The whole point of sabermetrics, if there is just one, is to provide some sense of objective analysis to baseball. If one thing has been proven in the post-sabermetric world, it’s that not everything can always be truly quantified; there needs to be the same type of skepticism to numeric orthodoxy as there was when the field was born. Yet, there are times when its original motives and intents need to be readdressed, because they are useful when baseball analysis is completely irrational, or out of bounds.
That brings us to the case of Gary Sanchez’s blocking. If you’ve watched this team at all this year you know the criticisms, but I’ll sum them up. There was always some concern about his defense. That’s been the case since he was just a prospect, but the subject came to a head in the beginning of August when he allowed his 12th passed ball during a 7-2 loss against the Indians. “He needs to improve. Bottom line,” Joe Girardi merely said. The press took it from there.
The problems continued, though, and so did the narrative. Sanchez now has 16 passed balls, which is tied for the most in baseball. Two weeks ago, an article actually had to be written with the headline: “Yankees' Tony Pena on Gary Sanchez: He's not lazy and will become elite catcher.” Then to cap it all off, John Harper at the Daily News wrote that Austin Romine should catch over Sanchez during the Wild Card game.
Here’s the thing, though: blocking doesn’t really matter. It does in a sense, because if catchers allowed every ball past them they wouldn’t be catchers. That said, major league catchers are already at such a high bar that the difference between them isn’t really that great. Jeffrey Paternostro at Baseball Prospectus did the math, and I’ll do some more:
I can't believe I bothered to do the math on this, but Gary Sanchez's pitch blocking cost the Yanks 0.02 runs per game this year.— Jeffrey Paternostro (@jeffpaternostro) September 29, 2017
Exactly. Sabermetrics comes in handy to dispel myths like these. Here’s where you expose the ridiculous nature of even focusing so heavily on this, and it reveals what this analysis is actually about.
According to Baseball Prospectus, which has the best catching defense statistics on the web, Caleb Joseph has the most Blocking Runs in baseball at 2.7 runs this season. Sanchez, on the other hand, was worth -2.8 blocking runs. That’s a difference of 5.5 runs a year, or 0.04 runs per game. So even if Sanchez woke up tomorrow and became the best blocker in baseball, it would manifest itself as about one extra run per month. It’s not even like this correlates to his overall defensive value, because it does not: Sanchez ranks 11th in Framing Runs, 7th in Throwing Runs, and 13th in Fielding Runs Above Average. The next player above him is Buster Posey.
This is where it comes to why this narrative even exists. It reminds me to an extent of the Robinson Cano hustling narrative during his time in New York, which was similarly magnified and also trivial. Ben Lindbergh wrote in 2014 that because of Cano’s lack of hustle down the line, it cost him about “four singles a season.”
This means that the New York press doesn’t actually care about demonstrably improving the team, it’s a matter of imposing values upon a team and player, values that are completely apart from what makes a winning club. Two extra home runs would completely erase the value of the blocking runs, yet we wouldn’t narrow in on that and argue it’s some evidence of effort or laziness.
Laziness is the key, though, because many of these writers simply think it’s something that can be fixed with more work. If it isn’t fixed, that means you’re not putting in that work. Don’t kid yourself and say that Latino players do not get this criticism disproportionately, because they do. Sanchez is not lazy, because if he was, he would not be a big leaguer.
This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fixed, or that coaches should have an anything-goes-mindset. At the same time, though, the press should still try to focus on things that actually correlate with the value of a player, or have some relationship to game outcomes. The fact is that Sanchez has cost the Yankees a few runs because of his blocking, but he’s also provided something like 45 more runs than the replacement level player. That’s what matters.