It’s a confusing time to be a Yankees fan, especially when it comes to catchers. Gary Sanchez had a dreadful 2018, one full of subpar performance and injury. Austin Romine showed flashes of real improvement before logging a 59 wRC+ in the second half. Meanwhile, rumors swirl around the possibility of the Yankees engineering a multi-team trade that could land them the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto.
Realmuto is seen by some as the best catcher in baseball, and there are arguments you can make supporting that. Among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances last year – about 100 games – Realmuto led the position in wRC+ and fWAR. Plus, it all comes in a package that’s just 27 years old and under team control for two more seasons.
The number of possible trades involving Realmuto has made my head spin. While it looks like the Astros could have the inside track on acquiring him, the Mets, Yankees and Dodgers have also been in on the Marlins’ lone remaining star. The other New York team signing Wilson Ramos seems to take them out of the game, and it remains to be seen just how much appetite there is for J.T. in the Bronx.
There really shouldn’t be that much, though. Brian Cashman has been adamant that Sanchez is his starting catcher, and early offseason projections seem to agree. He is projected to be a better hitter and equally as valuable as Realmuto in 2019 by Steamer. This reflects the fact that on pure talent and his process stats, he’s the best catcher in the game.
Now I know there’s a lot of confusion about that last point. Josh, didn’t you watch the 2018 season? Didn’t you see how truly dreadful Sanchez was at the plate? Why yes, yes I did. His results were far worse than his process, though, especially when compared to Realmuto. The two players really are almost identical:
The two biggest discrepancies between them is Sanchez’s strikeouts and their distribution of batted balls. To the first point, it’s important to remember that Sanchez also walks a whole lot more, and that’s reflected in the fact he has a higher career OBP — .333 to .327 —despite such a bad 2018.
The batted ball profile, meanwhile, is a symptom of rust and health more than anything else. Sanchez did see a rise in percentage of balls he hit “underneath” per Statcast, but that’s a commonly accepted sign of recovery from injury, similar to the way that command is the last thing to come back for a pitcher returning from injury.
Now, there is chatter that Gary’s problem came from his inability to go the other way, and that shifts killed him. It’s true that he saw shifts in 45% of plate appearances – up from 28% a year ago. And while Realmuto does spray the ball better, Gary’s 2018 was actually much more evenly distributed than you’d think:
This is why so much of Sanchez’s 2018 is written off as bad luck, or at least negative random variations from the mean. He didn’t pull the ball more than his career rate, and he went the other way more. In fact, he did exactly what people say you should do when you face a shift.
The other concern for Sanchez is a lack of confidence in himself in 2018, which is understandable given how many setbacks he faced. He actually improved his plate discipline – his chase rate went down and his contact rate actually went up. What took me by surprise was his reluctance early in the count and on crushable pitches; he swung at fewer first pitches and swung at fewer “meatballs”, or pitches middle-middle. Taking pitches early is a hallmark of the Yankee approach, and I think gets them into trouble when pitchers start with fastballs in the zone.
These takes, to me, reflect that Sanchez wasn’t feeling himself for most of the year. Rather than attacking pitches, he was playing too conservatively at the plate. If he’s healthy in 2019, I think that confidence comes back and it becomes much harder to sneak a pitch past him.
Lastly, the big edge that Sanchez has over Realmuto is a much higher ceiling. There’s an old standby in statistics called “signature significance”, which holds that certain events, even if they aren’t supported by a strong sample size, are more reflective of a true level of output. A pitcher who strikes out 20 batters in a game, for example, is a good pitcher regardless of sample size. Bad pitchers, and even mediocre pitchers, don’t strike out that many men.
To that end, Sanchez’s signature significance, and the reason for his higher ceiling, comes from the fact that he makes elite-level contact. His max exit velocity was second in baseball this year, only behind Giancarlo Stanton. Realmuto’s max was 166th in baseball. His average exit velocity is almost two full miles per hour better than Realmuto. Despite having 157 more plate appearances than Sanchez, Realmuto “barreled” the ball just twice more.
Sanchez has probably already put his 2018 behind him, and really we all should. Cashman is right to say the starting catcher for the 2019 New York Yankees is Sanchez, and we should all expect much better performance next year. A convoluted trade for Realmuto is betting on a sustainably high floor without Sanchez’s extreme upside, and the opportunity cost of acquisition means the assets needed would likely be better spent elsewhere.
Be patient, Yankee fans. 2019 will be better for Gary, and we’re all going to see less of this…
...and more of this.