The 2018 season has not been kind to Gary Sanchez. The 25-year-old backstop has battled injuries, defensive woes, and a growing sense of resentment among Yankees fans. Even with all that, I found myself surprised on Thursday morning when I saw a vocal group of fans and observers calling for the Yankees to start Austin Romine in a potential Wild Card Game. Even worse, several outright advocated trading the former top prospect.
Having dealt with my share of Sanchez frustrations, I decided to do some research to see if there was some merit to these claims. Incidentally, I walked away even more confident in the Kraken than when I started. The Yankees have to stick with Sanchez as their catcher, and here are five reasons why.
Blocking is a problem, but a fixable one
It makes sense to begin with the painfully obvious: Sanchez must improve his blocking. That’s non-negotiable. Passed balls have haunted him for a whole year now. It’s the single-most glaring weakness in his entire body of work.
Sanchez’s inability to block pitches broadcast itself in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night against Oakland. In the first inning alone, Sanchez lost track of the ball on three separate occasions. It was an absolute nightmare.
Gary and Sevy team up for the worst first inning imagineable. pic.twitter.com/L6gNElWZxW— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) September 6, 2018
While an egregious example, this blocking fiasco serves as a microcosm for Sanchez’s season on the whole. He’s caught 59 games this year, and allowed a mind-boggling 13 passed balls. Even after a pair of lengthy trips on the disabled list, he figures to sail beyond the 16 passed balls he allowed last season. That’s not a record anyone wants eclipsed.
On the bright side, this aspect of the game appears fixable. It will take work, and may require a full offseason worth of it, but it’s still doable. In fact, former Yankees manager Joe Girardi had a suggestion for Sanchez.
“It’s his base,” Girardi explained to Chris Russo, “The left knee collapses and he’s not in a position to catch some of these balls and block some of these balls. And if they can fix that, it’s a no-brainer.”
Girardi then explained how difficult it is to make these adjustments during the season. So, even though reports came out about how much weight Sanchez lost, or how he is in good shape now, it’s tough to expect him to suddenly transform into a blocking virtuoso. He will likely need a full winter to make mechanical adjustments. Should he do that, though, the Yankees will have the complete package at catcher. His other areas of the game are perfectly fine, and that’s why the team can wait for the offseason to change stances.
Sanchez excels at other areas behind the plate
Observers tend to overlook the strong aspects of Sanchez’s catching game, an unfortunate side effect of his struggles with blocking. A costly passed ball lingers in the mind longer than a brilliantly framed pitch or a terrific throw, but they all represent important elements of a catcher’s job. It’s not fair to dismiss him as a backstop based on one weakness. With that in mind, it’s worth surveying his particular strengths.
Take pitch framing for example. Sanchez stands out as an above-average receiver in this regard. According to StatCorner, he ranks as the ninth-best framer among catchers who have seen 4,000+ pitches this season. That’s out of 25 qualified backstops.
Top Pitch Framers
Over the course of the season, Sanchez essentially bought 14 extra strikes for his pitchers. If that seems insignificant, consider the Yankees’ pitching staff. It boasts the likes of Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray, two starters who aren’t easy to catch. There’s also CC Sabathia, who lives on the corners these days. Sanchez’s ability to present balls as strikes has a definite, positive result on the game.
It is also common knowledge that Sanchez has a cannon for an arm. His throwing ability places him in the upper-echelons of all catchers in baseball. He owns an average 86.7 mph arm speed and a 1.95 pop time to second base. Out of 101 qualified catchers, those marks rank him sixth and twelfth, respectively.
If those numbers aren’t convincing enough, try some action footage.
Sanchez fired an 85 mph strike to nail Mallex Smith out at second base. He received the ball, released it quickly, and put some serious power into the throw. “Don’t run on Gary” became a catchphrase for a reason, after all.
He has a history of making adjustments
Consider this assessment of Sanchez’s defense for a moment:
“Defense is another matter. He was supposed to be ‘Jesus Montero with a better glove’ when he signed, but Sanchez’s defense is very rough right now. He threw out 31% of runners, but he also made eight errors and choked up 26 passed balls in just 60 games behind the plate.”
John Sickels, managing editor of Minor League Ball and prospect talent evaluator, provided that assessment heading into the 2012 season. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The entirety of that last sentence could get pasted into a story from 2018, and it would sound believable.
If the comparison stopped here, then the Yankees would be in trouble. That would suggest Sanchez hasn’t learned anything in six years. When that happens, it makes sense for a team to move on. History, however, shows us that’s not the case. He made strides to shore up his defensive game year in and year out.
Here’s Sickels on Sanchez prior to the 2013 season:
“[Sanchez] made progress defensively, cutting down on passed balls and throwing out 30% of runners attempting to steal on him. He still needs more refinement, but his glove is coming along well enough that a position switch is no longer inevitable.”
