Let’s take it back for a moment. The year is 2016. The New York Yankees just did the unthinkable at the trade deadline: sold. The super-giant who hadn’t had a losing season in the Wild Card era (and still hasn’t) officially waved the white flag. With an eye geared toward the future, the team sent away Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran for four packages that brought back some big-time prospects, most notably Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres. For Yankees fans, we knew it was the right thing to do, but it still sucked knowing we weren’t going to watch our team make a playoff run. Or, at least we thought.
Enter Gary Sánchez. Sánchez’s path to the big leagues was an odd one. After signing as one of the top international free agents for $3 million in 2009, Sánchez was near the top of prospect boards throughout the league. Ranked as high as the 27th best prospect in baseball in 2013 by MLB.com, the expectations were sky-high for the catcher. Unfortunately, the results just weren’t there. As Sánchez’s growth seemed to come to a halt in Double-A, finding himself taken off completely of MLB.com’s top 100 prospect list in 2015, the catcher came to a cross roads. As he told Ryan Ruocco and CC Sabathia last week on R2C2, he saw players he had come up with getting the call to the big leagues and realized his focus had to change. Change it did, as Sánchez had a big 2015 that saw him earn a chance at the 2016 Yankees’ backup catcher job. While he lost out, it showed his day was coming.
While Sánchez had a couple of call ups in 2015 and 2016, it wasn’t until after the fire sale that Sánchez’s MLB career truly began. As noted earlier, when Sánchez was called up on August 3, fans were preparing for a boring final two months where they’d be able to just watch the growth of some of the Yankees top prospects like Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, and Tyler Austin. Unfortunately for fans, Judge and Austin didn’t get off to the best starts to their respective careers. It didn’t matter though, because the Yankees were still, somehow, winning some games. How? Gary Sánchez.
Sánchez came up in 2016 as a man possessed. In 52 games after his final call up, Sánchez hit to a .305/.382/.670 clip with 20 home runs and 170 wRC+, all the while playing solid defense behind the plate (CS% 12 points above league average, -0.5 FRM, 3 DRS) to a 3.1 fWAR. He almost single handedly kept the Yanks from snapping their amazing winning record streak, leading the team to a 84-78 record overall and a 31-25 record after his call-up, and earning second place in the Rookie of the Year voting (Michael Fulmer lol). It really seemed like the Yankees had a franchise catcher on their hands.
Little changed in 2017. Obviously, he wasn’t the 1.032 OPS monster from the prior year, but Sánchez still produced amazing numbers for a catcher. In 122 games, Sánchez hit 33 home runs on a .278/.345/.531 clip and a 131 wRC+ for a 4.3 fWAR. However, defense became a concern for the catcher. Sánchez allowed 16 passed balls and 52 wild pitches, as he just wasn’t able to block balls behind the plate. His framing wasn’t good either, as he had a -1.9 FRM to 0 DRS. Nonetheless, the team would take middling defense if it meant Sánchez would continue hitting like he had been to start his career.
He didn’t. Sánchez had a downright bad 2018 season. While his defense improved in some measures (2.6 FRM, 4 DRS), it took a hit in others (18 passed balls, 45 wild pitches in just 76 games). Sánchez fought injuries that limited him to just 89 games, but just couldn’t hit when healthy. His 1.7 fWAR with a .186/.291/.406 clip and a 90 wRC+ made fans question if he would ever live up to the expectations he’d put onto himself after his scorching start to his career.
2019 was somewhat a step in the right direction for Sanchez. While injuries again limited him to 106 games, he was still a productive hitter with a .232/.316/.525 slash line, 116 wRC+, and an astonishing 34 home runs, however his priorities defensively changed. Focusing on what fans killed him for in passed balls, Sánchez limited them to just seven for the year and 30 wild pitches. On the other hand, his focus on that saw a hit to his framing ability, as his FRM dropped 9.4 points to -6.8 and his DRS went down to -2, for a 2.3 fWAR. Sánchez was named to his second All-Star team this year, but it still wasn’t what fans were expecting from their supposed star.
