Judge Says Sanchez Can Win AL MVP. Is this Realistic?
While Buster Posey was the last catcher to win an MVP award in 2012 and Joe Mauer was the last for the American League in 2009, the Yankees do have a history of catchers winning the MVP award. This past week, Aaron Judge said Gary Sanchez is the type of player who could win the award, but is that an obtainable title for the backstop?
Catchers and the MVP Awards:
Since the modern MVP award was realized in 1931 by the BBWAA, of the 181 MVP awards given out 18 (9.95%) of them have gone to players who were predominantly a catcher in the season they won the award. (We get the odd number because in 1979 there were co-NL MVP’s between Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez.) However, of these 18 awards 10 of them are split between just 4 players: Yogi Berra (3x), Roy Campenella (3x), Johnny Bench (2x), and Mickey Cochrane (2x), meaning there have been just 12 different catchers who have ever won an MVP award.
It is also important to look at the historical trend of catchers winning the MVP award as it has continued to (mostly) become more and more rare over time. Since the new millennium, just two catchers have one an MVP Award (Posey and Mauer) and even going back to 1980 adds just Ivan Rodriguez (1999) to that figure. This comes out to a 4.76% “chance” since 2000 and a 3.65% “chance” since 1980.
“Gary’s a guy that can win AL MVP.” – Aaron Judge, on Gary Sanchez — Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) March 7, 2021
The Projections for Gary Sanchez (2021):
Now that we have what seems to be a somewhat accurate measure of judging whether or not a catcher will win the MVP award under the current BBWAA voting system and current way that the game is played, let’s truly look into Gary Sanchez and his 2021 projections.
The nice thing is that we have plenty of different projections to look through for the 2021 season. But, there is very little promise to be found amongst them. To give a general picture, let’s look at Gary’s expected games played, plate appearances, his triple-slash and OPS, Home Runs, wRC+, and his expected WAR (if available).
Baseball Reference: 485 PA’s (~120 Games), .207/.301/.440 Triple-Slash (.741 OPS), 27 Home Runs
The Bat X: 97 Games, 387 PA’s, .226/.314/.480 (.794 OPS), 24 HR’s, 113 wRC+
The Bat: 97 Games, 387 PA’s, .222/.309/.460 (.769 OPS), 22 HR’s, 107 wRC+
ATC: 103 Games, 408 PA’s, .216/.304/.468 (.772 OPS), 25 HR’s, 106 wRC+
FGDC: 97 Games, 384 PA’s, .217/.305/.467 (.772 OPS), 24 HR’s, 100 wRC+, +1.3 fWAR
Steamer: 90 Games, 376 PA’s, .223/.311/.475 (.786 OPS), 23 HR’s, 103 wRC+, +1.6 fWAR
ZiPS: 111 Games, 448 PA’s, .212/.299/.460 (.759 OPS), 28 HR’s, 97 wRC+, +1.3 fWAR
From these numbers, there is a clear expectation for Gary Sanchez to be valuable on offense (remember, the average catcher has a wRC+ around 90), but setting MVP-level expectations is to stretch what should be expected a bit too far.
However, most of these projections seem to have Gary Sanchez playing in under 100 games of the 2021 season. While it would be unrealistic to imagine a catcher playing in all 162 games between catching and DH, let’s hypothetically give Gary a 135 game season. This beats his career high of 122 games played in 2017 (where he did get some down-ballot MVP votes) by a little bit, but if he was on an MVP pace the Yankees would likely want him playing in some capacity more often than not.
From here, keeping the rate metrics similar to what they currently show, we could paint this as the general (and a little bit improved from the predictions) picture for a full season from The Kraken:
135 Games, 550 PA’s, .225/.310/.480 (.790 OPS), 35 HR’s, 110 wRC+
With non-negative catching defense, and this coming out of the catching spot this could earn Gary some good MVP votes. He’d be the first catcher to hit 30+ Home Runs since he did so in 2017, though his batting average and sub-.500 slugging do bring his overall offensive value down. He would profile a lot like 2015 Todd Frazier (35 HR’s, .498 OPS, 116 wRC+) and Frazier didn’t receive any MVP votes.
I don’t think it is hard to say that I’m not a huge “Gary Sanchez” fan. I do think people buy into his raw power too much and try to over-justify his need for this team. They have plenty of guys who can hit for power and do so while providing much better offensive value, even positionally adjusted. It’s also hard to take something like this seriously when we wouldn’t consider defense as that is said to what cost Aaron Judge an MVP award in 2017 (for completely unjustifiable reasons).
I’m all for trying to believe in Gary Sanchez. I want him to do well, I want the Yankees to do well, and I’d love to see an MVP award come back to the good side of New York again.
However, all this comes from a non-MVP winner trying to predict the million-to-one odds on a fellow teammate. If I was to risk anything, I’d bet on Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Gerrit Cole, and Gleyber Torres to be far more likely to win an MVP going into 2021.