Never a Dull Moment: A Look at Gary Sanchez’s Decline in 2020 and What That Means for the Future
By Chris O’Connor, October 22, 2020
No one player sets off a lightning rod reaction among Yankees fans quite like Gary Sanchez – the perception of laziness when it comes to past balls, jogging to first base on ground outs, and numerous uncompetitive at bats clouds his immense talent. Sanchez debuted at length in 2016, and exploded out of the gate. That year he came in second in the Rookie of the Year voting despite playing only 53 games.
Sanchez followed up his rookie year with a very good 2017, but regressed significantly in 2018, had a solid 2019, and then tanked in 2020. He has obviously been a very streaky player over the course of his career and if the pattern persists, he could have a good 2021 year.
I wondered if the criticism of Sanchez matches his production. To answer this, I decided to take a closer look at the stats. Since 2016, the year Sanchez made his big league debut, he is tied for first among catchers with a 117 WRC+, meaning he has been seventeen percent better than the average hitter. For those that criticize his bat, it would be more useful to look at his last three years, since his torrid streak in 2016 was unsustainable and his terrific 2017 season looks way back in the rearview mirror. Since 2018, among catchers with at least 100 games played, Sanchez ranks 11th with a WRC+ of 98 which is a tad below the average big league hitter. These are overall very decent offensive numbers and, when considering that the Yankees have gotten this offense from the catcher position, they are even better.
Offensive performance in major league baseball is very relative. There is a reason that first basemen who can hit are perceived as less valuable than they once were thought to be. First base has historically been one of the best hitting positions. Pretty much every first basemen has to be an above average hitter to have any value, mostly because it is considered an easy defensive position where a team can just slide their worst defender to as long as he can hit. Corner outfielders are similar in this regard. Catcher, though, is the opposite. The catcher has historically been among the weaker positions from an offensive standpoint in part because of the prioritization of defense at this challenging position.
In 2020, catcher was the second worst hitting position across the league by OPS with .706 being slightly higher than the .694 of second base, baseball’s worst hitting position. Having a catcher who can hit at a league average pace, and one who has shown that he is capable of far better (and, to be fair, far worse), is more valuable to a team than one thinks. A catcher with a 117 WRC+, all other things equal, is more valuable than a first baseman or corner outfielder with the same. It is important to judge hitters not only in comparison to league averages but also on the positional component.
What do Sanchez’s advanced stats say, and how can they predict how he will hit in the future? When he makes contact, he hits it hard. Gary Sanchez is ranked (in a tie) for 34th in the league (with Nelson Cruz) in average exit velocity in 2020 at 91.6 mph. His hard hit rate (balls hit 95+ mph) was 23rd in the league at 49.5%. I can go on and on about how hard he hits the ball, but nobody doubts Sanchez’s power; it’s his routinely low batting averages and strikeouts that are concerning. His batting average was an embarrassing low .147 in 2020, but the Yankees have reason to believe that he was unlucky. Sanchez had a similarly unbelievably-low batting average on balls in play of .159 while league average was .298. Despite hitting the ball incredibly hard when he made contact, Sanchez was getting hits on balls in play at an absurdly low pace. In this regard, positive regression moving forward seems inevitable. Sanchez does not even need a high batting average to have value; as long as he is hitting homers and playing solid defense, a mid-low .200’s batting average would be satisfactory, if not necessarily ideal. Of course, Sanchez’s defense also draws questions – one’s I’ll explore later in this article.
With Sanchez, however, I think it is vital to look at his plate discipline and see where he fell off. While his walk rate increased from 9.0% in 2019 to an above average 10.1% in 2020, his strikeout rate noticeably ballooned from 28% to 36%. If he continues to strike out 36% of the time, it will be incredibly difficult to be a productive hitter no matter how hard he hits the ball. However, with a career strikeout rate of 26.3%, it is reasonable to believe that his strikeout rate will regress more to his career rate, especially when his swing rates and contact percentages stayed mostly the same as previous years. When one digs deeper into why he was striking out more in 2020, the eye test would tell you that he chased more pitches out of the zone. This is somewhat true. His chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone actually declined from 33.2% in 2019 to 29.3% in 2020, but his contact rate on those chases fell from 53.0% to 43.6%, a huge drop. This is really where the eye test matches the stats – I can’t remember how many times he would swing and miss at breaking balls in the dirt or elevated fastballs. This is what he really needs to work on offensively in the offseason. He either needs to be more selective in not chasing pitches out of the strike zone or in making more contact on those balls that he does swing at out of the zone.
