Gary Sánchez has always been able to hit the ball hard. As a prospect, he received a Power grade of 60 from MLB Pipeline on the 20-80 scale. This grade may have actually been a bit too conservative. Since his MLB career began in earnest in 2016 he has consistently put up elite or near-elite Statcast batted ball numbers.
These numbers are even more impressive when coming from a catcher, given how the defensive toll of the position often negatively impacts offense. I’m guessing Mike Piazza’s Statcast numbers would’ve looked something like those. Of course, Sánchez has not been Mike Piazza.
Strikeouts have always been an issue for Sanchez. He simply does not put the ball in play consistently enough to really take advantage of his excellent power. His K% has ranged from 22.9%-33.0%, all in the bottom third of hitters. These strikeout rates can lead to prolonged slumps where he provides little value. But what specifically has caused these high strikeout rates?
Visually, it has always seemed like Sánchez is susceptible to pitches down and away. Particularly sliders from RHPs.
The image with a lot of red in the lower right is slider locations from RHPs throughout Sánchez’s career. Down and away is the goal. The following image is made up of his swing rates. The last image with blue in the lower right are his contact rates on sliders from RHPs.
It does not follow a good color pattern. It is not good when the locations of your lowest contact rates align with where those pitches are thrown most frequently, and you swing at pitches in those zones with some frequency. Pitchers trying to locate in areas where hitters make the least contact is nothing new, but it has been especially troublesome for Sánchez.
It also seems he has struggled to make contact with high fastballs.
This GIF follows the same pattern but instead looks at four-seam fastballs from both righties and lefties. Sánchez has similar issues here; high swing rates and low contact rates on pitches he sees the most.
Because of these issues with fastballs and sliders, it frequently seems that Sánchez is caught in-between, behind fastballs and ahead of sliders. With the prominence of hard throwers with good sliders, that is not good.
Below is a summary of some of his plate discipline numbers. To keep the table from being too bulky I left his BB% out, but they have been from slightly above average to well-above average (7.6% to 12.4%).
His O-Swing% has been improving the last two seasons. This tends to happen as players gain more experience. However, there is not yet a full season’s worth of data there yet.
The stabilization rate for total swing% is only 50 PAs, so the nearly 400 PAs Sanchez has had during this period are likely enough to say there is meaningful improvement here.
During June, Sánchez has been performing very well, posting a .441 wOBA and 184 wRC+. He has gone through hot stretches in the past, preceded or followed by prolonged slumps driven by high strikeout percentages.
Why do I think this time may be different?
At the beginning of June, Sánchez made his leg kick much less pronounced. Here is a swing from May:
Here is one from 6/5/21:
The difference is somewhat subtle, but definitely there. It is not quite as high and the leg doesn’t hang there nearly as long.
Now the last one from 6/20/21.
Here the toe barely leaves the ground. It probably took a while for the change referenced by Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames and Aaron Boone at the beginning of June to fully take effect. Sánchez has had leg kicks of different varieties in the past, but this small one seems to be working very well for him currently.
I am no hitting mechanics expert. If I was, maybe I would’ve played a higher level of baseball. Perhaps the much abbreviated leg kick allows him to be quicker to those high fastballs. In turn, he can wait a bit longer on those down-and-away sliders.
For reference, Game 40 occurred on June 2nd. His wOBA and contact rates have increased dramatically and his K% has dropped. Both his O-contact% and Z-contact% have increased accordingly. Contact made on pitches outside of the strike zone is not necessarily a good thing.
Such contact frequently results in weakly hit balls. Guys like Sánchez that do not run well are less likely to beat out those balls in play. Striking out is preferable to hitting into a double play. Swinging and missing to start off an AB is better than grounding out to short.
No one is expecting Sánchez to improve his contact rates to match David Fletcher, nor does he need to. Coupling an improved O-swing% with improving contact rates may be allowing Sanchez to reach the potential he flashed at the beginning of his career. Considering how hard he hits the ball when he makes contact, even average will do.
Photos by Gene Wang and Arturo Pardavilla III/Wikimedia Commons | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@Jake3Roy on IG)