The first half of this year feels like a decade ago, a time when Aaron Judge was the seemingly singular focus of the wider baseball world. The second half of last year wasn’t far behind it, a time when Gary Sanchez was that seemingly singular focus. The ebbs and flows of baseball always work against that persistent focus, and even great players, once established, seem to fade into the background of the cornucopia of players in the league.
Now Sanchez is just one of the rest, just another home run-hitting catcher. But he really is not, because when you put it into any historical context, it’s just without precedent.
He’s now at 30 home runs in his second season, for a total of 50 home runs in his first 161 games. Sung Min Kim had a really striking stat about his home runs, and it took me aback:
Catchers in ML history who hit 30 or more HR's in 1st or 2nd season of career:— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) September 10, 2017
Mike Piazza (1993)
Earl Williams (1971)
Rudy York (1937)
In major league history! And in his first three (counting 2015) seasons, his numbers are equally as historic among catchers. He is eighth in home runs despite having fewer games than most; he would be in first place if you count 2016 and 2017 as his first two seasons, according to Baseball Reference. By rate stats, he’s still incredible. He is third (!) in OPS at .918, and third in slugging percentage.
In Yankees history, it’s similarly astonishing. If his career were to end today, Sanchez would have the highest catcher wRC+ in franchise history (minimum 650 plate appearances) at 140. In a single season, it’s still great. His 2016 wRC+ of 171 is beat only by Bill Dickey’s 174 (minimum 200 plate appearances), and if you were to scale that minimum up to 450, his 2017 would be 23rd all time (126), about the same as Thurman Munson in 1970.
The Yankees have had quite a few legendary catchers: Yogi Berra, Munson, Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, and Jorge Posada were all franchise faces in their own right. What is remarkable, though, is that Gary Sanchez has yet to see his 25th birthday and is already knocking on the door of top offensive categories to start a career.
The thing that interests me, and I’m sure it interests Yankees fans as well, is whether this current hot streak portends future success. In the early going, Sanchez was good but not great, and he had a tendency to pop up a decent amount. Once he locked in about a month ago, everything seemed to be working.
His swing is so incredibly smooth, simple, and powerful, and he has such amazing pitch recognition, that you can only wonder that if he doesn’t miss a month of the year like this year, and cranks into full gear in May instead of August, he could reasonably hit 50 home runs in an inflated home run environment. We have seen a lot of great moments from the Kraken even just 161 games into his career, but my guess is that the best is really yet to come. On paper, he may be the best offensive talent behind the dish in the franchise’s history.