At first glance, Gary Sanchez’s month at the plate looks like a half-baked success. He is only sporting a batting average of .208, but he is also hitting home runs at a 46-per-162-game pace. His wRC+ is up to 106, and while it was -42 from Opening Day to April 10th, it has been a 188 (!) since then. You could say it feels like August.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s perfect—by no means—and there’s one key area where he could improve. Because of the fly ball revolution, players have prioritized launch angle and power over contact ability to maximize the juiced ball and extract more home runs.
You know what? it has largely worked. Sanchez has seen his average launch angle jump from 7.9 degrees in 2016, to 13.2 in 2017, to a whopping 18.2 this season. It’s had the desired effect. His average batted ball distance has jumped 21 feet from last year, a year in which it was a respectable 179 feet, or about 3.5% better than league average. This year, it’s 16% better than league average.
Getting to the weakness, that means he gets under quite a few pitches. Last season, when he hit at a 130 wRC+ clip, his radial chart shows that 20% of his batted balls were “hit under”:
This is actually quite similar to what he has done in 2016/2017, when 17% of his batted balls were hit under:
The flip side to this, and why those pop up’s don’t burn him, is because he hits so many pitches right on the screws. This season, he ranks fourth in Barrels/PA. Last year he ranked 32nd, about the same as Rhys Hoskins and Manny Machado. In 2016, he ranked ninth, higher than Giancarlo Stanton or Mike Trout, even.
When it comes down to it, the elimination of pop ups is a mechanical one. Look at the home run he hit against the Angels on Sunday, for example, to see how he could avoid popping up pitches up in the zone:
The key is how quickly he moves his wrists through the zone. If he were to lag with the barrel a little bit, but with that same patented launch angle, he would miss the barrel by what is probably an eighth of an inch and get just under the ball. Here is an example of a pop up of his from April 5th:
Although this pitch from Mychal Givens was different, and a bit better and with more arm-side run at that, you can clearly see a mechanical difference. In the home run, Sanchez slowly times his toe tap, loads his hands, and follows through so simply that he finishes his motion standing upright. In the pop up, you can see a delayed toe tap, an extended loading of the hands whereby he drops them and lifts again, and is unbalanced so that he actually pivots off his back foot.
The only thing that separates Sanchez from tippy-top-tier, elite offensive catcher—like, in the all-time sense of the word—and what he “merely” is, just one of the better offensive catchers in the game, is the simplicity by which he uses his swinging motion. It sounds simple, so many players have that potential, but Sanchez has a ~50 home run pace throughout his career without these adjustments for periods of time. We’ve seen what has been otherworldly offensive production from the Kraken, but I can’t truly wrap my mind around the possibility. Imagine August 2016 Gary Sanchez, but all the time.