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Gary Sanchez improved his blocking, and it’s costing the Yankees

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This is Gary’s worst defensive season by the numbers, but possibly his best by the eye test.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

I spend a considerable amount of time in private and blogging life contextualizing the offense of Gary Sanchez. We’re not going to do that today. In fact, I’m going to write an entire post without mentioning Sanchez’s stick. This is a deep dive completely on his performance behind the plate.

His defensive shortcomings, such as they were, were really what left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths in 2018. He spent considerable time on the injured list and still gave up 18 passed balls, and many in critical moments. Gary’s receiving and blocking so far this year has looked a lot better, and that’s borne out when you track his passed balls:

He’s yielding passed balls at the lowest rate of his career, and has almost halved his rate from last year. That’s helping the team, and it’s doing so in a very eye-pleasing way; you can watch a Yankee game and you are far less likely to see Gary give up a passed ball.

However, as with everything else, this comes with a catch:

This is Sanchez’s best year for blocking balls in the dirt, but by far his worst year for framing pitches. What’s more, his best season for framing was last year, which of course was his worst blocking season. Overall, Gary’s passed balls and framing runs have a correlation coefficient of 0.875, a strong positive correlation. As one rises, so does the other.

Now, the question is whether this is something that affects all catchers, or just Gary. Can we expect more passed balls from a generic catcher as he steals more strikes?

If we just look at 2019 performance, the answer is at best a shrug, and at worst, no. The correlation coefficient between passed balls and framing runs for all MLB catchers is -0.1, noise or a slight negative correlation.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Josh, we’re talking about 100 innings caught, what the heck is that? My grandson could catch 100 innings!

You know, you make a good point. Let’s increase our sample size, go beyond 2019 and 100 innings caught. How about the last decade, and a minimum 1500 innings caught?

The chart is a little messier, but the data shines through. The correlation coefficient is 0.35, not as strong as we saw Gary’s be, but much stronger than the 2019 data alone. It would appear that as our sample size increases, we see a trend develop. The better framer a catcher is, the more likely they are to give up a passed ball.

So now that we’ve sifted through the numbers and the charts, it’s time to ask why that trend exists. What is it that causes a catcher to give up more passed balls while stealing more strikes?

Here we have a really good block from Gary earlier this year. He’s calling for it low, but not quite THAT low. He does a good job of getting his glove turned over, closing the hole between his legs, and snares it.

Compare that to one of Gary’s most infamous passed balls from last year:

You have a similar pitch - a breaking ball right around 86 mph, a ball that Gary knows is going to be low, yet he keeps his glove upright and it clonks right off. A run scores, Gary has egg on his face, and most of us are yelling at our TVs.

I think there’s something at least plausible in the idea that in our second GIF, Gary is outright trying to steal that strike for Severino. He thinks if he can keep his glove upright and pull the ball into the zone, the umpire will be influenced enough to overlook just how low the pitch is. This is the heart of framing, making the umpire think that a ball just outside the zone is actually inside it.

Of course, if the catcher turns his glove over, he’ll never get the strike call. I think that’s where the correlation comes from - catchers focusing more on framing present as large a target as possible, as close to the zone as possible, and are reluctant to turn the glove over to keep the ball in front of them.

This is a simple calculus, since framing is more valuable than blocking. If you need proof of this, Gary’s had positive defensive WAR every year since joining the big leagues, despite the passed balls. 2019 is the first year that his dWAR is negative, and surprise surprise, it’s the first year with negative framing runs.

It’s up to the Yankees to determine what they want out of their star catcher. Gary’s personal history, and data going back a decade, seems to indicate that teams can ask a catcher to focus on stealing strikes, or blocking balls in the dirt, but you’re really going to struggle to get both. Gary’s season might be more aesthetically pleasing, but there’s an argument to be made that last year was better in terms of preventing runs and helping his pitching.