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Gary Sanchez is off to an historic start

Sanchez stopped hitting the ball on the ground and once again became a force at the plate.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Back in Pinstripe Alley’s season preview series, I wrote about how the Yankees were finally about to unleash the Big Three upon baseball. It hasn’t gone quite according to plan, with Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge both spending extensive time on the injured list, but boy howdy has one third of the Big Three showed up.

Gary Sanchez’s game-winning home run on Monday was his 13th of 2019. In about a third of the plate appearances as he accrued last year, he’s on pace to more than double 2018’s home run output. His batting average is 77 points higher than last year, his on-base percentage 45 points better, and he’s slugging a ludicrous 247 points more than he did in 2018. Through the first eight weeks of the season, Gary appears to have put his nightmare season behind him.

In a lot of ways, we should have seen this coming. Writers penned countless posts about the gulf between Sanchez’s expected and actual performance last year, that he was too good a hitter to have that kind of season again. I even included a good chunk of that in the linked post.

Sanchez just hits the ball too hard for him not to regress somewhat. In 2019 he’s gone even beyond that:

He’s hitting the ball harder, which is absolutely wild to think about. Sanchez already sat in the elite range of contact quality, and now he’s just about the best in baseball. The most substantial change Gary’s made, however, has been in his batted ball outcomes, not necessarily contact quality:

More than anything else, Sanchez has gotten the ball off the ground, and is reaping the rewards to the tune of a 155 wRC+ and a 16.7 Barrel/PA%, which if it held up would crush the previous single season record. A barreled ball is defined by Statcast as “batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.”

Too long, didn’t read, a barreled ball is pretty much perfect contact: hitting the ball really hard, and with a launch angle that, more often than not, leads to extra-base hits. Sanchez is producing more perfect contact than any player in baseball since Statcast debuted in 2015, and it’s mostly driven by the balls he lifts off the ground.

Now, this represents only a part of one season, so it’s difficult to get any historical context for just how good this performance is so far. FanGraphs has HitFx data going back to 2002, so one can evaluate Gary’s contact with a little more detail:

The Yankees starting catcher is having, by contact quality and outcome, arguably the greatest offensive season on record.

What’s most amazing about this is not much else has changed about Sanchez’s game. For most of last year fans criticized him for not going the other way more, but consider these numbers from 2019:

Pull: 52.4%
Center: 28%
Opposite field: 19.5%

Now compare that to last year:

Pull: 51.1%
Center: 30.7%
Opposite field: 18.2%

Additionally, his K-BB% has actually gotten worse in 2019 and would represent a career high. Gary’s just gone all-in on balls in the air, and he’s been possibly the best ever at that so far.

The problem with anyone doing something unprecedented is that there’s usually no precedent for a reason. It is exceptionally hard to produce effectively perfect contact over 162 games, and especially so one’s plate discipline has actually taken a step back. It’s entirely possible, in fact probable, that Sanchez sees some regression the other way as pitchers adjust and his timing ebbs and flows. For now, though, we’re witnessing something we’ve never seen before at the plate, and it’s been an awful lot of fun.