“The good news is that Gary Sanchez continues to improve his defensive skills. There was a disconnect between his tools and skills earlier in his career, but he’s made steady progress refining those tools, throwing out 45% of runners in the Florida State League last year for example. His error and passed ball rates are still higher than ideal, but it is clear that he’s not doomed to switch positions, which was feared a couple of years ago.”
You get the point. He worked hard to hone his craft and get to the show. There were roadblocks and setbacks, sometimes having to do with makeup, but these shortcomings don’t define Sanchez. It’s too convenient of a narrative to accept that he’s lazy, when in reality, he went to great lengths to improve his defense. He actually made the necessary improvements behind the plate. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be in the big leagues, period.
The fact that Sanchez has made these adjustments before is encouraging. That leads one to believe he can do it again and get back on track for the Yankees. Past performance is the greatest indicator of future success. And while everyone wants to talk about makeup issues or laziness, the story of Sanchez in the minor leagues was hard work and growth.
“Certain things tend to improve in time,” said Sickels of a catcher’s defensive skills. “As a catcher gains experience, errors and passed balls usually decline.” Given his age and bat, the Yankees owe it to themselves to keep Sanchez behind the plate. He needs all the reps he can get to further develop. There will be bumps in the road, of course, but he has shown that he’s coachable and can ultimately pull it all together.
The alternatives are not improvements
For reasons never fully explained, Yankees fans are fascinated by the prospect of using Romine as the starting catcher. He seems to embody Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense. Per Baseball Reference, this maxim “...states that a catcher’s defensive reputation is inversely proportional to their offensive abilities.”
The problem here, however, is that Romine struggles on both sides of the ball. He doesn’t hit, nor does he catch particularly well. The 29-year-old is having a career year at the plate, and he still only has a 97 wRC+. It’s been, by a good margin, his best season with a bat, yet he still falls below league average.
Romine also fails to live up to his billing as a defensive catcher. He has a poor arm, as evidenced by his 2.04 pop time, and subpar framing skills. Whereas Sanchez steals strikes from balls, Romine has cost his pitching staff 31 potential calls. Sure, he only has four passed balls, but that may be the only thing he does better behind the plate.
Kyle Higashioka did a fine job filling in as backup catcher, but in no way should he start over Sanchez. He actually is pretty good defensively, but his bat leaves a lot to be desired. He has a 57 wRC+ in the big leagues this season, and a 70 wRC+ at Triple-A. Higashioka showed that he can run into one every now and then, but he’s close to an automatic out.
J.T. Realmuto appears the favorite for external options. He’s a fine catcher, and with Buster Posey facing the cruel realities of Father Time, it’s safe to call him the best in the National League. That said, I’m not convinced Realmuto represents that much of an upgrade over Sanchez, if any.
First, this is Realmuto’s breakthrough year at the plate, his age-27 season. He’s hitting .288/.350/.507 with 20 home runs. Although good for a 134 wRC+, that’s awfully similar to what Sanchez posted last year as a 24-year-old. Even while hobbled by injuries, the Kraken has managed 15 home runs in 2018. Sanchez may not have the glowing triple-slash this year, but his talent level and rate production leads me to chose him over the highly coveted Marlins backstop.
Then there’s the matter of catching. Realmuto is a downright bad framer. Per StatCorner data, he has a -86 +Call mark. He can throw, and does a better job of blocking, but this doesn’t seem like that much of an upgrade. Give me the younger, more talented bat, the one who has a rapport with the club and success in New York. A trade for Realmuto sounds like far more trouble than it’s worth. The Yankees are better off hanging on to Sanchez.
His bat is most valuable at catcher
Since breaking into the big leagues for good on August 3rd, 2016, Sanchez has been one of baseball’s best hitting catchers. He ranks second in terms of wRC+, where he only trails Evan Gattis. Keep in mind, however, that he has nearly triple the plate appearances.
Top Catcher wRC+ Since 8/3/16
Sanchez makes such an impact on the game because he has an MVP-caliber bat at a most premium position. If one moves that production to first base or the DH spot, the results immediately seem less impressive. It’s so rare to find a catcher who can hit like Sanchez. A slugging first baseman appears to hit the open market every winter.
The Yankees have a tendency to build teams with strong bats up the middle. Almost all of their championship squads followed this model. Sanchez, then, plays a significant role as catcher. His power bat could anchor a formidable arrangement, providing the thump to compliment the batting skills of Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius, and Aaron Hicks. It would be a shame to remove that threat.
There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated with Sanchez now. This has been a brutal season, and he has his fair share of shortcomings. Yankees fans, however, shouldn’t let the negativity blind them to the reality that he is among the game’s elite backstops. Yes, Sanchez needs to make improvements; that’s a given. But he also has to remain the Yankees catcher. Giving up on him would be nothing short of a colossal mistake.