We’re in the era of the juiced ball, and home runs are flying like never before. 256 MLB players have at least 300 plate appearances on the season, and 104 have hit 20 or more home runs. The Twins have already broken the single-season team home-run record, the Yankees could have broken the same onetime record by the time you read this, and the Dodgers have a chance at reaching that level before the end of the year too. It’s a home run hitter’s world, and the rest of us are just living in it.
One of the things that I think is most interesting about this phenomenon is that individual player records aren’t falling at the same rate as the cumulative or aggregate records. Mike Trout and Pete Alonso are tied for the MLB lead with 45 dingers, and while both could reach 50, neither will come anywhere near the single-season home run record of 73. In fact, since we’ve seen this leaguewide spike in home run rate over the past three or four seasons, the closest anyone’s come to 73 is Giancarlo Stanton’s 59 in 2017.
The Yankees do have one player that’s burning through single season, single player HR records, though, and that’s Gary Sanchez. He’s already broken his own record for most home runs by a Yankee catcher, both Steamer and ZiPS project he’ll break Carleton Fisk’s record for most home runs by an AL catcher (37), and he has a very outside chance at the most home runs all time in one season by a catcher, a record currently held by Johnny Bench. Gary’s got pop, in case you hadn’t noticed.
In fact, he’s got historic levels of pop, and it’s not just in this extremely HR-happy year. He has by far the best pure power of any catcher in history, at least at this stage of his career:
The only two guys that come close to Gary’s per-game power output are Mike Piazza and Roy Campanella. If you were to project out Sanchez’s power over as many games as the best catchers in history, you get some pretty comical comparisons:
Obviously, this isn’t going to happen - Sanchez is never going to get to 700 home runs. But I do think that his current per-game output is more sustainable than it might appear, simply because he’s such an outlier among catchers. Again, the only player close to Gary in terms of per-game HR rate is the Hall of Famer, Mike Piazza, so let’s use him as our best possible comp.
Piazza only had one season where his HR/G rate was as high as or higher than Sanchez’s career mark, and if you further parse his pace into three-year rolling averages, he never had a three-year power run like Gary’s had. We can safely say that Sanchez has more raw power than Piazza - if this is Sanchez’s peak, he’s better than Piazza at hitting the ball over the fence. If Sanchez has still another gear, he’s not even close to Piazza. So the question is not Sanchez’s ceiling, but his staying power.
Obviously as hitters age, they’re less productive, but crucially for catchers, they also catch much less. You can see here how Piazza maintained pretty respectable power output over his career, but there is a pretty consistent decline in his games as a backstop. This is a necessary move to keep productive players on the field, but the thing that makes guys like Sanchez and Piazza so notable is that they’re incredibly productive while catching - moving their career stats to a corner outfielder or first baseman means they’re merely very good players instead of historic.
What will determine Sanchez’s place among the all-time great catchers is exactly how much time he spends catching - he and Piazza both became the starting catchers of their teams at age-23, and Piazza was a full-time catcher until his age-37 season. If Sanchez can follow the rough timeline that Piazza set, his higher power peak should carry him into the record books at his position.
However, we’ve had similar comparisons about all-time great catchers just in the last decade. One should be cautious anointing Sanchez as the best at anything when we did similar things to Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, who both fell off in their own ways as their careers progressed:
The Giants have still given Posey the majority of starts behind the plate, even as his performance as a hitter has tailed off so sharply. Mauer, meanwhile, remained a relatively productive hitter as he aged, but didn’t play a real game behind the plate for four years. As we said above, value is relative to position, to an extent. Mauer’s 117 wRC+ as a first baseman in 2017 would have been stellar for a catcher, but was far more pedestrian for the position he was actually playing.
So what have we learned? Gary Sanchez really is historic in his power output - nobody has done what he’s done with the stick. The other, best outlier we have, who’s now in the Hall of Fame, could also maintain power output to at least a respectable degree, which should give us some comfort that Sanchez isn’t going to completely lose his power over the next decade. Overuse and positional changes, like we saw with the last two consensus Best Catchers in Baseball, could sap him of his offensive ability, though.
The Yankees are really blessed to have players with very few parallels in baseball history. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton might be the most powerful players the game has ever seen. The team went from having the greatest closer of all time to one in Aroldis Chapman that will be high on that all-time list himself by the time he’s done. And then there’s Gary, the player with about as high an offensive ceiling as we’ve ever seen at catcher. Whether he can maintain it into his 30’s or not, it’s an awful lot of fun to watch right now.