Gary Sanchez Doesn’t Need to Be Normal to Be Great

Who Says Catchers Can't Rake?

Gary Sanchez’s career, to say the least, has been just as unusual as it has been unpredictable.

It truly began in 2016*, when the relatively unheralded 23-year-old exploded onto the scene with an overall slash line of .299/.376/.468 that was 70 percent better than the MLB average by wRC+ (*Sanchez recorded two insignificant plate appearances in 2015). Both his 20 home runs and 3.2 fWAR led all American League rookies. Oh, and he did this in 53 games–less than a third of the entire season. He was consistently rated as the Yankees’ third-best prospect that year, but with the fairly pedestrian 50 FV prospect grade assigned to him by Baseball Prospectus, it is safe to say that no one saw this coming from the quiet Dominican backstop.

2017 wasn’t as spectacular (well, anything short of an MVP season would have paled in comparison), but Sanchez’s first full campaign proved that his electric maiden voyage wasn’t a fluke. Working around an early-season biceps injury, Sanchez suited up for 122 total games, and although he came nowhere close to prorating his stupefying 2016, his bat once again set the tone for Major League backstops, authoring a triple slash of .278/.345/.531 (AVG/OBP/SLG). In a year that his positional peers produced runs at a rate 11% worse than league average, Sanchez was 29% better, proving to be a special player who could handle his duties behind the plate while also swinging it better than all but the very best of the world’s hitters.

At the same time, however, given that Sanchez’s 2017 wasn’t as perfect as his inaugural first sixty-plus days in the bigs, Yankee fans and detractors alike were quick to point out flaws in the slugger’s game. Sanchez’s pitch blocking, for one, has never been especially great and likely never will be. No matter how you look at it, leading the league in passed balls over a two-year span while only playing in 211 total games isn’t what you want. The issue unraveled so quickly that then-Yankees skipper Joe Girardi even called Sanchez out publicly (which, by the way, is rumored to have contributed to Girardi’s subsequent termination). Also unfavorable is the stigma of being a player who doesn’t hustle and is poorly conditioned, a narrative that began in whispers in 2017.

Along with the passed balls, these two anti-Sanchez theses served as eerie harbingers of things to come in the following season. Although the then-25-year-old was able to still post an fWAR and bWAR of 1.7 and 1.2, respectively, across little over half a season, all of Sanchez’s ghosts came to the national forefront. Not only did his blocking remain poor, but suddenly his signature offense began to trend in the wrong direction as well. Although his power and plate discipline either stayed intact or improved, the Baby Bomber suddenly couldn’t record a base hit for his life. Thanks to then-career-highs in strikeout rate and popup rate and career lows in hard-hit percentage and batting average on balls in play, Sanchez concluded the season with a .186 batting average that now stands as the worst in New York Yankees history.

Then there was the Tampa Bay Fiasco. During a late-July game against the Rays, Sanchez first allowed a Rays baserunner score from second base on a passed ball. Then, with the bases loaded and two outs in the 9th, Sanchez waited too long to hustle on a potential error on the Tampa Bay shortstop that could’ve tied the game. It was clear that Sanchez was rushed back from the injury, but baseball fans and talking heads across the country grilled him for being, essentially, ‘fat and lazy.’ Sanchez was sent back to the DL for the same injury from which he had just returned and didn’t make it back again until September, a month that did nothing to reverse the narrative tsunami that was already crashing upon his metaphorical city of credibility.

Needless to say, expectations weren’t nearly as high heading into 2019 for the man Brian Cashman once famously dubbed ‘The Kraken.’ In fact, with the way Sanchez’s season started, many were already claiming him to be the same player that trudged through last year while clearly not being ‘right.’ Despite getting off to a hot start through the season’s first two weeks (which included a 3-homer game at Baltimore), many anti-Sanchez stans were quick to claim victory when the powerful catcher went back onto the IL with a left calf strain. To them, Sanchez hadn’t made enough adjustments from the previous year when he got under the ball too much and didn’t care enough about defense and “just putting the ball in play.”

Now that Sanchez is back and we’ve had even more time to watch the newest version of ‘El Gary,’ however, it’s as clear as day that these Kraken haters don’t have the case that they think they do. Instead of listening to those critics and altering his prior approach, Sanchez decided to trust himself and the elite Yankees analytics team by actually doubling down on his 2018 gameplan.

To assess his decision, all you need to do is take a look at Gary Sanchez’s Baseball Savant Player page that reveals that his old gameplan has indeed been wildly successful. Choose any metric; odds are, Sanchez is at or near the top (through May 15, minimum 60 batted balls / 100 PA):

MetricValue (Rank)
Barrels per Plate Appearance 19% (1st)
Barrels per Batted Ball 30% (1st)
Average Exit Velocity 95.3 mph (3rd)
Average Exit Velocity (Fly Balls / Line Drives)101.2 (2nd)
Expected wOBA.481 (2nd)
Expected AVG .302 (21st)
Expected Slugging .796(!!) (1st)

Conclusion: If you thought Sanchez was already destroying baseballs, he just took it up about five notches. The astonishing part? Sanchez has done this, after allegedly a year of too many popouts and strikeouts, by aiming higher and whiffing more! His Zone Contact and Chase Contact rates have both dropped, from 82%-80% and 53%-49% respectively (contributing to a new career high in strikeout rate at 26.2%), and his launch angle has rocketed from 14 degrees to 25 degrees! What has this done to his hit distribution? Well, before this season, Sanchez hit about 45% of his batted balls into the ground. This year? Only 20%. Why does this make sense? Take a look at the splits.

Sanchez Slash Line on…AVG/OBP/SLG, wRC+
Grounders: 195/.195/.207, -1 wRC+
Fly Balls: .347/.342/.1.156, 288 wRC+
Line Drives: .706/.692/1.000, 366 wRC+

Most Major Leaguers know that they should generally look to get the ball in the air more, but very very few have ever been able to transition to such an extreme batted ball profile as seamlessly as Sanchez has this year.

Now, you might be wondering whether Sanchez’s defensive regression negates any or all of this offensive progress. Short answer? No. For one, both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference believe that Sanchez is playing at an MVP-level pace, even with the defensive warts that have only become more obvious this year, including bad blocking, below-average framing (12-percentile per Baseball Savant), and surprisingly for Sanchez, bad throwing, with a Caught Stealing Rate nearly 20 points below his career average (15% in ‘19 versus a career of 34%). Altogether, he has already accumulated an eye-catching 7 errors through 26 games.

All in all, taking one step back in the field to take four steps forward at the plate is a deal that I’d take all day, and something Sanchez and GM Brian Cashman surely would take as well. Because he ignored the outside noise and trusted himself and those in his corner, Sanchez is now well positioned to compose one of the greatest-hitting catcher seasons of all time. As a matter of fact, Derek Carty’s THE BAT projection system expects him to best the American League catcher home run record of 35 while only playing 90 more games this year!

Although it’s often said of many players, the sky is truly the limit for Sanchez, and if he continues producing in the unique way that he has, he will pave the way for a whole generation of players like him who have been underestimated and disregarded just because they don’t look, act, or play like the marquee backstops that many fans grew up enjoying. Hopefully for the New York Yankees and the game of baseball itself, the Kraken will continue ambushing visiting vessels for the foreseeable future.

Featured Photo: Arturo Pardavila III via Flickr.

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