Weekly Mailbag: Yankee Catching, the Astros “Apology”, and Technology!
The boys are back in town! I realize that I’m probably in the minority, but I wish that the reporting date for pitchers and catchers was a local holiday in each Major League city. I could wax poetic (and annoyingly) about the hope that Spring Training brings, but I’ll save that for another time. I’ve missed baseball, and it makes me feel really good to see clips of Yankee pitchers throwing down in Tampa.
In this week’s mailbag, we’ll talk about Yankee catching, the Astros’ “apology”, and new technology! Let’s get at it:
Bryan asks: The Yankees brought in a lot of catchers as non-roster invitees to Spring Training? Everyone has assumed that Kyle Higashioka would be the backup catcher, but have we penciled him in too quickly? There are some guys with good resumes in camp.
Let’s run-down the list of catchers in Yankee camp, besides Higgy and Sanchez: Chris Iannetta, Erik Kratz, Josh Thole, and Wynston Sawyer. We can take a couple of names out of consideration for the backup catcher role right off the bat. Something would have to go terribly wrong for either Thole or Sawyer to end up backing up Sanchez. Sawyer has primarily been a minor league backup over the last few seasons. While he has a strong reputation defensively, he does not project to hit enough even for a backup catcher at the big league level. Thole last played in the majors in 2016, and even then he was only on the Jays’ roster to catch RA Dickey’s knuckleball, something other catchers struggled to do capably. When Thole has played, he struggled to even reach a .500 OPS, and his defense when catching non-knuckleballers was merely acceptable. Sawyer and Thole are around for depth, though it would not surprise me to see either guy wind up in the Yankee system for depth.
Iannetta and Kratz are in a different boat. Both guys have recent Major League experience with varying levels of success. Iannetta is coming off of back-to-back poor seasons in Colorado, however he has a relatively strong defensive reputation and a history of pop at the plate. For his career, Iannetta has a .176 ISO in the Majors, even with his poor seasons in 2018 and 2019, and he has traditionally gotten on-base at strong rate relative to his batting average. Iannetta is in the twilight of his career at 36 years old, but there are some signs that he could still be a valuable veteran backup on a team with World Series aspirations.
Kratz is similar to Iannetta in that he has a track record of relatively recent success at the big league level, but is clearly in the final years of his career at 39 years old (and he will turn 40 during the season). Kratz received limited playing time as the third catcher on both the Giants and Rays last season, but he enjoyed a relatively successful stint with the Brewers in 2018 as their backup catcher after the Yankees dropped him. Kratz does not hit much, but he has a strong reputation for working well with pitchers while playing solid defense.
If we’re being completely honest, Higashioka doesn’t have a ton to beat out here. Also complicating matters is the fact that Higgy doesn’t have any options remaining, so he would need to be exposed to waivers if the Yankees decide he’s not the backup catcher. Honestly though, the Yankees have a problem if Higashioka isn’t ready to be the backup catcher by now, after waiting in the wings behind Romine for years. Would the Yankees be okay with Iannetta or Kratz as the backup catcher? Probably, but Higgy definitely has more upside. I wrote about it earlier this off-season, and I stand by what I said then. Higashioka will establish himself as a solid MLB backup in 2020.
Rob asks: I read an article that the new Yankee catching coordinator is changing Sanchez’s stance behind the plate. What do you think about it? Will it make any difference?
Rob is referencing yesterday’s article on NJ.com. I thought it was very interesting that the Yankees are trying to drop Sanchez’s right leg further in order to help with balls low in the zone. Admittedly, I am not an expert on catcher mechanics, but anecdotally I am intrigued by the potential trade-offs that could come with this change.
On the one hand, I can see where dropping the right leg could help Sanchez kill two birds with one stone. Sanchez has either ranked well at pitch framing, or he has tanked his ability to frame pitches low in the zone in the name of blocking the ball at all costs (like last season). I was not a fan of the trade-off last season, and I’m sure the Yankees weren’t either based on the changes being made to his stance this off-season. By dropping the leg, I expect that Sanchez will naturally set-up lower, which will allow him to quiet his hands when framing low pitches while also protecting against balls in the dirt. I think a stance change makes sense from that perspective.
On the other hand, I do wonder what this change will mean for Sanchez’s greatest strength behind the plate: his arm. Sanchez has consistently displayed plus pop times behind the plate. It would be a crime to deprive him of his greatest asset as a catcher, and changing his stance could easily mess with his mechanics when making a throw.
All of that being said, the Yankees are plenty smart enough to understand the trade-offs. Sanchez’s arm has proven strong enough that he often throws from his knees, and I don’t see how a change to his stance will keep him from using that tactic to throw to the bases. I like that the Yankee coaching staff is willing to think outside of the box to help players maximize their abilities. We’ll see if Sanchez takes to this new stance, and I’ll look out for it during Spring Training.
Jeff asks: What did you think of the Astros’ “apology”? I thought it was disgraceful and Manfred should be embarrassed by what this situation has become.
I was going to try to avoid sign-stealing this week, but the Astros made that impossible yesterday with their pathetic attempt at an apology during media availability yesterday in camp. I got a few questions about it, but I thought Jeff’s question summed it up nicely.
Yes, the “apology” was disgraceful by all involved, including Altuve and Bregman, but especially Jim Crane. Crane stated that he didn’t think that the on-the-field product was affected by the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme. Really?!? Crane’s attitude made me even angrier than Altuve and Bregman’s canned, emotionless responses. I was ready to gulp hard and move on, despite the fact that I believe that the Astros cheating goes much further than what MLB was willing to punish them for.
Frankly, after yesterday, the Astros don’t deserve forgiveness from anyone. MLB should be ashamed of how this event was handled, but they won’t be. At the end of the day, Manfred and MLB owners have made a ton of money, and they have no real incentive to police themselves. I am sad for baseball, and I am angry as a lover of the game that the rampant cheating wasn’t dealt with more harshly and effectively by MLB.
I want the Yankees to destroy the Astros every time they meet this season. I’m generally someone that believes in good sportsmanship no matter what the situation, but I’m okay with the Yankees running up the score without remorse this year.
Gabe asks: It’s fun that the Yankees have put out videos that show pitchers throwing for the new pitching coach in the bullpen every day since pitchers and catchers reported. I noticed that there are cameras and other electronics in the bullpen when the pitchers are throwing. Is this new? What are the cameras doing?
Good catch! The Yankees have been using advanced technology to measure all kinds of things, ranging from pitcher mechanics to the characteristics of the ball in flight as it leaves the pitchers hand. Admittedly, I never noticed that technology being used this early in Spring Training publicly, but I can’t definitively say that for a fact.
I will say that the use of technology in the bullpen is much more obvious this year at Spring Training than it was in years prior, and I particularly noticed it when the Yankees released video of Sevy and Cole throwing. Generally speaking, I’m sure that the cameras are tracking all manner of biomechanical actions as the pitcher throws, so that pitching coach Matt Blake can make assessments and adjustments to what his pitchers are doing. Whether the cameras are being used to build a baseline for the season, or to compare to previously compiled data, I can’t say.
However, I think more data is always good. How that data is used is another question, though. Based on everything I’ve read, I feel pretty good about what the additions to the Yankee coaching staff and front office bring to the table with regards to analyzing data appropriately, so I’m excited to see how the use of technology impacts player performance this season. Hey, it’s Spring Training – let’s hope a bit!
That’s all for this week, and thanks for the great questions, as always! We’ll be back next week with another mailbag – don’t forget to send your questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. Have a great weekend, and Happy Spring Training!!!!