If there’s been one criticism of Gary Sanchez in his excellent 2017 campaign, it’s that he gives up too many passed balls. Too often, fans feel, they see him scrambling to find a ball that got under his glove, through his legs or off his chest protector. While Gary’s busy trying to locate that wayward ball, runners are advancing 90 feet.
While Sanchez does need to improve this particular area, he faces a challenge that most other developing catchers don’t: the Yankee pitching staff., and more specifically the pitches the staff throws. If you were trying to design a staff that would be difficult to catch, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better example than the Yankee starters and bullpen.
The chief difficulty in catching for the Yankees is the diversity of pitch types. The team throws the fewest fastballs in MLB, at just 44.6% of all pitches. When your top-to-bottom staff includes sinkerballers like Masahiro Tanaka and curveball lovers Sonny Gray and Dellin Betances, you’re bound to see more balls in the dirt. More balls in the dirt, no matter how good you are defensively, is going to lead to more balls getting past.
This isn’t just my opinion, either. There’s a noticeable negative correlation between fastball usage and passed balls. In 2017, the correlation coefficient between the two sets is -0.2871, with two really noticeable wings. Teams that throw a lot of fastballs, like the Brewers at 59.6%, yield fewer passed balls, just nine on the season. Meanwhile, two of the teams throwing the fewest fastballs, the Yankees and Astros, both live below 50% of their pitches being fourseamers, and both give up above-average passed ball numbers.
Passed balls only tell half the story, though. Like errors, passed balls are a scorer’s decision, which can make analyzing them tricky. The rules state that a passed ball is a pitch that would have required ordinary effort to receive, but it is up to the official scorer to decide what ordinary effort constitutes. If you look then at both passed balls and wild pitches, the negative correlation between fastball usage and Balls Away from Catcher (BAC, for short) is even greater, at -0.3715.
I’m not trying to let Sanchez off the hook here. He’s a young catcher who can and should be expected to keep improving with more experience. He does, however, have a handicap that other catchers might not. In the last three seasons, the Yankees have ranked 29th, 30th and 30th in fastball usage, and in all three years the team has given up above-average numbers of passed balls and BACs, despite Sanchez only having been the starter for about half those games.
Balls Away from Catcher, passed balls, whatever you want to call them, have been something the Yankees have been dealing with for a while now. They directly relate to the low number of fastballs the team throws, and therefore are something that must be addressed by the entire organization, not just one player.