Entering the year, 2019 felt like a pretty critical season for Gary Sanchez and the Yankees. Coming off a difficult 2018 in which he battled injuries and inconsistency at and behind the plate, Sanchez was looking to bounce back towards his early-career form. Another down year could have left him on shaky ground going forward.
Instead, one of the game’s oddly polarizing players had a campaign in which his supporters weren’t entirely thrilled and his detractors weren’t entirely mollified. He progressed in some ways and continued to frustrate in others, leaving the Yankees with a quality catcher, but one whose potential still feels a little unfulfilled.
2019 Statistics: 106 games, 446 plate appearances, .232/.316/.525, 34 home runs, 77 RBI, 116 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR
2020 Contract Status: First-year arbitration eligible
For most of the first half, it didn’t seem like we’d end up looking at Sanchez’s season as a mixed bag. He came out firing on all cylinders, working around a two-week IL stint in April to rake at nearly as a high a level as ever. He needed just 35 starts to mash 17 home runs, and his OPS sat at 1.005 on June 5th.
Sanchez battled occasional slumps and injuries from there on out, however. He posted a .660 OPS in the final month before the All-Star break. He hit the IL in late July with a groin strain, and went on the injured list with yet another groin problem in September. Sanchez did manage to return for a pair of games at the end of the regular season, but he never really seemed to get his timing all the way back during the playoffs. His two-run shot in ALCS Game Four was the only bright spot in a postseason that saw him hit .129 and slug .226.
That awful run to close out the year left a sour taste in fans’ mouths, one that threatens to overshadow what was mostly an impressive offensive campaign for Sanchez. Despite battling injuries again, he finished with the fourth-best wRC+ and the third-best DRC+ among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. While Sanchez’s age-23 and age-24 seasons, over which he posted a combined 144 wRC+ with 53 dingers in 175 games, represent Sanchez’s absolute upside as a hitter, he showed in 2019 that he still can provide strong production with the stick even when things aren’t consistently clicking.
His work behind the plate was a different story. Sanchez always took far more flack for his struggles blocking balls than he deserved. Those who called him a defensive liability missed his quality framing and throwing skills, while those who decried him as lazy fell back on ugly stereotypes while ignoring stories of his dedicated work behind the scenes. Sanchez appeared to take those criticisms to heart this year, though, improving his blocking but letting his framing slip, a trade-off that ultimately hurt the Yankees.
As our Joshua Diemert noted earlier in the year, Sanchez made huge strides blocking balls, but seemed to give back those gains on his ability to receive pitches. As always, take one-year defensive stats with a grain of salt, but all public-facing metrics painted a picture of a worse overall defender despite Sanchez’s improved blocking. FanGraphs rated his framing seven runs below average. Baseball Prospectus, which had considered Sanchez a quality framer for his entire career, rated him five runs below average framing, while putting him at almost exactly average blocking.
It all adds up to a good player that hasn’t quite been able to hold it all together at once. When his blocking improves, his framing slips. He re-discovers his power stroke, but watches his walk rate drop. He snaps out of a slump, but then finds himself on the IL. The overall package is still first-division stuff, but every year that passes makes it seem less and less likely that Sanchez will ever hit his ceiling as a slugging, framing, rocket-armed backstop that brings power and finesse to every part of the job.
And perhaps that’s OK. Maybe Sanchez will never hit like he did at the start of his career, and maybe he’ll never master all the defensive aspects of his position. Even if he doesn’t, he still helps the Yankees win far more often than not. At the end of the day, there really shouldn’t be much controversy about that.