Sanchez’s underlying batted ball numbers clearly paint a more rosy picture than his more traditional numbers portray, but I think it is important to note that all that really matters is results. We have seen Sanchez put up similarly bad offensive numbers with positive underlying metrics in 2018 and though he did bounce back in 2019, he regressed again in 2020. He has also really struggled in the playoffs in recent years, and his year-long struggles in 2020 actually led the Yankees to bench him in the playoffs for Kyle Higashioka. I do not think they were wrong to do that as sticking with struggling stars can undo a team in the playoffs, and one should look no further than the Clippers sticking with Montrez Harell in the playoffs this year despite his struggles against Nikola Jokic.
Yankee fans might remember Joe Girardi benching the struggling Alex Rodriguez in Game 3 of the 2012 ALDS against the Orioles and seeing his replacement, Raul Ibanez, hit two late inning, game saving home runs for the team. Sanchez’s inconsistency and playoff struggles have to be considered when discussing his future with the team. Is he someone the team can rely on year-in, year-out? He has proven to be a talented player, but not one who can necessarily be relied upon to provide consistent production. I do believe, however, that someone as talented as Sanchez is worth being patient with even if it takes an occasional benching to help his mental state. When he locks in offensively, we have seen how dangerous he can be.
From a defensive standpoint, Sanchez struggled for the most part in 2020. The Yankees hired Tanner Swanson in the offseason to be their new catching coordinator hoping for him to work the same magic with Sanchez that he did with Mitch Garver in 2019. Sanchez switched to a new catching stance, going down on one knee instead of the more traditional squatting. The intention was to help him with pitch framing even at the expense of his well documented issues with blocking pitches. Sanchez has really declined in recent years from a pitch framing standpoint: he ranked tied for 21st in the league in 2018 with 3 runs extra strikes (the primary pitch framing metric) but fell to -6 in 2019 and -2 in 2020. Fangraphs also has his framing metrics at below average numbers in 2020, though much improved from 2019. So while he did improve from 2019 to 2020 in pitch framing, he was still below average league-wide. I do, however, believe that under the tutelage of Swanson there is hope for Sanchez. I believe he can improve further in 2021. It is important to note that Sanchez tied for the American League lead in passed balls in 2020 with 5 after leading the league in 2017 and 2018 in this category (in 2019 he tied for 2nd). Though pitch blocking is not as valuable as it was once perceived to be, this is concerning when it comes to the small sample size of a playoff series. Pitchers may not trust him as well as they do with other catchers, with this notably happening with Gerrit Cole and Higgy. Even if he never gets to league average at blocking pitches, he can still be a plus defensively if he cleans up his pitch framing and retains his cannon arm behind the plate.
With a batting profile filled with bad luck that hid solid underlying numbers and defensive metrics improved from 2019, the Yankees have reason to believe that Sanchez will put up significantly better offensive numbers in the future. Offensively, he has to continue hitting the ball hard yet also clean up his strikeout rate. Defensively, I believe that more practice under Tanner Swanson’s new methods can lead to further improvement as well. Still just 27 years old, Sanchez is reaching the age of historically peak performance. Though he undoubtedly struggled immensely this year, even Sanchez’s biggest detractors have to admit that it is possible that the delayed start date to the year, disruption to normal routines, no fans, and other 2020 anomalies may have had a big affect on Sanchez’s play. 2020 has seen stars like Christian Yelich, Javier Baez, Eugenio Suarez, and numerous others experience huge drops in performance.
Though I would not just give Sanchez a pass for his poor performance this year, I would be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He would certainly be on a short leash next year, but I think it is noteworthy that ZIPS projects Sanchez to be worth nearly 3.0 WAR with an OPS of over .800 in each of the next two years. A player as talented as Sanchez, though understandably frustrating at times, is worth not giving up on too soon. Ultimately, I think because of the revenue shortfall from 2020, there is not much room in the budget to sign a guy like J.T. Realmuto; if anything, pitching is the big need as well as re-signing D.J. LeMahieu. My guess is that the Yankees bring Gary Sanchez back and let him compete for the starting job with Higgy. Let’s hope for the good of the Yankees that if he gets another shot at the full time catching job, he bounces back in a big way in 2021.