One of biggest positives from the Yankees 2017 season was that Gary Sanchez solidified his status as one of the very best hitting catchers in the game. Sanchez year was naturally somewhat overshadowed by the extraordinary year enjoyed by fellow Baby Bomber Aaron Judge, but without Sanchez, the Yankees would have been a very different team. Sanchez ended the year hitting .278/.345/.531. His 126 OPS+ was the highest of any starting catcher in the big leagues. A catcher who can hit that well is of enormous value to any team.
Sanchez hits very well for a catcher, but his defense at a position that is almost always a defense first one, is a bit more complex. Sanchez is not a bad defensive catcher, but he is a stark, and sometimes very frustrating, combination of defensive strengths and weaknesses. Sanchez possesses a very strong throwing arm. In is brief career, he has thrown out 39% of runners who have tried to steal on him, compared a league wide rate of 28%. Additionally, Sanchez’s catcher ERA last year was 3.43, .19 lower that the overall Yankee team ERA. This suggests that Sanchez is not a bad handler of pitchers either.
Sanchez’s major defensive flaw is that he does not catch the ball well. This is not minor problem given that the position he plays is called catcher. His league leading 16 passed balls in 2017 are only part of the problem. At least some of the Yankees 83 wild pitches last year, tied for third highest in the Major Leagues, were due to Sanchez poor work behind the plate. Additionally, if pitchers are not confident their catcher can hold on to a pitch that sinks, darts or cuts downward, they may be reluctant to throw that pitch in key situation. It is difficult to quantify the impact of that, but it the problems that can cause for a team are evident. In the ALCS this problem became worse as Sanchez was unable to hold on to several throws including one at an absolutely key moment in game two.
Sanchez’s problems catching the ball outweigh his strong throwing arm because the way baseball is played today there are fewer stolen bases than in previous eras. Last year, there were only sixty stolen base attempts when Sanchez was catching. He threw out 23 of those runners, but that is only seven more than a league average catcher would have thrown out. However, the numbers are probably slightly more significant than that because fewer runners test Sanchez’s arm that that of other catchers.
Because of the high profile defensive miscues by Sanchez in the post-season, there will be more scrutiny on his ability to catch baseballs in 2018. If Sanchez is unable to improve in that area, he may be forced to move to DH. This would be a real problem for the Yankees. First, it would turn what is now a major offensive plus, having Sanchez behind the plate, into at best a big question mark. Austin Romine has never hit and cannot be the full time catcher on a team that expects to play deep into the postseason. Additionally, none of their top 20 prospects are catchers, meaning that if Sanchez can no longer catch, the team will have a major hole to fill.
Sanchez may hit well enough to provide some real offensive value at DH, but good hitting DHs are much less valuable than equally good hitting catchers. If Sanchez became the full time DH due to his defensive shortcomings behind the plate, this would also limit the Yankees ability to rest other players by using them at DH and limit their overall roster flexibility. This means that for the Yankees one of the major things they need to do before the 2018 season starts is to work with Sanchez to fix this problem in his game so that he can remain their primary catcher. Sanchez needs to work at this throughout the postseason because for him the stakes are very high. A Gary Sanchez who fields his position to well enough be a full time catcher will be on more winning teams, an occasional MVP candidate and be much more highly compensated than Gary Sanchez the DH who will have have a shorter career as a good, but not great, DH.
Therefore it is imperative both that Sanchez get better at catching the ball and that he appears to be working hard at doing just that. It may sound strange at first but, Sanchez and the Yankees need a baseball and media approach between now and spring. If the story going into spring training is “Gary Sanchez worked all winter with Tony Pena to improve his defense,” Sanchez will be in much better shape than if the story is “the Yankees still have some concerns about Sanchez behind the plate.” A good media strategy, complete with Instragram posts of him working on his defense at a gym in mid-winter will help Sanchez generate the goodwill he needs from Yankee fans and the media when he inevitably makes a defensive blunder early in the season. The Yankees are a much better team with Gary Sanchez behind the plate. What Sanzhez does in the next five months will go a long way to determining whether the team can keep him there.
Photo: cc/ Arturo Padavila III