The Yankees are the most scrutinized team in baseball and, as such, always need a lightning rod. Gary Sanchez has taken the baton from Alex Rodriguez to become the team’s newest polarizing figure. There is no moderation with Gary Sanchez: fans either love him or love to hate him. It’s not difficult to see why, as the Yankee backstop has been at the center of many key moments of the current resurgence in the Bronx. Just consider a sample of prominent storylines involving the Kraken since the beginning of 2017:
- He was benched in early August of 2017 by Yankee skipper Joe Girardi, who argued that Gary needed to “improve his defense”;
- A few weeks later, he participated in a scuffle with the Detroit Tigers, landing what most observers considered a “cheap shot” or “sucker punch” on superstar Miguel Cabrera;
- That October, he was widely-panned and blamed for the Yanks’ ALCS Game 2 loss to the Houston Astros for dropping a throw home in the 9th inning;
- Two games later, his double in the 8th inning capped off a memorable Yankee comeback to tie the series and sent the Yankee Stadium crowd into a thunderous frenzy;
- Girardi’s treatment of Sanchez played a major role in the Yanks’ decision to let him go following the 2017 season and an important role in their decision to hire Aaron Boone;
- During the Yankees early-season run of dominance last year, he hit a walk-off, three-run home run against Minnesota and delivered another three-run, go-ahead 9th inning homer off Houston closer Ken Giles to secure a particularly delicious win;
- He had a miserable game in Tampa featuring both atrocious defense and lack of appropriate hustle, all while re-injuring himself;
- He was party to one of the worst defensive displays in recent Yankee memory during a skid in September against the Oakland A’s; and, finally,
- He hit two towering home runs in Game 2 of the ALDS, playing a major role in the Yanks’ sole victory in the series.
These specific moments were more than just talk radio fodder: they either validated or challenged fans’ preconceived notions of the slugger, building on a history of accusations of laziness and complacency that have dogged him since he signed with the Yankees at age 16—though it’s impossible to overlook the implicit bias on display. Fans love to criticize his defense (more on that in a bit) and a non-insignificant number of fans proudly claim that Austin Romine is a better option.
The Yankees organization itself, by contrast, loves Sanchez. “It would be hard not to have Gary Sanchez as our catcher”, Brian Cashman said last offseason. “He’s certainly someone that we’ve invested in and believe and expect to be a part of this place moving forward.”
They’ve walked the walk, too, sticking with him last postseason against Oakland and Boston last year on top of repeatedly offering their support for their controversial catcher. In other words, Gary Sanchez, love him or hate him, is the Yankee catcher now and for the future.
It’s no secret that 2018 was a lost campaign for Gary, so let’s look back at what happened before looking ahead.
What Happened in 2018?
Time to play a quick game called “which stat line belonged to Gary Sanchez last year”.
A: .232/.304/.372 (84 wRC+), .296 wOBA, 8.0% BB%, 23.5 K%, .140 ISO and .284 BABIP
B: .186/.291/.406 (89 wRC+), .304 wOBA, 12.3 BB%, 25.1% K%, .220 ISO and .197 BABIP
Sanchez, of course, was B—but A was the cumulative line for catchers across the league. The point here is not to argue that Gary was Actually Good in 2018 (he flatly was not) but to illustrate a point that often gets lost in baseball: watching one team over and over again obscures the bigger picture. (More on this in a bit.) Gary was, in other words, a league average offensive catcher last year—albeit one with above-average power and patience and an extremely low batting average on balls in play. In fact, our very own Katie Sharp presented convincing evidence over at The Athletic (subs. req’d) that suggested that Gary was atypically unlucky on balls he hit hard last year. But again: Gary is not supposed to be an average player at a weak position. He was extremely disappointing in 2018; in all likelihood, he was the most disappointing player in baseball.
