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On Gary Sanchez, and what happens when players take a step back

Gary Sanchez has regressed this season, and that’s fine.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Judge has spoiled us. He had one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time in 2017, and built a very legitimate MVP case in the process. This year, he’s continued to be the best player on the Yankees. Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres have also spoiled us, maturing at the plate in the middle of a playoff race, at ages where most players are at least one level below MLB.

And Gary Sanchez spoiled us, for a time. He had one of the most incredible hot streaks I’ve ever seen when he was called up in 2016, and followed that up by being the best or second best – with all respect to Buster Posey – catcher in the game last year. Then, 2018 happened.

This isn’t meant to be an autopsy of Gary’s season. There have been enough versions of that that one more would be at best superfluous, and at worst removing a possibly fertile offseason topic to discuss. No matter how the 2018 Yankee season ends, one of the most common pitches from November to February will be different deconstructions of Sanchez’s season.

Instead, this is a reminder of the nature of player development. Like everything else in baseball, it’s a study of failure populated by brief and temporary successes. MLB teams chew and claw for the rights to sign 16-year-old players in Venezula who won’t see MLB action for five years at least, and more than likely will never even crack a Double or Triple-A roster. The draft is an annual exercise in six-figure lottery tickets.

Once a player navigates the Byzantine minor league system, surviving on pay that only wishes it could represent poverty wages, we expect them to follow a relatively straight trajectory; continual improvement through the early years in the majors, then a correspondingly straightforward decline once they hit their 30’s. The thing is, on an individual level, that almost never happens.

Development is not linear. Once a player reaches the majors, their development doesn’t end. They’re not a finished product all of a sudden. Correspondingly, performance doesn’t follow a linear path, at least not on an individual level. For all the well-deserved criticism Gary’s received this year, it’s kind of normal for young players to take a step back even after appearing to have “arrived”.

There are five players that can reasonably be said to represent the “youth movement” the Yankees are in, and at the same time have played multiple seasons. Jordan Montgomery, Torres and Andujar are part of this class too, but haven’t really accrued enough playing time to fit my example. Absolutely none of those five players, plotted below, have seen linear development:

If linear development was a thing, we’d see players continually trend upward. Instead, we have a cluster of zigzags. Even Aaron Judge, who aside from age would represent a 99th percentile example of player development, has taken a small but real step back in 2018! He’s projected for a one and a half win dropoff from last season, had he played a full 2018.

That’s still incredibly valuable, but goes to show that nobody is immune from development pangs. Didi Gregorius’ career is a testament to how often players sometimes take a step back before taking three or four steps forward. In fact, even Sanchez’s year-over-year change in fWAR isn’t the greatest in this sample, at 50% worse than last year. Didi’s big step back was, a 71% drop.

The funniest thing about all this is just how ludicrously good Sanchez is to begin with. Prorated over a full, 650 plate appearance season, he’d be worth about 2.7 wins, which right now ties him with Willson Contreras for fourth best among catchers. In a season where everything’s gone wrong, Sanchez is still better than all but four of his contemporaries.

We’ve been spoiled as Yankee fans by the graduation of one of the best young crops of players under the modern development system. Expectations are sky-high for this group, right or wrong. I’m not telling you not to have high expectations for a great team, but it is worth remembering that all players take steps back, and players with the talent of Sanchez, Gregorius and Luis Severino will more often than not find a way to get back.