We love Gary Sanchez. Yankees fans have been begging for a new, young, homegrown star, and it’s very possible we have one in Sanchez. After five seasons on a top prospect list, Sanchez finally graduated last season, putting up numbers that are nearly historic for a rookie season: a 171 wRC+ over 53 games. Since 1945, only Frank Thomas and Willie McCovey had a higher wRC+ in their debut season.
There are some players at the top of that wRC+ leaderboard whose careers didn’t end in stardom: Bernie Carbo, Bret Barberie, Bill Salkeld, and Brett Lawrie, to name a few. The question, of course, is whether Sanchez could possibly keep up such a historic performance into his first full year.
The answer is probably no, because a 170 wRC+ catcher is almost unprecedented (I’m looking at you, Mike Piazza). To look at some possible outcomes for the season, I looked at Sanchez’s PECOTA projections, which are broken down into percentile outcomes, from 10th to 90th. Let’s look at what a 10th, 50th, or 90th percentile outcome would mean for Sanchez’s career outlook.
Let’s start with the worst case. In a 10th percentile outcome, Sanchez would put up a disappointing 1.5 WARP and .247 TAv with 25 home runs. Firstly, it’s unbelievable that his lowest possible outcome is 25 home runs. Secondly, I can already imagine the hand-wringing. I don’t think people would question the move to ship away Brian McCann, but some would continue with Kevin Maas comparisons. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t cause any panic, I don’t think, and most people would feel that a young player would need another year to develop.
In a 50th percentile outcome, Sanchez would likely be a top-five catcher in the league. At 3.7 WARP, a .278 TAv, and 31 home runs, Sanchez would solidify his place in the lineup, and could even get on to the All-Star team with a strong start. The only catchers with a higher WARP in 2016 were Yadier Molina, Wilson Ramos, Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal, and Buster Posey. I can’t imagine any Yankees fan dissatisfied with that.
Alright, and here’s the pièce de résistance. In Sanchez’s 90th percentile outcome, he sits at 6.3 WARP, a .309 TAv, and 37 home runs. To put this lightly, this would place Sanchez in historic territory. In all of baseball history, only 54 catcher single seasons would be more valuable. Some comparable seasons (and keep in mind that framing data before a few years ago is inaccurate) are: Jorge Posada’s 2003, Yogi Berra’s 1950, Buster Posey’s 2013, and Carlton Fisk’s 1977.
At that point, the discussion shifts from whether Sanchez is merely a consistently good player, and whether he’s a superstar franchise player a la Posey. It would finally settle the question of Posada’s long-term replacement, a hole that has been filled on-and-off since around 2010.
Now, there are certainly caveats. PECOTA is a very flawed system, and it’s going to heavily weigh the fact that he’s young and performed extremely well at Triple-A and in the big leagues last year. Even the 10th percentile outcome is quite rosy, and should Sanchez fall somewhat short, it would be far from the end of the world. But players are complicated, and especially when you’re predicting exact numbers over a full season.
As a rule of thumb, though, it’s very difficult to see Sanchez being anything other than a league average player—there’s almost a 90% chance of that. And of that 90%, there’s a 10% slice where Sanchez puts up career numbers, something that could very well catapult the Yankees to the postseason in the right circumstances. For Yankees fans, myself included, we’ll be waiting for the results with bated breath.