On the defensive end, Gary again struggled in the most visible way: passed balls. His 18 led the league by a wide margin even with a reduced workload due to injury, and passed balls are really ugly. That’s why he has a reputation for being a sub-par defender. But the problem with narratives are that they so often paint an incomplete picture—and that’s the case for Gary and his defense. A closer look reveals that Gary is actually a competent, above-average defender. Consider his rankings in other defensive metrics, all courtesy of Baseball Savant/Statcast or Statcorner:
- Pop Time: 1.94 seconds (tied for 3rd)
- Arm Strength: 86.8 mph (4th)
- Exchange: 0.76 seconds (tied for 14th)
- Framing/RAA: 3.3 (18th out of 126 catchers with a sample of at least 2,000 pitches)
This runs counter to the conventional wisdom that Gary is a defensive liability, showing that he is a plus defender behind the dish when you factor in his ability to limit stolen bases and frame pitches. This was true even last year, despite his propensity for passed balls. Moreover, Marc Carig reported at The Athletic (subs. req’d) that the Yankees view Gary’s preparation and ability to digest analytics and advanced game plans from the front office as unique—and that’s a skillset the analytically-oriented Yankees understandably prize.
Last year was certainly a step back for Sanchez, as it was a far cry from his dominant 2017 campaign in which he was worth 4 wins or his stellar 2016 debut in which he racked up 3 wins in two short months. We know he can be better because we’ve seen it, but even still: he was an average player at a weak position in the league, and that was all while battling injury.
The Bigger Picture
Sanchez only played in 89 games last year, so to truly project what he’ll do in 2019, it’s critical to zoom out and consider the bigger picture—both relative to the rest of the league and to his past performance. As I mentioned earlier, baseball is a sport where fans typically watch their preferred team and few other teams. That’s not bad necessarily (it is one of the many reasons I love the sport) but it does have a few pernicious analytical effects: it exacerbates the flaws of our own team at the expense of others by limiting our sense of perspective.
That’s true especially true when it comes to Gary. To gain a better appreciation of Gary’s overall talent and production for the Yankees, it’s helpful to take a look at his offensive figures relative to other catchers league-wide. Since the beginning of 2016, 32 Major Leaguers have come to the plate 750 times or more with at least 75 percent of those games behind the plate. Gary’s numbers are below, with rankings in parentheses:
- Batting Average: .252 (13th)
- On Base Percentage: .333 (11th)
- Slugging Percentage: .516 (1st)
- On Base Plus Slugging: .849 (1st, next closest is Wilson Ramos at .826)
- Walks: 110 (11th)
- Home Runs: 71 (3rd overall, behind Yasmani Grandal (73) and Salvador Perez (76), each of whom have at least 300 more plate appearances)
- RBI: 188 (6th)
- Doubles: 49 (14th)
The data make it clear that Gary is one of the game’s finest catchers—and clearly the most powerful. Even when accounting for his bad year in 2018, Gary ranks near the top of the league in every relevant offensive category for catchers. He has been one of the most productive catchers in the sport since he entered the league in late 2016, and it’s worth remembering that his counting stats are limited by injury and the fact that he played only two months in 2016. It’s simply dishonest to pretend Gary is anything but one of baseball’s most talented and productive catchers.
What to Expect
Count me among Gary’s believers. I fully expect him to return to form in 2019, providing the Yankees with the superior production we expected in 2018. For what they’re worth, ZiPS projects .246/.323/.499 (120 wRC+) out of Gary, and PECOTA similarly projects .254/.332/.473 (113 DRC+). These numbers reflect the fact his underlying peripherals (his batted ball profile, power and longer-term production) remain strong and that his true talent level is far higher than what we saw in 2018.
Development is not linear—as Robinson Cano’s 2008 demonstrates—and Gary’s 2018 was injury-riddled to boot. When fully healthy, Gary has proven that he is one of baseball’s most dominant offensive backstops, and the advanced metrics prove that he is above-average defensively, too. The Yankees absolutely love him (and have since he was 16) and have stood by him through thick and thin. That means that we should be confident that Gary will be Gary once more in 2019, reminding Yankee fans why we are all so fortunate to root for a team with him behind the dish.