It’s not a hot take to say that Gary Sanchez had a bad 2018 season. His offensive numbers declined across the board, his defense didn’t improve, his hustle was questioned, and he struggled with nagging injuries. So yeah, not a great year for Gary.
FanGraphs says that, by WAR, Sanchez was the 16th-best catcher in baseball. While Sanchez wasn’t as good as he was expected to be, ranking him a below-average starting catcher seems excessive. Although WAR is cumulative and Sanchez did miss time, I still think that the formula got it wrong. First, let’s look at Sanchez’s case to be in the top 10, and then see if he actually deserves to be there.
Sanchez’s case to crack the top 10 has to start with his hitting. Even in a down year, Sanchez showed unprecedented power from the catcher position. Nine catchers popped 15 or more home runs this year, and all of them except Sanchez took over 110 games to do it. Sanchez only needed 89 contests to reach 18 HR and 51 RBI. This is reflected in Sanchez’s isolated power (ISO), which was second-best among catchers at .220. As we’ve said before on this site, Sanchez’s power is world-class for a catcher.
When watching Sanchez hit, his biggest drawback is his propensity for strikeouts. While his strikeout rate did climb to 25.1 percent, there are several catchers with worse rates, such as Mike Zunino, Jorge Alfaro and Robinson Chirinos. These guys finished the season with a higher WAR than Sanchez anyway, despite being worse overall hitters. Also, Sanchez’s walk rate improved this year; he had the sixth-best walk rate among starting catchers at 12.3 percent. This helped him salvage an on-base percentage that was over 100 points higher than his crummy .186 batting average.
Speaking of batting average, there are signs that Sanchez’s poor .186/.291/.406 triple slash may have had something to do with bad luck. His hard vs. soft contact rate and his pull vs. opposite field rates stayed the same from 2017 to 2018. However, his BABIP plummeted from .304 to .197. Sanchez’s injuries and the increased use of the defensive shift could have contributed to the precipitous drop in his BABIP. It’s hard to have a worse figure than .197 on batted balls in play, so Sanchez is sure to improve offensively at least partially next year. Given all of the above information, we can surmise that Sanchez is still an above-average offensive catcher even in a rock bottom offensive year.
Now, we move onto Sanchez’s fielding. The big knock on Sanchez defensively is the high number of passed balls and wild pitches that come when he’s behind the plate. The fact remains that Sanchez leads the league in passed balls over the past two seasons. That has undoubtedly cost the Yankees some extra runs and maybe some frustrating one-run losses.
However, Sanchez is surprisingly sound at all of the other defensive aspects of a catcher’s game. He rates as an above-average pitch framer and a solid thrower. According to StatCorner, a site that ranks catcher’s pitch framing abilities, Sanchez steals strikes on pitches outside the zone 7.7 percent of the time, which is 10th-best among starting catchers.
StatCorner also measures pitches in the strike zone that were errantly called balls. Sanchez is the second-best starting catcher (behind the Red Sox’s pair of Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon) in terms of getting the strike call on pitches over the plate. This all adds up to a “catcher’s plus-minus” of +25 on borderline calls. That’s 25 more strikes that Sanchez got the call on compared to the average catcher.
Sanchez is also top-10 at throwing out baserunners among starting catchers. His caught-stealing rate has declined a bit from his incomparable rookie campaign, but it remains solid at a steady 30 percent, better than Buster Posey, Kurt Suzuki, Alfaro and Chirinos. While Sanchez needs to improve his blocking, the other facets of his defensive game are better than many think, which paints him as an average defensive catcher. This leaves us with Sanchez as an above-average hitter and average fielder, relative to his position. That sounds like a top 10 player!
There are four catchers in baseball who are clearly better than Sanchez: J.T. Realmuto, Buster Posey, Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras. There are also seven catchers ahead of Sanchez in WAR who I believe are worse overall players. Yan Gomes, Omar Narvaez and Jorge Alfaro are good defensive catchers, but they don’t hit at all. Elias Diaz is a young, unproven backup, Kurt Suzuki at age 35 can’t possibly be better than Sanchez, and Chirinos and Zunino offer even less defensive value than Sanchez while also being inferior hitters. There’s no way any of these players should have been above Sanchez in terms of WAR.
This pins Sanchez somewhere between the fifth-through-ninth-best catcher in the MLB. The players he is contending with for the spot? Yadier Molina, Wilson Ramos, Salvador Perez and Francisco Cervelli. I’ll give Molina the fifth seed for his Gold Glove defense and consistency and Ramos the sixth spot for his late-career breakout and lack of a true weakness. I’ll take Sanchez over Perez, a terrible pitch framer and a low on-base guy, any day though, and while Cervelli is solid at many things, his ceiling is probably close to Sanchez’s floor. Sanchez has way more potential than these guys, which is why he’s a perfect fit as the seventh-best catcher in baseball.
Early on this season, I wrote that Sanchez was the best catcher in the AL and one of the Yankees’ cornerstones. While a down year has dampened the hype on Sanchez somewhat, he can very easily regain his luster with a better showing in 2019. The book on Gary Sanchez is far from shut; in all likelihood the adversity he faced in 2018 will only make him a stronger player moving forward.