When Gary Sanchez grounded into a game-ending double play on Sunday night, it stood out for two reasons. On the one hand, it signaled that the Yankees wouldn’t sweep the Subway Series. Bummer. More depressing, however, it represented that hardest contact he made in some time.
Sanchez’s struggles in 2018 have been well documented. The Yankees catcher has hit to an anemic .190/.291/.430 batting line. Even with 12 home runs factored in, the 25-year-old has been worth just 96 wRC+ this season. This isn’t a regular slump; it’s flat out bad.
Just pointing this out, however, isn’t particularly helpful. I know he’s playing poorly. You know it. Sanchez definitely knows it. Two questions prove far more interesting, though. First, what explains his dreadful performance? Then, what can the Yankees do to fix it? It turns out the answer likely resides in his batting mechanics.
If one peels back the layers of Sanchez’s 2018 performance, his struggles come into clearer focus. Take his hard contact rate for example. That number dropped precipitously in 2018. Right now it’s at the lowest point of his entire career. Sanchez can’t expect quality results if he isn’t hitting the ball with any authority.
I compared the hard contact rate with Sanchez’s groudball percentage. It’s somewhat encouraging to see that his grounder rate is consistent with previous slumps, but that lack of well-struck baseballs is alarming.
If that drop off looks peculiar, brace yourself. His plate disciple numbers are even more concerning. Normally when a player slumps like this, his problem stems from a propensity to get swing happy. The batter will chase pitches out of the zone, and that results in whiffs. Sanchez has those struggles, sure, but his inability to swing at pitches in the zone stands out as a major concern.
Sanchez isn’t making quality contact because he isn’t swinging at strikes. It’s the pitches in the zone that are hittable. Those are the ones that a batter of his caliber can demolish. He’s not making an offerr at them, though.
Part of that could be the result of how pitchers have approached him. A comparison of heatmaps doesn’t exactly back that up, though. His 2018 chart looks fairly similar to his career numbers. There’s a few more pitches down and away, but that may just be a sample size issue. In general, the patterns play out similarly.
This leads me to believe there’s a mechanical issue at play. A couple of examples would go a long way in assessing this theory. Consider an at-bat against Justin Verlander earlier in the season. Sanchez crowds the plate. He has a ton of movement in his bat before Verlander even fires off the pitch. That’s not to mention his stance. There’s an exaggerated bend to his knees that leaves his swing off balance.
Now compare that to a home run he launched against Erik Goeddel last August:
In this clip, Sanchez stands farther away from the plate. His bat is relaxed and the swing is more compact. His knees also don’t have such a dramatic bend; he stands taller for much of the at-bat. This almost looks like a different batter entirely.
A mechanical rut would go a long way to explain Sanchez’s offensive shortcomings. He may not be swinging at as many strikes because he either isn’t seeing the ball well or doesn't have enough time to adjust. That’s the product of a stance too close to the plate and too low to the ground. When he does make it around to the ball, the contact isn’t square. It makes a lot of sense!
This is, of course, just a theory. I’m confident that Marcus Thames and Sanchez have discussed a number of factors that could explain his slump and how to correct them. Nonetheless, something is clearly at work here.
The Yankees have compiled a terrific 42 - 19 record so far this season. Much of that success has been in spite of, not thanks to Sanchez. The club can’t expect to keep up that pace without him though. Eventually he needs to snap out of it and live up to his career numbers. It may just be a matter of a quick mechanical adjustment.