2020 Season Preview: Gary Sanchez
Photo Courtesy of Jim McIsaac, Getty Images
To me, it seems like just yesterday that Gary Sanchez exploded onto the Yankee scene as “The Kraken,” obliterating baseballs in truly Ruthian fashion while using his plus-plus arm to zing balls around the diamond. While the end of the 2016 season may feel like it was yesterday, 2020 will mark Sanchez’s 4th full season as a Major League regular. Since 2017, Gary Sanchez has evolved into one of the most divisive regulars on the roster. Sanchez has faced an enormous amount of public criticism of his play behind the plate since the surprise run up to the playoffs in 2017, particularly surrounding his ability to block the baseball. Additionally, Sanchez has struggled with injuries and occasionally even under-performance at the plate in the years since he took the baseball world by storm in 2016. While last year represented a bounce-back of sorts from Sanchez’s relatively poor 2018 season, issues remain, making the 2020 season an important year for Sanchez and the Yankees. As strange as it feels to say, 2020 could alter the trajectory of both Sanchez’s career and the Yankees’ direction at catcher.
It’s not exactly a secret that catcher is the most physically demanding position on the diamond, and Sanchez has been susceptible to the types of freak injuries that occur to catchers throughout the course of a long season. Foul balls to the face mask, foul tips to various digits, and muscle pulls have all made their mark to every season Sanchez has played as the Yankee starting catcher. However, a startling trend emerged in 2018 and 2019 for Gary Sanchez. Sanchez has proven to be highly susceptible to groin pulls. In terms of publicly available injury information, we know that Sanchez has been on the shelf 5 times since 2018 with a variety of groin strains and pulls, landing on the Injured List for those injuries 3 times over that time span. Add that to the standard nicks that occur throughout the season when you are a catcher, and Sanchez has played in just 195 out of a possible 324 regular season games since the 2018 season.
From a high-level perspective, Sanchez put together a solid, above-average season at catcher for the Yankees last season. Here are Sanchez’s raw numbers at the plate:
Gary Sanchez’s 2019 Stats (Click to Enlarge)
A few things stand out here. For one, Sanchez displayed an enormous amount of power, in fact as much as he has shown since his 2016 debut. Admittedly, 2019 was the year of the gopher ball, but Sanchez’s power was elite even when compared to his peers at catcher. Sanchez’s .293 ISO ranked 2nd among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances. In terms of total value at the plate, Sanchez was well above-average even with his below-average contact numbers, as his power and ability to draw walks buoyed his offensive production. While Sanchez is divisive defensively (we’ll get to that in a minute, I promise), both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs’ calculations of Wins Above Replacement credit Sanchez as being a top-10 catcher despite missing a large chunk of the season due to injuries. In fact, if you prorate Sanchez’s total value over a realistic complement of plate appearances for a catcher (say, 600 plate appearances), it is likely that Sanchez’s numbers last season would have been enough to make him a top-5 MLB catcher.
However, that is not the whole story offensively. There were large stretches of last season where Sanchez was as locked in as any hitter in baseball. Check out Sanchez’s month-by-month offensive production, courtesy of Baseball Reference:
Gary Sanchez Month-By-Month Offensive Production, Courtesy of Baseball Reference (Click to Enlarge)
From March through June, Gary Sanchez was a monster at the plate, particularly in May when he achieved an OPS of .979. Sanchez was 55% better than the league average during this month, and he was generally excellent at the plate throughout the season. However, it is clear that Sanchez was horrendous in July, and also had periods of struggle in June and September/October. The reason is fairly clear: injuries. Sanchez was forced to the shelf officially in July and September for groin strains, but there were whispers of soreness prior to that in both cases. Players never like to use injuries as an excuse, and it is true that Sanchez has some streaky tendencies to his game at the plate, but his periods of under-performance at the plate last year all surround lower body injuries.
