During Sunday’s bashing of the Orioles, Yankees fans transported back to the late summer of 2016, when Gary Sanchez seemed to hit home runs at will. He marched down the stretch to a league-record 20 home runs in his first 51 career games, tying Wally Berger of the 1930 Boston Braves.
Sanchez already has seven bombs in this early season, three of them coming on Sunday. From massive dingers to straightaway center, to lasers to left that exited the park in three seconds, Sanchez showed it all in the series finale. Most importantly, however, he illustated that his 2018 slump was likely a prolonged symptom of his shoulder issues that the team treated with surgery this past offseason.
Consider what we know about Sanchez’s 2018 season. He struggled badly at the plate, was ripped on social media every which way, and experienced shoulder discomfort throughout all of it. According to Brian Cashman and the Yankees, Sanchez had issues with his left shoulder since the end of his All-Star 2017 campaign, and finally had it cleaned up through surgery after the end of last season. Now, fully recovered, Sanchez is back to doing things that earned him the Kraken label, and it is helping put to rest exactly why things went south last year.
Sanchez’s expected stats throughout his young career show a prolific hitter sapped of his power in 2018. Just to quickly recap, expected stats take Statcast data, such as exit velocity and launch angle, into account in an effort to predict a player’s slash line using the quality of his contact. For example, a player who runs into awful baseball luck and mashes three line drives at 115 mph off the bat, albeit right at the shortstop, will still have a good looking xSLG or xwOBA. They acknowledge how cruel baseball can be sometimes.
So far this season, Sanchez’s xSLG (.821) and xwOBA (.498) are among the best in baseball, and anyone who was watched him since Opening Day knows how loud his contact has been. Sanchez’s expected stats in 2017 were also in the top 10 percent in the league, but in 2018, they were the lowest of his career (.465 xSLG, .342 xwOBA). Something was clearly wrong, and that bum shoulder was likely the issue.
How much can a nagging shoulder affect a hitter? Look no further than teammate Aaron Judge, who battled through a shoulder injury after the 2017 Home Run Derby. Many thought the league had caught up to his early-season tear, when really, he was just trying to get back to full health. Consider Judge’s xSLG by month in 2017, taking note of the month after the All-Star break.
That tells a story, and can teach us a lot about Sanchez’s season-long slump last year. Even before Sanchez’s hot start this season, there was a bigger sample size showing his elite offensive ability. Many presumed his 2018 struggle was a fluke. We know now that it wasn’t a fluke, and had an actual explanation. Hopefully that means fan can go back to enjoying Sanchez at his best.
Sanchez has always been a fascinating case with the Bombers. He was treated like the franchise’s hero during his 2016 tear, then a a large portion of the fan base turned on him in 2017 because of his passed ball struggles. Last year only heightened the criticism, and while there were instances when it was warranted — like the debacle in Tampa Bay — the speed at which many forgot about his hitting prowess was incredible. Now, that elite bat is back in full force to start the season, and hopefully Yankees fans can appreciate it.