Come, 2020. Ah, 2020. What a year. COVID-19 took over the world, baseball included. The MLB season was shortened to just 60 games, and one person that did not help was Gary Sánchez. Playing 49 of those 60 games, Sanchez hit just .147/.253/.365 for a 68 wRC+ and a -0.1 fWAR. His framing was better at -0.8, but his overall defensive play just took a hit (-4 DRS). Sánchez was so bad that he was benched for the majority of the playoffs in favor of Kyle Higashioka, and for the first time his career in pinstripes seemed to truly be in jeopardy. There were rumblings of the Yankees non-tendering him, which they eventually decided against.
There’s no other way to put it: Gary sucked last year. The past three years, Sánchez’s one solid year is sandwiched between two bad years at the plate. But I for one, am not ready to give up on him. Sánchez is 28 years-old, so I’m not going to act like he’s got time to take the next step – he doesn’t. The clock is ticking, and he’s nearing the point that his defensive game is going to begin to regress and he may have to make a positional shift. By then, if his bat hasn’t come around, he’s no longer a big league player. But I just think we’re overlooking how damn good this guy is. He’s the fastest catcher, American Leaguer, and second fastest player PERIOD to 100 home runs. He did it in 355 games, behind only Ryan Howard (325 games). Sanchez doens’t just have plus power, he has historic power. Now, 2021 is absolutely a make or break season, but I truly believe Gary is going to “make”.
Sánchez was horrible in 2020, but there were some underlying numbers that could bode well. Sanchez had a 50% hard-hit rate last year. Just an absolutely ridiculous number. His average exit velocity was the highest it’s been since 2016, and his walk rate was above his career average at 10.1%. The problem? He struck out 36% of the time. When he made contact, Sanchez could do elite things, he was just never hitting the damn baseball. His timing was just completely out of sync. Pitchers realized all they had to do was throw a pitch up in the strike zone, and Gary didn’t stand a chance. In the upper part of the zone, from left to right, Sánchez had a 54%-42%-42% whiff rate in the three parts of the strike zone, respectively. Against fastballs in the zone – a pitch he’d usually been able to mash in his career – Sanchez missed 27% of them. He just couldn’t catch up. Why? Well, as someone who doesn’t know hitting, I’m gonna quote from Trevor Plouffe’s Sequence episode on Jomboy Media, “Fixing Gary Sanchez’s swing”.
Plouffe believes Gary’s biggest issue is the timing on his stride. As he shows in the video, in 2020, Sánchez’s stride was hitting it’s highest point when the pitcher was already coming forward. This caused Sánchez to have to rush the rest of his swing, and completely shut his timing off. In years past, when Sánchez was having success, he was hitting that high point before the pitcher had begun moving his arm towards home plate.
So, fast forward to Opening Day 2021. Sánchez was fantastic. He went 2 for 3 with a walk at the plate, and his one out was a warning track fly out. Behind home plate, he gunned down a runner and had a fantastic day both framing and blocking pitches in the dirt. He was just great. So, let’s see: did he take Plouffe’s advice?
I tried my best to figure out the top point of his stride on his home run, and it’s somewhere around here. As you can see, Ryu’s arm has still not begun moving forward and is behind him. The pitch he hit out wasn’t one he should have any trouble taking care of – a 91 mph meatball down the heart of the plate – but it’s one he wasn’t able to get a hold of last season.
Timing is everything for Gary. Fans will complain he tries to pull the ball too much and doesn’t go with it enough – and I’m not gonna argue against that – but if he’s pulling 40 home runs I couldn’t care less when he goes the other way (he went opposite field more in 2020 than in 2016/17). He’s got ridiculous power and not horrible plate discipline such that, in the end, it’s just about getting the bat on the ball. If Gary’s timing is fixed, look out.
I don’t know what the future holds. But, I know that if Gary has actually made the necessary adjustments this year, MLB and even his own team’s fans may be in for a rude awakening that he should be in the conversation for the best catcher in baseball. This is a guy with historic power and one that fans should be excited for every time he digs in at home plate.
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