Overall, Sanchez was a good player at the plate, and his underlying numbers at the plate are no different. According to Statcast, Sanchez’s Exit Velocity was in the 84th percentile, while his xwOBA and xSLG were both among the best in the league as well. Following a trend throughout his career, Sanchez’s groundball rate continued to decrease, while he produced the highest launch angle of his career at 19.1 degrees, according to Statcast. Check out the launch angle distribution:
Gary Sanchez Launch Angle Distribution, Courtesy of Baseball Savant
The majority of Sanchez’s hits are between 10-20 degrees of launch angle, which isn’t terribly surprising, but it is a positive development to see that the majority of his batted balls are between 10-35 degrees. With Sanchez’s proven ability to impact the baseball better than most hitters, even his batted balls that didn’t go for hits were right in the proper launch angle range for power. This bodes well for Sanchez moving forward. Sanchez’s 26.4% HR/FB rate was the highest of any full season in his career, and based on the chart above, the performance does not seem fluky.
If there is one area of improvement we can look at for Sanchez (beyond contact rates), it’s in his propensity to swing at meatballs, or middle-middle pitches. Sanchez swung at just 61.5% of meatball pitches according to Statcast, well below the league average of 75.1%. To be fair, Sanchez sees less meatball pitches than the average hitter, but that’s all the more reason for Sanchez to do damage when he gets pitches like that. I would look for Sanchez to improve on those numbers in 2020.
Defensively, Sanchez was a consensus net negative value for the first time in his career in 2019. Sanchez has always received mixed reviews defensively, but there were numerous metrics that have traditionally favored him. Sanchez’s arm has always received high marks, and that continued in 2019. Sanchez maintained elite pop times (86th percentile, according to Statcast) and his throws averaged 87.7 MPH. That’s pretty much it in the “good” department.
The Yankees wanted Sanchez to emphasize blocking the baseball in 2019, and the effort was a failure by large measure. While Sanchez improved at blocking the ball, most metrics still indicate that Sanchez was still slightly below-average at blocking the baseball. Unfortunately, there appeared to be a direct inverse relationship between Sanchez’s attempts to improve at blocking the baseball and his ability to frame strikes.
Framing metrics are all over the place, but both Fangraphs and Statcast had been relatively favorable with regards to Sanchez’s ability to frame strikes prior to 2019. However, no publicly available metrics indicate that Sanchez was a good framer last season. In fact, Sanchez was worth -4 runs via Statcast, and -6.7 runs via Fangraphs’ metrics. An adjustment certainly appears in order.
What’s New: The New Stance
Much has been written about the new stance that new catching coordinator, Tanner Swanson, wants Sanchez to use behind the plate without runners on base this season. The idea is multi-fold. For one, Swanson saw another large-bodied catcher, Mitch Garver, thrive behind the plate last season when Swanson altered his stance in the same fashion. The stance is built to allow the catcher to block balls in the dirt, while also improving their ability to quiet their hands when receiving low pitches. This would help Sanchez significantly. Check out the below chart:
Gary Sanchez Framing Map, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Sanchez has traditionally struggled to frame balls low in the zone, and it is an area of the zone that can be framed easily with a change to mechanics. The Yankees hope that a new stance can help Sanchez improve his value as a framer while not losing any of the marginal gains Sanchez made at blocking the ball last season.
More speculatively, this stance seeks to put less pressure on Sanchez’s troublesome groin muscles. Sanchez’s statistics across the board have likely suffered due to lower body injuries the last few years, so it is likely that the Yankees are hoping the new stance will keep Sanchez in the lineup with greater frequency while allowing him to be closer to his peak effectiveness when he’s in the lineup. As the previous stats showed, Sanchez is one of the best hitters in baseball at the height of his powers, so we can all hope that this actually comes to pass in 2020.
Conclusion and Predictions
I think Yankee fans were reminded of just how good Sanchez can be last season in April and May last season. If Sanchez can maintain even average performance defensively while staying healthy, Sanchez may finally put up an MVP season. Now is the time of year to be bold: I think Sanchez is close to putting together all of the pieces if he can stay healthy. I think that the new catching stance will allow him to do just that, and I think that Gary Sanchez will be the best position player on the Yankees in 2020.
At this time, we have no idea how many games the MLB season will be this year, but I think Sanchez will approach average value defensively, stay healthy, and mash at the plate. In totality, I predict that Sanchez will place in the top-5 in MVP voting. This is the year the Kraken is fully released.