around the league typically do.
I brought up 2019 because it shows that despite what many think, in the last 162 game baseball season Gary Sánchez was a good player. I know I did not address his defense yet, but bear with me because I will.
Now on to 2020, which was undeniably awful for Sánchez. He posted a career high strikeout rate at 36% and just looked like he was overwhelmed with the bat in his hands.
The big question is if this is a fixable problem. According to former MLB player Trevor Plouffe it is. In a show Plouffe hosts called The Sequence, he explained how Sánchez timing is off with his leg kick. He said what Sánchez has to do is start that leg kick earlier so he is not late getting to pitches like he was in 2020.
Here is the full explanation if you would like to see:
Now I want to get to some underlying stats from Sánchez’s 2020 season that show reasons to have hope for a bounce back season at the plate. Sánchez’s season was bad no matter how you look at it, but when he did make contact it was often hard contact, and when he made hard contact he was very unlucky in 2020.
Sánchez was in the 97th percentile in barreled ball percentage in 2020. A barreled ball is defined as a ball that is hit with a certain exit velocity and launch angle that in comparable situations has at least a .500 batting average and a 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast started keeping track in 2015.
To go along with this, Sánchez BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .159. The league average BABIP in 2020 was .292. This goes to show that despite the fact that when Sánchez made contact he hit the ball hard at a good rate, the actual results do not back that up.
This is not to say that every ball Sánchez hit hard was deserving of a hit, there were times when he got pull happy and hit right into the left side of the infield that had him played perfectly. When Sánchez is at his best, he often goes the other way and he did not do that enough in 2020.
But overall when a player has a BABIP that is over 130 batting average points below league average there is some bad luck that plays a part. Nearly every projection you can find has Sanchez’s BABIP being around 100 batting average points higher in 2021.
So when looking at all of these factors we have identified what is needed for Sánchez to have a resurgence with the bat in 2021. Really all he needs to do is get his timing right with his swing and hope for better BABIP in 2021. If that happens then Sánchez will be right back to being one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.
Knowing the nature of fans that are done with Sánchez, they have been waiting for me to address his defense. This might surprise some but I would argue that while his defense is not great, the issues are largely overstated.
Sánchez has positive ratings in Fangraphs’ Def stat in every season except for 2019 in which he had a -0.1 rating. If you go back to 2019 many will remember that Sánchez’s stance was changed to prioritize limiting passed balls, and it worked. He only had seven passed balls that year.
That was Sánchez’s worst rated year by the Def stat, but the one year he was not near the top of the league in passed balls. What does this tell me? Sánchez’s framing suffered in 2019 and the eye test is not a great way to evaluate catchers defensively.
Do I think Sánchez is a great defender? No. But I think the high amount of passed balls make it look worse to fans who do not look at defensive metrics. I get it, the passed balls are really hard to watch, but 18 passed balls over 162 games is not going to make a huge difference in the outcome of games.
There is more to catching, like pitch framing, which in Sánchez’s best defensive years he prioritized and is something he has to do in every inning he catches. There is also Sánchez’s cannon of an arm, which is clearly Sánchez’s greatest defensive attribute and shuts down the running game on the base paths. Even if Sánchez’s passed ball woes continue, as long as he has a resurgence at the plate those defensive problems are well worth dealing with.
What should fans take from all of this? They should know that while a Gary Sánchez resurgence season is not a guarantee, it is very possible in 2021. Give him a chance because the potential is too high to give up on. If he fails again this season, then it is fair to say he is not fit to be the Yankees catcher.
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images