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Establishing benchmarks for a successful Gary Sanchez season

The Yankees catcher broke through in a big way last season. What is the best way to evaluate his 2017 campaign?

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Sanchez arrived last season and took the big leagues by storm. He tormented opposing pitchers and batters alike. When he wasn’t hitting at a Ruthian clip, he used his cannon of an arm to embarrass baserunners. His dynamic introduction exceeded even the highest of expectations. It was wonderful.

This revelatory performance, however, creates challenges for fans and evaluators. How does one measure a successful year for Sanchez? It’s not reasonable to expect him to swat 60 home runs over the course of a full season. In fact, it’s entirely possible that we saw the best two months of his career late last summer. Those numbers truly stand out as historically good.

That said, there are parts of Sanchez’s game that have room for improvement. These areas can serve as benchmarks for evaluating his season. They could indicate if he takes a step forward and rounds out his game. I’ve identified three areas, by no means an exhausting list, in which Sanchez could improve his game this year. They cover both sides of the ball, pitching and defense.

Two of the three benchmarks pertain to catching, particularly framing and blocking. According to Baseball Prospectus, Sanchez saved 1.6 runs last season with his pitch framing. For comparison’s sake, then teammate Brian McCann saved 9.2 runs. While Sanchez had significantly few chances than McCann, these numbers confirm the eye test that he wasn’t as proficient of a framer as others in the league.

In addition to framing, Sanchez struggled to block pitches last season. There are a number of metrics for determining how well a catcher handles blocking, but I prefer Errant Pitches Above Average (EPAA) by Baseball Prospectus. This measurement shows how likely a catcher is to block a wild pitch or passed ball. Brayan Pena of the Reds leads the league in limited time with a .063 EPAA. Sanchez ranked 18th with a .004 mark. The Yankees have several pitchers who are notably difficult to catch, namely Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances. That said, blocking proves an integral part of the catching job and is an area of improvement for Sanchez.

It bears mentioning that Sanchez has gone to great lengths in recent years to improve his defense. Josh Paul, the Yankees catching coordinator, spoke to the New York Daily News’ Anthony McCarron about about it last August.

“[Sanchez] was really dedicated and ready to work and improve his defense. He really learned to put it before his offense, which catchers need to do. It's an amazing bat, but that's really gravy because the job he does behind the plate is so much more important. He recognized that....It's one of the coolest turnarounds I've ever seen.”

It will be worth watching Sanchez handle framing and blocking this season. He’s adjusted and made improvements in other areas. If he continues to do so, then he will take another step forward in becoming a quality defensive catcher. The Yankees have shown that they’re willing to live with poor defense from behind-the-plate if the bat plays big enough (see: Posada, Jorge). That said, the club clearly values catcher defense and Sanchez would do well to grow at the position.

Believe it or not, there was an area where Sanchez struggled offensively. He posted a 24.9% strikeout rate last year. That’s the upper-bound of what teams find acceptable. Anything higher and you enter the problematic range. This became especially notable in September when he began to struggle. Jake Devin noted that Sanchez’s plate discipline broke down later in the season. His 34% out-of-zone swing rate eclipsed the league average. If Sanchez has an area to improve in this season, it’s cutting down on that percentage. Plate discipline will be worth monitoring over the course of the year.

Sanchez represents a cornerstone of the Yankees’ youth movement. That’s because he combines an elite ceiling with an all-around quality game. He has very few glaring holes in his game. This makes evaluating his season difficult, but not impossible. A successful season for Sanchez means strengthening his weak spots, not necessarily posting eye-popping historic numbers.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.