Finding A Silver Lining
By Andy Singer
Photo Courtesy of Adam Hunger, AP
Yankee fans have a right to be upset about the way the team has played in recent days. The Yankees got swept by the Rays in convincing fashion, only to watch as their ace got smacked around in game 1 of a doubleheader while the bats disappeared in game 2 of a day-night sweep at the hands of the Braves. Half of the team is hurt, and the roster that’s left has been largely ineffective. So much feels like it’s going wrong that it can be hard to recognize positive developments even when they are right there in front of our faces.
No Yankee has been more maligned in 2020 than Gary Sanchez. His struggles to begin the season have been noted far and wide, and many people are ready to give up on him entirely. Among writers on the internet, I freely admit that I am probably the one most likely to be voted the president and only member of the Gary Sanchez Fan Club. Even I have been forced to pause and re-evaluate my opinions of Gary Sanchez’s play based on the first few weeks of the 2020 season. I recommended that everyone needed to take a deep breath in a post earlier this week, and now that I’ve taken mine, I’m back on the Gary Sanchez train.
In that same post earlier this week, I noted that the Yankees, as a team, were actually relatively disciplined at the plate despite high strikeout rates when evaluating the plate discipline stats available through Statcast. Gary Sanchez is likely the Yankee who is most often panned for his plate discipline, and while his chase rates have always been above league average, he rated as one of the more passive Yankees at the plate since the start of the 2019 season. Through the end of the Rays’ series last week, just 43.6% of pitches Sanchez has seen have been in the strike zone, well below the 48.4% league average zone rate. His swing rate on balls in the zone has been just 58.9%, again well below the 66.1% league average swing rate on balls in the strike zone. Most egregiously, Sanchez has seen an above-average percentage of meatball pitches this season, but he has swung at these pitches 16% below the league average rate. I argued that Sanchez actually was too passive at the plate, and could stand to be more aggressive on the first pitch of plate appearances, when pitchers are more likely to throw strikes (particularly given their propensity to throw balls out of the strike zone to Sanchez), and thus leave meatball pitches out there for Sanchez to smash.
Fast-forward to Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Braves. In the first game, Sanchez didn’t have much of a chance to put a more aggressive mindset into play. In all 3 at-bats, the first pitch was either on the black inside or way out of the strike zone. Game 2 however, gave Sanchez a chance to put a more aggressive at-bat together. Sanchez pinch-hit for Erik Kratz with 2 outs in the 7th inning against Mark Melancon, a relief pitcher who leads with his cutter. On the first pitch, Melancon did his job, throwing a 93 MPH cutter on the outside black. See the location from the catcher’s perspective:
A Cutter on the Outside Black. Map Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
You’ll note that the green dot stands for a ball in play. Well, Sanchez swung at the first pitch, getting great extension while sending a 108 MPH rocket 304 feet into CF for a single to keep the inning alive. Given, Sanchez was pinch-hitting, and hitters are likely to either be overly passive or overly aggressive in situations like that, but given Sanchez’s natural inclination to passivity, I am immensely pleased to see a swing on a pitch like this. This is the exact prescription I have for Sanchez at the plate to combat the way pitchers are working him in 2020, and it worked to perfection in his most recent at-bat.
Obviously, this is a non-sample size. However, it is a microcosm of a strategy that I think will serve Sanchez well moving forward. That at-bat could very well be a sign of things to come. Despite some early season struggles, there are other signs that show that Sanchez could already be snapping out of his offensive slump. When Sanchez puts a ball in play, he is averaging 92.6 MPH (top 9% in the league) with a 50% hard hit rate. More importantly, Sanchez owns a .928 OPS over the last 14 days, showing that his recent performance is leaps and bounds ahead of his early season performance. Added aggression early in the count could be the key to unleashing Gary’s full potential at the plate, and as last May and June showed, Sanchez is one of the best hitters in the league when he gets hot. I’m ready to see Gary swing at more first pitches this weekend against the Mets.