Weekly Mailbag: Fixing Sanchez
By Andy Singer
It sure feels good to still have Yankee baseball to write about in 2020. I hope we’ll be able to say the same thing by this time next week. Either way, the series against the Rays should be one of the best of the 2020 playoffs.
In this week’s mailbag, I’d like to focus on a single question. We’ve had a lot of talk about the playoffs for the last few days (and for good reason!), but one question this week gets to the heart of where the Yankees are and where they’re going. Keep sending your questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. Generally, I’ll answer the best 3-5 questions each week.
Let’s get at it:
Jeff asks: As good as Cole has been this season throwing to Higashioka, he’s not a long term answer at the catcher spot. You believe in Sanchez, but he’s been really bad for long stretches since 2018. I understand the talent, but at some point there has to be results. Can he be fixed? How can he be fixed?
I know we’ve talked about Sanchez a lot in the Mailbag in recent weeks. I chose this question because I’ve been working on a post dissecting what’s gone wrong for Sanchez this season at the plate (besides, you know…everything). Defensive metrics will always be mixed on Sanchez, at best, so he really needs to be a premium bat to have value. Unfortunately, even if the Yankees decided to move on from Sanchez, there are not a lot of options out there to replace him at catcher, save for Realmuto, but I really don’t want to sign a Free Agent catcher over the age of 30 with bad hips to a long term deal, as good as Realmuto is right now. Given that fact, it would behoove the Yankees to try to get Sanchez right at the plate, because getting the 2016, 2017, or 2019 (save for one month) version of Sanchez would solve the Yankees’ problems behind the plate.
Much has been written this season about Sanchez’s struggles against fastballs, particularly middle-middle meatball pitches. A gentle search on the internet turns up posts from multiple sites (including SSTN) that have found Sanchez’s struggles against meatballs. While that identifies a reason for Sanchez’s poor offensive results this season, that doesn’t explain why Sanchez went from being a guy who crushes mistakes to someone who misses 91 MPH meatballs with regularity.
This is where the harmonization between analytics, scouting, and coaching becomes so important. Statistically, we can see a glaring weakness that has regressed significantly from previous norms. It is then up to scouts and coaches to identify the mechanical root cause of the issue, and find ways to rectify it. I’m sure the Yankees are working feverishly internally to try to figure this out. I also can’t help but think that the lack of scouts in the ballpark has hurt the Yankees (and other teams) this season, particularly because it would have given them other sets of trained eyes on Sanchez to help diagnose any mechanical issues that could be causing his problems.
Before I go any further, I want to tell you that yes, I think that Sanchez can be fixed. The raw power and ability to impact the baseball that Sanchez has shown throughout his career remains. Even in his worst season, Sanchez continues to produce some of the best exit velocity in the league when he makes contact. He just needs to find a way to make more consistent contact. I think it is important to go back further than just last year to find Sanchez’s best swings. While we all remember Sanchez terrorizing the league upon his call-up in the Summer of 2016, I think it is important to evaluate his first full season in 2017, when Sanchez hit for power, but also made plenty of contact. While I don’t think it is realistic to expect Sanchez to hit .278 again over a full season given the increase in shifting against him since then, I do think that we could see a difference in Gary’s mechanics at the plate.
Here is a compilation of every home run Gary hit in 2017:
Many of these home runs are mechanically similar to Gary’s swing in 2020, including a big initial lift with his front (left) leg. Swinging like this requires absolutely perfect timing in order to find yourself on-time for fastballs. It also makes it difficult to adjust in the event a breaking ball comes when the hitter is expecting fastball. The front leg comes down early, and the hitter can only flick his wrists at the breaking ball. Gary’s eye and mental game has been good enough in the past that he either guessed right more often than not, or he adjusted appropriately. It is pretty easy to see why a hitter might be streaky with mechanics like these.
However, there’s something else here when we look closer. Throughout this sample of 2017 home runs, we also see Sanchez utilize a very different set of mechanics for some of his home runs. In addition to the high leg kicks, we also see Sanchez utilize a much lower profile leg kick or toe tap to start his swing (first example in the video above at approximately 1:00 in).
Here is what those mechanics look like in slo-mo from the side:
Sanchez’s lower half quiets as he begins his swing, allowing his naturally long bat path get into the zone early as the pitch approaches. Compare that with one of Gary’s home runs from 2020 with the high leg kick:
Sure, the result is great in this instance, but Gary’s whole body is in motion as the pitch is arriving. Everything has to be timed perfectly in order for Sanchez to impact the baseball at the right moment as it passes through the strike zone. When the leg kick is mis-timed, the bat wrap (the path of the bat that takes it behind Sanchez’s head as the front leg lands) that we see as Sanchez loads makes it impossible for Sanchez to catch-up to fastballs if the leg kick is late, or to adjust to breaking balls if the front leg lands early. It is a recipe for inconsistency.
Sanchez has enough raw power that he doesn’t need a ton of excessive movement to generate bat speed. That comes naturally with his strong hands/forearms and a longer swing. Sanchez just needs to put his body in better position to get the bat into the strike zone, and keep it there, for as long as possible. Swing changes are hard, and it’s even harder to make them stick. Gary obviously didn’t stick with the toe tap we saw sporadically in 2017, but I think it’s time for the Yankees and Sanchez to revisit a mechanical change that gets his lower half quieter as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand.
When Sanchez is “locked in,” he can still beat poor mechanics because everything is timed properly. Sanchez could likely be locked in more frequently if he didn’t need to rely on mechanical timing as much. The power will always be there, but Sanchez needs to be able to access it more functionally and more frequently.
Personally, I think Sanchez can do it. He is immensely talented at the plate, and changes can be made to allow him to access that talent more consistently. It may be too late to make such drastic changes in 2020, but I hope to see some mechanical changes in 2021.