No longer fat and lazy, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez has gone from being the New York tabloids’ punching bag last season to keeping the team atop the AL East while Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were injured.
Sanchez leads all catchers with 23 home runs and 54 RBI, and his batting average is more than 70 points higher than last season, at .261. He’s seventh in the league in ISO and 23rd in OPS; without his bat the Yankees likely don’t lead the division, certainly not by seven games.
The Kraken, as he was christened by Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, was unleashed on Major League Baseball in the second half of 2016, when he crushed 20 home runs in 53 games. He followed up that performance in 2017 with 33 round-trippers in 122 games.
Then things went off the rails in 2018 when after about a season and a half of hitting in the high .200s, his average dropped down to .186. Injuries limited him to just 89 games, in which he hit 18 home runs. Additionally, his defensive struggles behind the plate drew the ire of the New York media. Coming into 2019, a large, albeit pessimistic, portion of the Yankees’ fanbase seemed to doubt that Sanchez would return to form.
However, the 26-year-old has thus far come back better than ever. While still mostly a pull hitter, Sanchez has driven more pitches to center and right fields in the air than ever before. Fly balls account for 50.9% of his batted balls, which is up from 42.9% the previous season. With this, his ground ball to fly ball ratio has gone down from one grounder per fly ball, to .55 grounders per fly ball. Only 28% of his batted balls are on the ground this year, a significant drop from the 42.9% from last season.
His BABIP is up to .273 from a dreadful .197 last season, and 28% of his fly balls are clearing the fence, which is also up from 18.2% last year and is good for seventh place in the league.
Sanchez has been driving the ball much better in general, and it shows in his batting average on balls in play in particular. According to Baseball Savant, his 93.2 mph average exit velocity is the seventh-highest in MLB this season. Sanchez ranked 76th in the league, averaging 90.3 mph, in 2018.
Driving the ball harder through the air combined with the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium has made for a pitch-perfect bounce-back season for Sanchez and the Yankees.
While he’s getting better results, it’s not that Sanchez is being more judicious at the plate. In fact, like most of the league, he’s striking out a bit more than he was last year. His approach hasn’t changed, he’s even swinging at—and making contact with—more pitches outside of the zone last year, and the inverse is true for pitches inside it.
Injury or a Fastball Diet?
So then what caused his dip in production and subsequent revival? In 2018, he missed time with a groin injury. He originally suffered it June, but it sidelined him at several different points throughout the year. Additionally, Sanchez had surgery this past November to remove debris from the AC joint of his left shoulder.
Is 2019 Gary Sanchez what we can expect from him from here out, or is he just seeing more pitches he likes? Last season, opposing pitchers threw a slider to Sanchez 24.5% of the time, nearly as often as they threw him a four-seam fastball, 28.3%. This year, while he’s seen more of both pitches, the gap between them has widened, 27% of the pitches he’s seen have been sliders and 34.3% are four-seamers.
Sanchez has taken full advantage of this new selection. According to Baseball Savant, 13 of his 23 home runs have been of four-seam fastballs, and just as importantly, while he’s not having as much success with sliders, he does have four home runs off the pitch, whereas he had just one last season.
72.5% of pitches thrown this season have been either fastballs or sliders, however, Sanchez has struggled against curveballs and splitters. Throwing more pitches with a downward break may become part of his scouting report on him.
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Gary will still make contact with these pitches more often than not, 57.9% of the time, when he’s chasing. However, he does have an apparent urge to chase low pitches. According to Baseball Savant, he’s seen 57 pitches in the dirt and has struck out on 14 of them, making up 20.5% of his strikeouts on the season.
The return of Aaron Judge, acquisition of Edwin Encarnacion, and the assumption that Giancarlo Stanton will eventually be back in the Yankees lineup does mean that pitchers may be less inclined to pitch around Sanchez, but he may reward them if they try to make him chase pitches. His 7.9% walk rate is 18th among the 31 catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, and he’s swinging at more pitches outside the zone than at any other point since his two-game cup of coffee in 2015. His 35.7% O-Swing rate is seventh among that same group.
After looking at how little his approach changed, injury seems to be the best explanation to Sanchez’s anemic offensive performance in 2018. Before his June 24 groin injury, despite a batting average of .190, he still had 14 home runs in 63 games played. After returning, he had four in 26 games, two of which came in the last week of the season.
In a 2018 study titled Hip and Groin Injuries in Baseball Players, Ryan A. Mlynarek and Struan H. Coleman—a pair of orthopedic surgeons specializing in sports medicine—found that, “bat swing speed may be secondary to decreased mobility and strength within the proximal kinetic chain, which must harness power from the lower extremities and core.”
Essentially, the groin injury likely kept Sanchez from converting all his potential power into his swing. Not only does this explain his home run drought late last season but also his decreased exit velocity and BABIP.
While this is good news for the Yankees, their fans and fantasy owners, Sanchez’s offensive struggles were only half the story last year. Many of Sanchez’s harshest critics cited a perceived lack of hustle on the base paths and behind the plate.
The jeers became the loudest on July 23 against the Tampa Bay Rays. During the first inning, a Luis Severino breaking ball bounced off Sanchez’s foot for his 10th passed ball of the season. His lackadaisical trot over to and errant throw of the ball allowed Jake Bauers to score from second. In the ninth, Sanchez came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs and New York down a run. He hit a grounder to second, but Aaron Hicks was able to beat the force play at second base; however, the return throw to first beat a lightly jogging Sanchez to end the game.
At this, the lowest point of his worst season, a contingent of fans had turned on the former top prospect, convincing themselves that playing backup catcher Austin Romine would be the better option. While his performance that day was undeniably embarrassing, and there had been a lot of preceding transgressions, Sanchez clearly was not healthy at this point. This was his third game back from his June 24 groin injury, and afterward, he didn’t return to the lineup again until Sept. 1.
However, while the Yankee catcher’s strong arm makes him a decent defensive catcher against runners, passed balls in particular have plagued his time behind the plate. He’s had a tendency to stab at pitches with his glove rather than blocking them with his body. In 2017 and 2018, he lead the league with 16 and 18 passed balls respectively, and those 18 in 2018 came in just 76 games played last year.
Unlike his struggles at the plate, his problems behind it can’t be pinned as fully on his injuries. They surely exacerbated his issues, but his difficulty with this aspect of defense has been noted by scouts throughout his entire career. However, Sanchez currently has just five passed balls in 51 games in 2019.
While working out before their series with Boston began in London, Sanchez explained what he’s done to improve his defense: “One thing I can pinpoint, me and (catching instructor Jason) Brown worked on reacting to unexpected pitches,” Sanchez said via Randy Miller of NJ.com. “When I say that, I mean location-wise. You always want the pitch where you call for it, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. So how do we react in a way that we can receive those in a positive way?”
Far from perfect, Sanchez still has several holes in his game to still fill. However, at 26, the young catcher is entering his prime as one of the most dangerous offensive catchers in the league. The majority of the blame for his poor 2018 campaign appears to lie with nagging injuries to his groin and shoulder. Should he remain healthy, Yankees fans and fantasy owners are looking at a bright future.
(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)