Gary Sanchez was at a crossroads after the 2018 season. He had just finished the season as the 16th-best catcher by WAR, which was a mammoth disappointment. All the good things that Sanchez did during his first two seasons in addition to hitting for power - hitting for average, hitting the other way and making consistently hard contact - regressed, and Sanchez became an all-or-nothing slugger at the plate.
While I’m sure regaining full health has had a lot to do with Sanchez’s resurgence in 2019, I also think that Sanchez made a few tweaks to his approach that helped him regain his perch among the very best catchers in the game.
We already know that Sanchez has the most power of any catcher in the league. Even accounting for last year’s disaster of a year, no active catcher has a higher wRC+ (128), isolated power (.279) or slugging percentage (.534), since Sanchez’s 2016 debut, and it’s not even close. It’s clear that Sanchez has world-class power.
There were other area where Sanchez fell short compared to other catchers, though. Last year, Sanchez became a batting average drain, as he slogged to a .186 finish, thanks in part to a .197 BABIP. This season, he’s back up to a .266 average that’s more in line with his career norms, and top-ten among all backstops.
Sanchez has been able to do this by adapting his approach at the plate back to what worked before. Remember when Sanchez first came up and repeatedly demonstrated opposite-field power? Although Sanchez will always be a pull-heavy hitter, he’s hitting the ball to the opposite field over 20 percent of the time this year, which is easily the highest figure of his career.
He has also always been someone who makes hard contact at the plate. This year, however, he’s doing it at historic levels, as Josh found earlier this month. Sanchez is in the 98th percentile of all MLB hitters with a stellar 93.3 mph average exit velocity, and leads all hitters in his percentage of at-bats that end up with him “barreling up” the ball (15.6 percent).
Sanchez is a complete hitter. He’s given pitchers a legitimate reason to fear him at all times this year, unlike last season when he had holes in his swing. Sanchez can beat a pitcher so many different ways, there’s almost no way to get him out.
When you combine this batted-ball resurgence with his improved blocking, which Josh also examined, you’ve got arguably the best catcher in the league (though perhaps his framing now could use some work). Seriously. We’ve already established that no catcher can hit like he can, and he’s no longer costing the Yankees runs with passed balls. He’s not Johnny Bench back there, but Sanchez is not a liability on defense, either.
There’s just no other catcher that brings what Gary Sanchez brings to the table. In a year where almost all of their stars have been injured, Sanchez has had to be counted on as the anchor of the Yankees’ lineup, and he’s been more than capable.
Last year, in just my second-ever post at Pinstripe Alley, I wrote that Gary Sanchez was the Yankees’ franchise cornerstone:
“No other contemporary catcher even comes close to Sanchez’s skill level. It’s about time that the baseball world opens its eyes and acknowledges it.”
A little over one year later, I rest my case.