The Catching Conundrum
The Catching Conundrum
By Cary Greene
January 3, 2022Embed from Getty Images
Yankee catching ranked middle of the pack last season (when we consider offensive and defensive production).
Gary Sanchez once again caught the bulk of the innings and failed to impress.
Every offseason it seems Yankee fans have the obligatory “Gary Sanchez” conversation. The tone and focus of these conversations have vacillated quite dramatically from year to year and it’s been a wild ride for the fan base.
These Sanchez discussions have been a hot topic every offseason. They first started after the 2015 season. Sanchez had shot from Double-A to Triple-A, slashing .274/.330/.485/.815 across both levels. Fans were buzzing with anticipation and the “Sanchez is the Future” conversations were in full swing as “Lose Yourself” by Eminem was blaring in the background. The Yankees had something special in Sanchez and the Yankee faithful were all about it. Sanchez was a much hyped player because it’s rare for a catcher to be a strong offensive player and that’s what Sanchez was coming up through the Yankee system. His hit tool was abnormally good.
After the 2016 season, Yankee fans were in awe. The “Sanchez will be the MVP” conversations were in full swing as Al Jolson’s “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” played happily. Sanchez, fresh off putting up one of MLB’s most amazing August call-up performances of all time, had slashed .299/.376/.657/1.032! The Kraken, a nickname bestowed upon Sanchez by GM Brian Cashman, had arrived. The sky was the limit. The Yankee faithful knew the numbers weren’t sustainable, but the tools were undeniable. All of MLB was in awe. Sanchez had a cannon for an arm and he was a mythological sea monster of a beast, wreaking havoc on pitchers. All wondered, what would a whole season of Gary Sanchez look like? He was widely viewed as the best pure hitter in the Yankee system.
Fans got their wish and the 2017 season unfolded. Sanchez played a full season, spanning 525 at-bats while slashing .278/.345/.531/.876, while also earning an All-Star appearance as a reserve and winning a Silver-Slugger award. Still, MLB pitchers were of course adjusting to Gary and his performance from 2016 understandably regressed, as the faithful knew it was bound to. Fans started to see some areas of concern in Sanchez and the inevitable “Gary Doesn’t Work Hard Enough” conversations began, with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones playing in the background as Sanchez’s flaws were now fully exposed to the NY media and fans alike. Sanchez wasn’t blocking balls and his pitch framing and signal calling came into question as his bat production came down, if just a little. .
After the 2018 season was in the books, the situation had worsened. Opposing pitchers threw Sanchez a steady diet of breaking balls off the plate. Sanchez couldn’t lay off pitches out of the zone, he couldn’t take his walks, and worse of all, he struggled to make hard contact. Gary was so flummoxed that his stats dove off the table as he put up a dreadful .186/.291/.406/.697 season. He had become a bad offensive player and bad defensive catcher who had now also proven to be somewhat injury prone. His career had bottomed out. The “Sanchez Stinks” conversations began with “We’re Not Going to Take It” by Twisted Sister blasting over the airwaves. Fans had seen enough. Even some of the faithful had mostly given up. The drama had really just begun.
The 2019 season came and went. Sanchez’s defense didn’t improve but he bounced back and slashed .232/.316/.525/.841, hitting 34 home runs and surprisingly being named an All-Star. The faithful seized upon this season and began a vigorous campaign to defend Gary Sanchez. Arguments broke out in chat rooms and living rooms across the Tri-State area. The “OPS” conversations were everywhere as “Don’t Do Me Like That” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played. The Evil Empire was fractured. It seemed that half the fans liked Sanchez and other half of them didn’t. Sanchez was a porous backstop but hit for power and his OPS of .841 that year proved his offensive value and considering he was a catcher, many quickly and sharply defended Sanchez with every breath and every stroke of the pen or tap of the key. It seemed, Sanchez had a bad rap. It also seemed that fans had grown restless with his lack of defensive improvement.
Then the pandemic hit. In the worst baseball season of all time, Sanchez was nothing short of awful. He put up a .147/.253/.365/.618 stat line as MLB pitchers found he could no longer catch up to fastballs. Much was written about his struggles at the plate and combined with his worsening defense, it became clear that Gary Sanchez was no longer a good catcher. In fact, he had become a liability and he even lost his starting role in the playoffs and was summarily benched. That offseason, the “Non-Tender Sanchez” conversations began with “The Breakup Song” by the Greg Kihn Band playing. Not even the Yankee faithful could defend what Sanchez had become.
With two years of team control remaining, Yankee fans were at the point where they wanted Cashman to end the drama that Sanchez had caused. Gary’s work ethic once again came under scrutiny as well and most fans wanted to see a change made. Brian Cashman kicked the tires on signing Yadier Molina and ultimately passed on signing J.T. Realmuto and James McCann.
Then the 2021 chapter in the Gary Sanchez saga unfolded. Sanchez worked hard in the offseason and played in the Dominican Winter League as well. He came into camp looking a lot better but still struggled and he wound up putting up a .204/.307/.423/.730 season, slugging 23 home runs in 383 at bats.
Gary’s defense, while shored up a bit depending on what metrics we choose to look at, weren’t the real problem. Sanchez’s offensive problems continued in 2021 and his main problem is that he still struggled to make contact. With a 36% strikeout rate, and a 17.4 Barrel Percentage that ranked in the 97th percentile, Sanchez was, in layman’s terms, waiving away for most of the season. As we’ve become accustomed to seeing, Gary was helpless against breaking balls and high fastballs (.115 AVG / .213 SLG).
