If you were a casual fan of baseball, you may have paid attention to a young, powerful right-handed hitter who sent baseballs towards the moon and paired that with a cannon for an arm. If you were a casual fan of baseball, you would probably have heard of Aaron Judge, and while Judge deserves all the accolades he’s been showered with, there’s another terrific young Yankee who fits the above description, that some people seem to have forgotten about.
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez has been, simply, the best catcher in the American League, and roughly 50% better than an average hitter at the plate. It feels like an important time to remind everyone of that, as Judge leads the field in All-Star votes and gets invitations to the Home Run Derby.
We all know how great Sanchez’s debut was last season, with 20 home runs in 53 games and nearly single-handedly keeping the Yankees within sniffing distance of a playoff spot the team really wasn’t good enough to merit. As Gary’s played 43 games after Thursday night’s loss to the Angels, we have a roughly similar sample size and can compare how good he’s been this season to his stellar rookie campaign.
In 2017, Sanchez is walking the same amount while striking out less, putting away fears that he didn’t have the discipline to stick at the Major League level. What’s impressive about his walk and strikeout stats? Simply, the quality of the team he’s playing on, and the league’s adjustments to him. In 2016, he was a star hitter in an otherwise underwhelming lineup, and so pitchers weren’t particularly worried about facing him; if Gary Sanchez was going to be the only guy of nine to hit you well, you probably stood a good chance of winning.
Take a look at Sanchez’s heatmaps from 2016 and 2017, and note how pitchers have moved away from him in 2017.
Sanchez has seen more pitches down in the zone, and fewer pitches in the traditional “sweet spots” in the strike zone. Whether this is a pitcher adjustment or a “fear” factor is unclear, what is clear is that Gary’s been able to lay off this new battery of bad pitches. His O-Contact% is down from last year, while overall contact is up, meaning he’s more selective and hitting pitches better than ever before.
There’s also an argument to be made that Sanchez is slightly underperforming this season, at least by examining his batted ball results. Like a lot of hitters, he’s been able to get the ball in the air more, bringing his GB% down 8% while seeing the bulk of that gap go to his line drive rates, which are up 7% over last season. As we know, line drives are the most likely to become hits, and so boosting that rate will probably lead to more hits falling in.
This is underlined by looking at his BABIP, which is ten points higher than last season at a .327 mark. This indicates to me that Sanchez has been a little unlucky this season, as the BABIP rise has been disproportionately small to the improvements in batted ball outcomes. When a player’s LD and FB rates increase, plate discipline remains the same but the BABIP mark doesn’t proportionally increase, that’s usually a sign he’s hitting balls directly at fielders. Over 500+ at-bats, those well-struck balls will turn into hits, so we can probably expect even better numbers for Gary going forward.
At the time I’m writing this, Gary Sanchez is third in the AL in All-Star balloting among catchers. The All-Star game can be silly, but it can be a good reflection of which players are recognizable among fans outside of a team’s city. Salvador Perez currently leads fan voting, which isn’t super surprising as he’s been held up as the example of the perfect catcher in the AL for the past few seasons. The only issue with that is Gary Sanchez is objectively better, probably going to get better, and a huge piece of a team that’s challenging for a division title.