Gary Sanchez had a bad 2018 season. Some of his struggles were self-inflicted, such as his inability to keep the ball in front of him at times. Others, however, were somewhat beyond his control, like his struggle with a nagging groin injury, or his minuscule BABIP figure in spite of consistent hard contact. Regardless of the exact cause of his shortcomings, the end result was an unequivocally lost year.
Understandably, expectations for Sanchez’s 2019 aren’t quite as high as they were entering last season. After putting forth an excellent follow-up season to his breakout rookie campaign, the hope was for Sanchez to continue to grow into the game’s premier catcher. Now, the Yankees would probably feel satisfied if Sanchez at least re-established himself as an upper-tier starter behind the plate.
Yet even coming off a disastrous year, Sanchez could still be more important than ever for the Yankees. Even in the face of lessened expectations, the changing landscape of the catcher position means that Sanchez has the chance to stand as one of the team’s most vital cogs.
Sanchez’s importance stems from his ability to do it all at a time when so few catchers can even do part of a backstop’s job at a high level. The catcher profession has shifted significantly in recent years, with a premium having been placed on a backstop’s varied responsibilities on defense. With an intense focus on a catcher’s framing, blocking, game-managing, and throwing skills, the number of players that can handle all those duties, while also hitting and hitting for power, has headed toward zero.
Rob Arthur recently highlighted this in an interest piece over at Baseball Prospectus. Arthur discussed how the range between the game’s best pitch framers and its worst has shrunk mightily over the past few seasons. Teams like the Yankees pioneered research into the value of pitch-framing a decade ago, and while they were able to gain huge initial advantages, the rest of the league’s teams have wizened up to the science. That advantage has vanished.
According to Framing Runs, BP’s metric that measures the total runs above average a catcher saves via framing each season, the best framer in baseball in 2018 was Yasmani Grandal, coming in at 15.7 runs. Willson Contrares rated as the worst at -17.8 runs, for a total range of 33.5 runs. Compare that to 2011, when over 70 runs separated the best framer, Jonathan Lucroy, from the worst, Carlos Santana. As recently as 2014, a gulf of over 50 runs sat between the top and bottom framers.
Teams have realized how important stealing strikes on the edges of the zone is, and have adjusted accordingly. However, as they’ve selected catchers for their abilities on defense, the league’s catchers’ ability to hit has plummeted. Catchers have never been great hitters, but in 2018, their line fell to .232/.304/.372, “good” for a .296 wOBA. Only three seasons since WWII have seen catchers post a worse collective wOBA, and all three came in the 1960’s, in the seasons directly preceding MLB’s decision to lower the mound.
What does all this have to do with Sanchez and the Yankees? It means the team, even after Sanchez’s nightmare 2018, might still have a unicorn on its hands. As the league-wide standard for catcher hitting plunges, and as the standard for framing skyrockets, the Yankees have one of the precious few players that might be up to both tasks.
Despite dealing with injuries last year, Sanchez still rated above average according to Framing runs at 3.3. In 2017, BP rated Sanchez as 7.2 runs above average. Unsurprisingly, BP’s WARP metric, which incorporates framing, rated Sanchez as among the 20 most valuable players in 2017, even though he missed an entire month early in the season.
Obviously, Sanchez’s bat regressed last year, but Sanchez’s 124 wRC+ since 2016 still easily paces the league’s catchers. Add up Sanchez’s bat with his particular defensive strengths, and BP’s PECOTA projects Sanchez as the best catcher in the American League this year, with a WARP total just slightly higher than that of the highly-coveted J.T. Realmuto.
Sanchez still has to re-prove that he can actually put all those skills together at once in a single year, but the number of catchers that even have the chance to do so is ever-decreasing. Perhaps his bat settles in around league-average, and his framing skills sink back toward the pack as the rest of the league continues to improve in that area. Or, perhaps Sanchez will bounce back with the bat, put forth a strong slash line, and continue to frame at a high level. Hardly any catcher has the potential to do that, and if Sanchez can, he’ll profile again as one of the game’s bright young stars.
That’s why it’s not unreasonable to possess some enduring excitement about Sanchez. He’s been a polarizing player, but his core skills remain among the most important skills one can have; the tremendous power potential at the plate and and the ability to frame behind it. Maybe he won’t be up to the task in the midst of a changing catching landscape. The Yankees have to hope that he is.