By Andy Singer
As always, thanks for the great questions. This week, we’ll talk about a potential catching platoon, the 3rd spot in the playoff rotation, and the scariest playoff opponent in the first round. As always, send in your mailbag questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, and I’ll answer them each Friday.
Without any further ado, let’s get at it:
Paul asks: Is Gary Sanchez better suited for a platoon role? Maybe he’s just not an everyday catcher. How do you think he’d perform catching 3-4 days a week rather than seven? Maybe he’ll stay healthier. If so, who would be a good lefty catcher to pair with him?
The question of what to do with Gary Sanchez is one that will be front and center for the Yankees this off-season no matter how he performs over the next month. As bullish as I’ve always been on Gary Sanchez, there is little question but that his performance this season is unacceptable for a team with World Series aspirations. The question the Yankees need to ask themselves is whether or not the trying dynamics of the 2020 season bear enough of the blame for Gary’s performance to continue entrusting him with the starting catcher position in 2021 and beyond. As much as it hurts my ears to hear this question, I cannot ignore that the question is completely legitimate at this point.
For my fellow Sanchez apologists out there, I provide the following sobering statistic. I have consistently said that since Sanchez was benched in early September, he has put together improved plate appearances and more usable power. Both of those statements are true in the context of his early season performance. However, Sanchez, since returning to the lineup on September 8th has provided the Yankees with -0.320 WPA, according to Baseball-Reference. WPA measures a player’s performance at the plate in terms of win expectancy on an average team (as opposed to WAR, which measures player value in the context of a replacement, or AAAA, player). -0.320 WPA means that during Sanchez’s “best” stretch of hitting this season, he has hurt the team at the plate. I won’t go any further into Sanchez’s current struggles here, but things are every bit as bad as they look.
If the Yankees determine that Sanchez can be fixed in the off-season such that he can return to his previous levels of offensive performance (2017 and 2019), then I think Sanchez should remain the starting catcher. However, it would be a mistake for the Yankees to give Sanchez as long a leash as they have allowed this season. Across a long season, Sanchez tends to wear down, and getting him some time out of the crouch would certainly be beneficial. I’ve always been a proponent of the idea of finding a catcher to take some of the strain off of Sanchez behind the plate, and I think the Yankees need to go into the off-season with a plan to make that happen.
If Kyle Higashioka were to remain healthy for an extended period of time, I believe in his talent. From a pure talent perspective, with his defensive abilities behind the dish and pop at the plate, Higgy Pop could be the type of catcher the Yankees need alongside Gary Sanchez. Unfortunately, we have 6+ years of data telling us that Higgy can’t stay healthy. I wish we could assume otherwise, but we can’t.
Unfortunately, if the Yankees were to go outside of the organization to find competition for HIgashioka, I don’t see much on the Free Agent market that makes a lot of sense, and certainly no left-handed hitters, as Paul requests. The only Free Agent that would make sense in a tandem role of any kind is James McCann, but a Free Agent with his profile only makes sense if the Yankees find a taker for Higashioka. McCann is a consistently good defender, and has generally proven capable at the dish. Given that salaries for non-premium Free Agents are likely to be severely depressed this season, McCann will likely be signed for a steal, relative to the value he provides.
Finding a consistent backup/platoon option will be essential if Sanchez remains as the Yankee catcher in 2021. With that in mind, finding someone who would allow Sanchez to DH 1-3 times per week would be hugely beneficial.
Brian asks: Who should start Game 3 of the first playoff series for the Yankees? Cole and Tanaka seem like the only sure things right now.
I never thought I’d say this, but right now, it would be really hard to start anyone other than JA Happ in that game. Happ has a 1.06 WHIP and 3.25 ERA, and has been the most consistent Yankee starter in the non-Cole division over the last month. Home runs are still a problem, but Happ has limited hits otherwise. Normally, when H/9 are down that drastically, we would expect either a rise in soft contact or strikeouts, but that’s not what’s happening here. Happ is middle of the road with regards to average exit velocity against, and he really doesn’t strike many guys out. What he has done is kept barrels and sweet spot contact to a minimum, so while he hasn’t induced soft contact, guys are just missing. I’d pin that on excellent command with his fastball and 2-seamer. Check out his location plot:
JA Happ Fastball Location Plot, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
As you can see, Happ has done a fantastic job of pounding the 4-seam fastball high and then combining it with a 2-seamer that dives low and to the glove side at the edge of the strike zone. That’s Happ’s recipe for success. It’s a tightrope, but he’s done it successfully.
I’ve been pretty hard on Happ, so it’s only right that I tip my cap to his performance this season – I really didn’t think he had it in him. He’s earned the 3rd spot in the rotation. However, everyone in the non-Cole division should have a short leash. Deivi Garcia is a huge change of pace, and I like the idea of having Garcia follow Happ, should Happ get pulled earlier than the 5th inning.
While Happ deserves the spot and praise for his performance this season, his reliance on the fastball means that if he is even a little off, hitters are whacking away at batting practice, so his leash should be short.
Steve asks: We know now that the Yankees aren’t going to get the 1st spot in the AL East which will make the first matchup harder. Who do you least want to face?
I actually talked about that with host EJ Fagan on this week’s Bronx Beat Podcast (it’s a great show, so if you’ve never listened, check it out even when someone on the SSTN team isn’t on the show). The Yankees are likely looking at a match-up with either the Twins or the White Sox. We said that on the show on Tuesday night, and that remains true today.
The Twins have lost some of last year’s magic at the plate, though they boast a surprisingly good rotation, headed by Kenda Maeda, owner of a sterling 2.70 ERA/0.750 WHIP, and Jose Berrios. The rotation has plenty of depth and is capable of going toe-to-toe with even the best lineups. The bullpen is nothing special, and the lineup, while solid, features poor plate discipline and low contact rates up and down. As tough as Twins pitching can be they would be my preferred match-up.
The toughest match-up would be with the up-start White Sox. The bullpen is serviceable, and while the rotation isn’t as deep as what the Twins can throw, the White Sox have a devastating top-2 in the form of Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. While Giolito gets more press (deservedly so, given his Cy Young caliber campaign), Keuchel has been very difficult to hit this season, having relied more heavily on his cutter and change-up to induce more soft contact. The results speak for themselves.
The offense is also formidable. Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, and Eloy Jimenez anchor a scary middle-of-the order, while the rest of the lineup is filled out by good, young, supporting role players. This is a young team that could get hot and easily go on a tear through the playoffs.
No, I’m not looking forward to facing the White Sox, who also happen to be the Yankees’ most likely opponent. I still like the Yankees’ chances if everyone is pumping on all cylinders, but the Yankees really only have a few more days to heat up.