Replacing Gary Sanchez
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Sean M. Haffey
While there was plenty of frustration to be found on the 2021 Yankees, no player was more frustrating for me to watch than Gary Sanchez on the 2021 team. As many of you likely are aware, I have possibly been the strongest Gary Sanchez apologist writing on the internet. Despite signs to the contrary, I have always been smitten by Sanchez’s obvious tools: a rocket arm, powerful bat, and as someone who used to pitch, I am in the minority of people who love the way in which Sanchez modifies signs on the fly and really works with a pitcher on the mound (more prolifically prior to the institution of limited mound visits, but I digress). I always thought that those skills, if used properly, were more important than imperfect framing and inconsistent blocking, particularly when paired with a pitching staff that produced such high spin rates and pitch velocities. While I was no longer delusional enough to predict MVP-type seasons that once seemed possible for Gary Sanchez, I still thought some thoughtful modifications could bring a reasonably good bounce-back campaign in 2021.
There were so many good signs early on. Sanchez reported to Spring Training in great shape, as even his greatest detractors in the New York media market noted; he made consistent loud contact during Spring Training; we heard a lot about how catching coach, Tanner Swanson, finally was able to more fully implement his catching strategy with Sanchez once player-coach interaction restrictions were lifted a bit; and he really had nothing to lose by trying new things after a shortened season in which he hit just .147 at the plate. After an up-and-down April that saw him cede some playing time to Kyle Higashioka, Sanchez finally implemented the big change I wanted to see at the plate (click the link for more detail – I wrote about it following the end of the 2020 season): he ditched the big leg kick to trigger his swing, and as a result managed to quiet his lower body prior to the arrival of the pitch, giving him more time to load and recognize the pitch as it approached the plate. The early returns were excellent. In the months of May and June after altering his mechanics at the plate, Gary produced the following batting lines: in May, Sanchez hit .213/.333/.443 with 4 HR and an OPS+ 17 points better than league average, and he exploded in June, batting .289/.372/.663 with 8 HR and a 175 OPS+. Sadly, the results didn’t last and Sanchez’ results cratered through the end of the season. Was he nursing an injury? Possibly, but there comes a point at which it just doesn’t matter anymore. The bottom line is that Gary Sanchez, in a year where he was mostly a regular, produced just 0.7 bWAR/1.5fWAR, and that’s just not enough from a starter. The Yankees simply need better performance at catcher, and more importantly, they need consistency and reliability, two things Sanchez is unlikely to provide.
I still believe that Sanchez has talent, but I am past the point of believing that he can ever fully realize it. The Yankees would be best served by finding a replacement. As much as I’ve resigned myself to that reality, I’m not sure it’s actually a realistic goal this offseason.
Catching is really bad across baseball right now. As angry as Yankee fans are with Gary Sanchez, he was barely behind the middle of the pack as a total performance package when compared to starters across the league. Stunning though it may be to realize, half of the teams in baseball (possibly more) would be happy to have Gary Sanchez on their catching depth chart. Given the fact that starting catching is thin across the league, making a deal for a starting-caliber catcher will be both challenging and expensive this offseason. There may be a candidate or two that I’ll explore throughout the offseason, but it’ll be a tough ask.
The Free Agent market, you might ask? It is generally a barren wasteland. Yan Gomes is in his mid-30s and is likely to produce a WAR in the 1-1.5 range, which doesn’t get the Yankees any further than where they are with Sanchez. After that, you’re looking at guys like Manny Pina and Robinson Chirinos…I don’t think I need to analyze those options much further. The only option that I foresee might shake free is Tucker Barnhart, a solid defensive catcher with middling offense who was surpassed on the Reds’ depth chart in 2021. Barnhart will demand a salary in arbitration similar to Gary Sanchez, but that might be worth exploring should the Reds decide to cut bait. Beyond that though, Free Agency does not appear to be an option.
As much as the Yankees would surely like to improve the catching depth chart and cut ties with Sanchez as he gets expensive, the reality is complicated. The Yankees could save money by cutting salary, but matching even his meager 2021 performance will be challenging through Free Agency and the trade market.