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Yankees fans should still have faith in Gary Sanchez

It was a confusing year for the Yankees’ backstop, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In what seems likely to become a yearly ritual within the New York sports media, a star player is latched onto as a possible trade piece to be sold off for spare parts to fill out the rest of the roster. This winter, once again, that someone seems to have become the highly-polarizing catcher Gary Sanchez.

In a vacuum, Sanchez’s season would not be considered a failure by any means: he hit 34 home runs in 106 games (a 52 home run pace over 162 games) while slashing .232/.316/.525, good for a 119 OPS+ and 116 wRC+.

After the stellar 2016 season, in which he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting despite only playing in 53 games, and a 2017 where he posted a 126 OPS+, it’s easy to see why fans expect so much more out of Sanchez than most other fanbases do out of their catcher.

Following an All-Star first half in which he hit 24 home runs and slashed .245/.315/.556, it’s easy to see why Yankees fans were disappointed with his injury-filled limp to the finish line, despite the fact that his second-half OPS of .785 is still better than 15 catchers’ season totals. With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why Sanchez finished this season with a B- grade here at Pinstripe Alley.

There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Yankees fans should be confident in Sanchez this coming season, and remind everybody why he was such a highly-touted player.

To begin with, hardly anybody is better at putting the barrel of the bat on the ball than Sanchez. In 2019, Statcast registered his hit as a “barrel” on 11.7% of his plate appearances. For those who don’t know, a batted ball with an exit velocity of at least 98 MPH and a launch angle between 25 and 31 degrees, hits with an expected batting average of .500 and an expected slugging percentage of 1.500, and which generate stat lines far greater than even these lofty baselines. Only Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins generated barrels at a higher rate than Sanchez did in 2019.

Not only that, however, but Sanchez has consistently been near the top of these leaderboards since he began his career, finishing at worst 26th in baseball (in 2017), and he has always ranked first among catchers. Furthermore, his fly-ball percentage of 32.7% was the highest of his career, and his groundball percentage of 32.4% was also his lowest.

Anybody who watches the Yankees, however, can note that Sanchez does have one major weakness: a breaking ball low and away. His average exit velocity drops from 94.3 MPH to 87.3 mph on breaking pitches; his launch angle drops from 25 to 13; and he swings and misses at breaking balls 40% of the time. The best way by far to strike Sanchez out is to attack him low and away.

This trend is not new, either. Ever since Sanchez broke out as a rookie in 2016, pitchers have thrown roughly a quarter of their pitches down and away. It’s not like he has given pitchers much of a choice, however, as he has virtually no weak spots within the strike zone proper.

Ultimately, while a weakness that pitchers can work to exploit, it’s not an uncommon one, and one that even superstars like Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich, and even Alex Bregman struggle with. Overall, however, Sanchez puts together a batted ball sample that causes Statcast to rate him favorably to Pete Alonso and Yordan Alvarez — your 2019 Rookies of the Year.

Should Sanchez get better at working the zone so that pitchers have to limit how often they go down and away, he will almost certainly meet that mark.