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Or Not to Keep Gary Sanchez (Part 2 of 2)

It’s hard to say how I truly feel about the Yankees backstop since mid-2016. On one-hand has incredible upside for his position with his bat and slowly improving defense. However, potential isn’t performance and we’ve seen it slip. So today I answer the question: Why keep Gary Sanchez?

 

The Bad of Gary: Games Played

Just like my precursor to yesterday’s post and talking about OPS+, I think it is important to recognize that the catcher position has much different expectations for games played. For me, I think getting the catcher rest once every 4 to 5 days (or for one pitcher in the rotation) is likely the best option. Calculate that out and you’ll hit nearly 120 to 130 games played per year in a totally healthy season. Having a(n expected) plus bat and being in the American League, Gary Sanchez has a better shot at hitting this than most catchers through utilizing the DH role. But, he has never hit that mark.

The most games Gary Sanchez has played in a season was 122 (75.3%) back in 2017. Since then he played in 89 games, 106 games, and 49 games (out of 60). Combine these together and Sanchez has only played in just 67.0% (366/546) of the games the Yankees have had since 2017. That’s not great, but how many have been behind the plate? Since 2017 he was being the plate 104 times, 76 times, 90 times, and 41 times, which means he has played in just 57.0% (311/546) of games behind the plate for the Yankees…that’s not good at all at a position where good depth is not ever truly available.

For comparison, since 2017 Yadier Molina (who is 10 years older than Sanchez and had an extra 1,500 MLB games behind the plate) has played in 414 games (75.8%) in a DH-less league and has played 407 games at catcher during that same stretch (74.5%). Just to play devils advocate, the innings difference was 3,480 for Molina and 2,598 for Sanchez. It’s not even close.

But, what about when he is on the field? How’s Sanchez performing?

 

The Bad of Gary: Strikeouts and Advanced Metrics

The simple answer is: not good. The more detailed answer will follow but the sparknotes version is best put by his 36.0% K% in 2020 which was bad enough to be 2nd percentile in the league. But, that’s not all!

Part of the big problem by the eye-test with Gary Sanchez last year was his inability to truly catch up to a ball or know where it was going to go. There was more than one occasion where the opposing pitcher put together 3 straight fastballs right down the middle of the plate as we saw Gary Sanchez attempt to crush each en route to a 3 pitch strikeout. There shouldn’t be much of a surprise his Whiff% was 11th percentile in the league.

It’s more than that however. Among all players with 100 PA’s or more last season, Gary Sanchez was tied for 23rd most strikeouts with 64. Only one other player in the Top-25 played in less than 50 games (Niko Goodrum with 43) and if he had played in all 60 games, his rate would’ve placed him 5th in the league.

Yes, we already knew all of that. It was evident from the get-go this past season that Sanchez was not playing well and that’s why the Yankees were using Kyle Higashioka in the postseason over Gary. And, even more so when Gary’s bat doesn’t play he shouldn’t play.

Looking at some defensive metrics we get that Gary Sanchez was in the 37th percentile on Framing, and across catchers with 250 innings last year, he was tied for most errors (with Yadier Molina) with 5, tied for most passed balls (with Travis d’Arnaud and Pedro Severino) with 5, and allowed the most wild pitches with 19.

The interesting thing with Sanchez is that looking into the numbers, most of the advanced metrics stay pretty consistent through his career so far. It’s what makes it hard to pinpoint who exactly Gary Sanchez is as a player and what we should expect out of him. Was 2020 a giant outlier fluke? What about 2017?

Unfortunately, at this point in his career Gary Sanchez can be defined as adding bad defense to bad offense while holding onto high potential. Unfortunately, it becomes hard to justify keeping a guy like Gary Sanchez around. Add in a BaseballReference 2021 projection of a .208/.302/.447 triple-slash and a Fangraphs Depth Chart projection of a .222/.310/.478 with each giving him about 90 games of playing time and 100+ strikeouts. It’s really hard to say yes to and be excited for.

 

To Not Keep Gary Sanchez:

There are many ways that the Yankees can go if they decide that the Gary Sanchez experiment is over. I’ll be brief in explaining 3 different players who could be the Yankees starting catcher (not including Yadier Molina because I discussed him yesterday), starting with the most unlikely:

For 2021, the Yankees spend big and bring in J.T. Realmuto:

Do I think this will happen? No. I think myself and most of the baseball world expects for Realmuto to end up in one of two places: back in Philadelphia or in New York with the Mets. However, if the Yankees decided to relive the glory days of “The Boss” and truly go after every major free agent player and they got J.T. Realmuto that would be exciting. Realmuto is the best catcher in the MLB currently as he combines a plus bat with great defense and legitimate speed. He isn’t a big injury worry player and likely has a few 4+ WAR seasons left.

He is going into his age 30 season as a full-time catcher, and for any team in a “win-now” situation this would be a great move upgrade at catcher. The problem for me is that Realmuto is looking to pass $20M per year while going into the later half of his career. (Honestly, I don’t know why the Mets would want him. They’re likely a few years away from serious contention anyway.)

I would place the odds that Realmuto ends up a Yankees towards 2% odds, which I think is still incredibly generous.

For 2021, the Yankees play cheap and make Kyle Higashioka the starting catcher:

I haven’t mentioned Higashioka much in these articles because I think his career path is pretty much set by what the Yankees decide to do in free agency. If they bring in a new guy to the mix, I don’t think they’ll want to carry around 3 catchers at the MLB level and I could see Higashioka refusing an option back to Triple-A Scranton and if Sanchez isn’t traded (i.e. getting Yadier Molina as a back-up/mentor). This would likely mean a DFA and Higashioka looking for another MLB team that needs a solid defensive back-up.

That being said, if they decided to play cheap and not bring in an MLB caliber catcher (and they decide to move on from Gary Sanchez), then Higashioka would find himself the starting catcher. Honestly, I don’t think it would be the worst thing ever because I am a Higashioka fan and I think he’d surprise people with the bat. I also think having good defense for a full season would be a nice change of scenery. However, again I’ll place these odds quite low and give the same 2% odds as them getting Realmuto that this happens.

For 2021, the Yankees bring in James McCann:

Before last season, I ranked James McCann as the 5th best catcher in the MLB according to The Determinator. I am incredibly high on what he could bring to the table and he looks to be in the range of a 2/$20M or a 3/$30M deal, according to MLBTR. With Gary Sanchez set to make about $6.5M in arbitration this year (and likely $10M in his final year of arbitration in 2021), this would be a small rise in salary around catching while greatly increasing the play behind the plate.

Now, while this would be my marquee move #1B for the Yankees this offseason (after trading for Francisco Lindor), I understand McCann has the same risks as Realmuto with him entering his age-31 season and a shorter track record of success. That being said, Gary Sanchez has a track record of little to no great success recently and this would almost definitely be an upgrade.

Because I’m optimistic that the Yankees will make a move for a catcher, I am going to give this 33% odds they bring in McCann.

Other Odds:

As much as I may want McCann, I also understand it’s likely not going to happen. So, just to fill out my odds percentages, here is what I have across the board:

The Yankees Keep Gary Sanchez as the starting catcher – 55%

The Yankees bring in James McCann – 33%

The Yankees bring in Yadier Molina – 8%

The Yankees go with Kyle Higashioka at the starting catcher- 2%

The Yankees make a big splash with J.T. Realmuto – 2%

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