Listening to some of the voices from around the Yankees universe, one might come away with the impression that Gary Sanchez is the worst player in baseball. Detractors complain loudly about his low batting average, lack of hustle, and especially his defense.
I’ll admit, it’s sometimes frustrating watching as passed balls and wild pitches roll back to the screen. But that feeling quickly passes, as I remember with gratitude the Kraken’s most recent bone-crushing home run, while eagerly anticipating the next one.
There’s a reason that Sanchez sometimes looks bad defensively when compared to other catchers: most backstops don’t hit a lick. So they have to possess something approaching other-worldly defensive skills just to make it to the big leagues, and to stick once they arrive.
Power-hitting catchers are a rare breed. Those who hit for power, while simultaneously earning the distinction of being top-shelf defenders, are even rarer still. I can think of only two in the latter category who played with longevity during the last 50 years: Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez.
The catching position has been so starved for power, that only 75 players in MLB history have clubbed at least 100 career home runs while playing behind the dish. Just 12 have reached the 200-homer plateau. Rodriguez (304 home runs in 2,377 games), Bench (327 in 1,694), Carlton Fisk (351 in 2,157), and Mike Piazza (396 in 1,611) remain the only four players ever to hit 300 or more home runs while slotting in at catcher. All four are Hall of Famers.
The Kraken’s career trajectory thus far most closely resembles Piazza’s. Both entered the league at age 23, both were top rookies (Piazza won the Rookie of the Year Award while Sanchez finished second), and both played their 250th career game during their age 25 season. Piazza was regarded as a below average defender who, in contrast to Sanchez, was also known to possess a weak arm.
Piazza clubbed 55 home runs through his first 250 MLB games, a record for backstops. Sanchez shattered that mark by hitting 68 long balls during the same span to start his career. I can’t predict whether or not Sanchez will continue to follow Piazza all the way into Cooperstown. I do know that I’d rather see Sanchez pursue legendary status while playing in the Bronx, rather than say, Flushing or Beantown.
It’s not just the home run tally that makes Sanchez stand out. It’s the way he does it. He regularly appears at the top of the Statcast leaderboard for both exit velocity and distance by a catcher. In fact, Sanchez owns the second hardest hit ball (121.1 mph) of 2018 at any position. Only teammate Aaron Judge hit one harder (121.7). Despite missing significant time due to his groin injury, Sanchez clubbed 10 home runs that traveled 400 feet or farther this year.
Sanchez is not merely a generational talent at his position. His unique skill set is unprecedented in MLB history. This combination of power, timing, and bat speed has never been displayed before in the major leagues by a catcher.
There’s one backstop whose power was spoken about the way Sanchez’s is. Sadly, due to segregation and later a brain tumor that ended his life in 1947 at age 35, Josh Gibson never got a chance to compete on baseball’s biggest stage.
The Yankees boast some legendary catchers in their history. Two are enshrined in Cooperstown, while three were near misses. Bill Dickey was considered a top defender, but was mainly known for his hitting prowess, even though he was a platoon player for much of his career. Dickey clubbed 20 plus homers for four straight years from 1936-39.
Dickey was called out of retirement to mentor the young, hot-hitting Yogi Berra in the late 1940s. Yankees brass was very concerned about Berra’s sub-par catching skills. Thanks in part to Dickey’s help, Berra went on to become a better-than-average backstop. Yogi slugged 20-plus home runs for 10 straight years, won three MVP Awards, and was known for rarely striking out.
Berra was pushed to left field as soon as the young Elston Howard was ready. Howard won a pair of Gold Gloves, but was never regarded as the best defensive catcher in the league. Like his Cooperstown-bound predecessors, Ellie was known for his bat. Howard belted 20-plus homers for three straight years, including his MVP Award-winning campaign in ‘63.
Thurman Munson was also an above average defender known mostly for his hitting. He reached the double-digit homer mark six times, including when he belted 17 during his MVP Award-winning ‘76 season. Munson was never considered the best defensive catcher in the league, and was already being transitioned to DH when he died tragically at age 32.
Jorge Posada produced 13 seasons with double-digit home run tallies, including eight with 20 plus. He won four Silver Slugger Awards, but was never regarded as anything more than an average to below-average defender. Posada was a great run producer, whose seven-year peak offensive production compares very favorably to Berra’s.
In 2017, his first full MLB season, Sanchez swatted 33 home runs, tying the single-season franchise record by a catcher. Posada hit 30 homers once, while Berra did it twice. That came on the heels of the Kraken’s outstanding rookie campaign. Practically every day, we heard about how Sanchez broke a new record for hitting X number of home runs within Y games to start a career. His late-season rookie effort was rivaled only by the great Willie McCovey’s in 1959.
”Bronx Bombers” isn’t merely a moniker. It’s the raison d’être for the storied franchise. Pennants and championships are remembered not just for being won, but for how they are won. And it’s the prolific, earth-shattering home runs that stand out the most.
I remember Reggie’s three home runs to clinch the ‘77 World Series, Chambliss’ pennant-clinching blast the year before, Boone’s over a quarter-century later, Tino’s dramatic grand slam against the Padres in ‘98, and Jeter’s Mr. November shot in 2001. There might have been some great defensive plays in those games, too. But I don’t recall them.
The Bombers hitting moonshots is what we remember most. From Ruth and Gehrig, to Mantle and Maris, and now to Judge and Sanchez, the torch has been passed.
George Steinbrenner understood what the Yankees are and what the club means to fans. That’s why he said buying the Yankees is like buying the Mona Lisa. That’s why he prioritized signing the league’s most intimidating power hitter, Reggie Jackson, as soon as he became available in free agency.
His heirs, and the baseball people whom they employ, understand the Yankees brand just as well. That’s why they aren’t going to railroad Sanchez out of town over a few passed balls. The Kraken possesses unprecedented power at his position, and they are going to ride that train all the way to the end of the line. And I’m ecstatic about that.