With his performance at the plate in decline, his performance no longer warranted him starting in the postseason as the team’s ace, Gerrit Cole preferred to pitch to Kyle Higashioka and Aaron Boone obliged. Which brings us to the present offseason and once again the “Might As Well Keep Sanchez” conversations started with “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” by Night Ranger playing as fans mostly agreed to accept that the act of Cashman tendering Sanchez was done because there just weren’t many options out there at the position.
Yankee fans are now all-in for one more season of Gary Sanchez, to be sure. The ride may be bumpy, so fasten your seatbelts. Sanchez cost the Yankees 10 runs last year in his 879.1 innings and his performance was a net-negative. If the Yankees had an average offensive catcher who could play average defense, the ballclub would be better off for it.
However, one final season of Sanchez will buy the Yankees some time to figure out what they are going to do about their catching going forward. Sanchez will of course be playing for a contract as he will be a free agent after the season. There will be no in-season extension for him. He’ll likely find a job somewhere but whether his market takes shape or not will likely solely depend on what he does behind the plate this coming season. Meanwhile, the Yankees will have time to plan.
Kyle Higashioka is a very acceptable backup catcher, in fact he saved the Yankees 5 runs last season in his 519.1 innings. The problem is that he’s a vastly below average offensive player who doesn’t get on base so ultimately, he’s just a shade better than replacement level.
The Yankee system has produced precious little of late and philosophically speaking, the Yankee’s love offensively strong catchers and have made a point of drafting them in the first and second rounds of previous drafts. The Bombers have positioned themselves accordingly and Austin Wells, who may begin the season in High-A again, so he can work on making better contact. The Yankees will continue to get him innings behind the plate as the Yankees also need to work to improve his defense.
Wells is the embodiment of the Yankees draft “catchers who hit” doctrine. Wells was the Yankees top pick in the 2020 MLB Draft and he probably had one of the best offensive profiles of all players, including catchers. It has been widely reported that Wells has very strong recognition of the strike zone and his fast hands and smooth left-handed stroke result in hits to all fields with plus raw power to boot. What I like about Wells, beyond his left-handedness, is that his approach utilizes the whole field.
But, is he going to stick at catcher? That’s really the million dollar question for a player that could arrive in the Bronx about the time this coming season is over and the Yankees find themselves in a catching conundrum, with Gary Sanchez officially becoming a free agent.
Wells struggled to make contact when he made the jump from Low-A to High-A as his strikeout rate went from an encouraging 20.7% to 32.4% and this year, the Yankees will need to keep an eye on this telling stat this coming season.
What Wells does is get on base and hit for both power and average and these skills are what the Yankees hope he will build on. I’m not sold on Wells as being able to stick but I do think he might be a DH or first baseman in the making and the Yankees can easily move him in that direction if and when it becomes necessary. It shouldn’t hinder or delay his anticipated 2023 arrival in the Bronx.
The Yankee system also features 24-year old right-handed masher named Josh Breaux who ascended to Double-A last season with the Somerset Patriots and who was a product of the 2018 MLB Draft, whom the Yankees selected with their 61st pick in Round 2. Breaux will begin 2022 in Double A as he had only just arrived and his development at catcher will be henceforth sorted out. Concerns exist regarding his overall receiving and blocking ability, but like Gary Sanchez, Breaux has terrific raw arm strength. Throwing out a Major League runner is a bang-bang process and arm strength is only part of the process. Transfer skills come into play and quickness, which Breaux dearly lacks, absolutely factors in.
As with Wells, Breaux is a candidate to matriculate to DH or possibly first base, if he isn’t able to defend well enough at catcher.
The Yankee system has one other catcher of note and that would be 20 year-old right-handed prospect Antonio Gomez, who moved into the Low-A level of the system, playing for the Yankees affiliate, the Tampa Tarpons. I actually had a chance to see Gomez in action last year and would attest that he’s a defense-first catcher, unlike Wells and Breaux. Gomez absolutely needs time to get used to Low-A level pitching and I imagine he’ll start the season with Tampa. Gomez wouldn’t arrive in the Bronx any sooner than 2024 so he’s quite a ways off but, I could actually see him becoming a backup catcher and potentially sticking with the team, on the strength of his work behind the plate and dependent upon his ability to mature as a hitter.
The Yankees signed Gomez in 2018 as an amateur out of Venezuela. Gomez has an absolute gun for an arm and he also has lightning fast release that makes for stunning POP times, as low as 1.8 seconds. Being multilingual also allows Gomez to easily communicate with his pitching staff. Gomez is presently a raw, dead pull hitter at this stage in his development.
It’s still too early to tell whether the Yankees will be able to develop a starting catcher from their farm system. The coming season will be a telling one in the catching department. Looking ahead to the free agent class of 2022, it’s another fairly thin year with Rucker Barnhart, Wilson Contreras, Omar Narváez, the Yankees own Gary Sánchez, Max Stassi, Christian Vázquez and Mike Zunino being the best players who will each be looking for a contract.
Will the Yankees look to do a short term deal after this season, with Gary Sanchez, or will they depend upon their farm system to turn the page? Will Kyle Higashioka turn the corner offensively and become something more than his career backup career arc to date?
2022, when the season comes, will be an important one for the Yankees in regard to the catching position.
Stay tuned, this is a story that will be in development all year!