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Investigating the drop-off in Gary Sánchez’s running speed

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Sánchez, like many catchers, is slow. But the rate at which his speed is declining is worrisome.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Sánchez will turn 28 on December 2nd. MLB’s deadline to tender a contract to an arbitration-eligible player, such as Sánchez, is December 2nd. It’s likely that the Yankees’ catcher will remember his 28th birthday as either the day the Yankees gave him another shot, or the day the Yankees gave up on him.

Lindsey Adler and Eno Sarris recently scrutinized the impact Sánchez’s speed has on his hitting performance in The Athletic. Their findings aren’t pretty. While Sánchez’s future with the Yankees is currently hanging in the balance, Adler and Sarris’ analysis of the more problematic areas of Sánchez’s game paint a pessimistic portrait.

Perhaps the most worrisome finding of their analysis came from identifying the multiple areas and statistical categories in which Sánchez’s play has regressed. Like many catchers, Sánchez is slow. That’s not a surprising nor earth-shattering statement. But learning how quickly his speed is declining did surprise me.

Adler and Sarris pointed out that Sánchez runs over a foot per second slower than he did during his 2016 breakout, when he finished runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year. Unsure of how a ballplayer’s age typically affects his running speed, I decided to do some more digging. Is it normal for MLB players to run one one foot per second slower four years after entering the league? Do catchers lose their speed more quickly, or to a greater extent than other position players? Exploring these questions could offer insight into Sánchez’s struggles, or at least contextualize them.

The issue isn’t so much that Sánchez’s speed will hurt him on the basepaths. What’s most concerning is that the effects are compounded when already-slow players who need to hit the ball hard to reach base lose speed. Infielders — third basemen in particular — can play Sánchez deep and farther from the plate because he’s slow. As a pull hitter, the shift is used on him quite a bit, and because he’s not exactly fleet of foot, his explosive bat often ironically makes him an easier out.

Is Sánchez slowing down faster than other players typically do? The sprint speed of an average MLB player slows a little more than 1.3 inches per second every year, according to ESPN’s Sam Miller, who in 2018 investigated different aging curves in baseball. If that figure is correct, it would suggest that Gary’s running speed is slowing down a little more than two times faster than his peers. The table below shows how Sánchez’s sprint speed has decreased each year since he became an MLB regular in 2016.

Changes in Gary Sánchez’s sprint speed

Season Age Sprint Speed (ft/s) HP to 1st Bolts Pos Rank Age Rank Lg Rank % Rank
Season Age Sprint Speed (ft/s) HP to 1st Bolts Pos Rank Age Rank Lg Rank % Rank
2016 24 26.2 0 30 43 427 38.3
2017 25 26.1 4.5 0 28 54 456 32.7
2018 26 25.9 4.54 0 34 72 484 28.3
2019 27 25.5 4.65 0 50 72 532 22.7
2020 28 25 0 44 47 440 12.2
Data courtesy of Baseball Savant / Statcast

Sánchez’s loss of speed is most noticeable over the last three seasons, from 2018 through 2020. That Sánchez is slowing down at a faster rate than other catchers made me curious to compare his year-by-year decline in speed against both his injury history and his history of gaining and losing weight. Of course, IL stats are well-kept and easy to find. Baseball players’ weights, on the other hand, are harder to confirm.

One aspect of Sánchez’s injury history that is quite noticeable is how the intervals of time separating his IL stints get progressively shorter each year. Sánchez has gone on the injured list five separate times since 2017. It’s getting harder for him to avoid the soft tissue groin and calf injuries to which he’s prone. It’ll probably get even harder as he gets older.

Gary Sánchez - Injured List history

IL Dates Injury Days Missed
IL Dates Injury Days Missed
04/09/2017 - 05/05/2017 Biceps 27
06/25/2018 - 07/19/2018 Groin 25
07/24/2018 - 09/01/2018 Groin 40
04/11/2019 - 04/24/2019 Calf 14
07/24/2019 - 08/10/2019 Groin 18
Data courtesy of spotrac.com

Catchers, as a whole, tend to run slower than the league average of 27 feet per second. But over the course of their careers, do they slow down differently than other position players? Although the cross section of active catchers I researched is pretty small, the year-to-year decline in their sprint speed was surprisingly uniform, and more gradual than with Sánchez. Catchers who are active players appear to lose about 0.2 to 0.4 feet per second each year, and then a steeper decline around age 30.

One particular aspect of Austin Romine’s running stats stood out to me, though. From 2016 through 2019, Romine’s sprint speed decreased by about 0.2 feet per second each year. However, the decrease from 2019 to 2020 (his first as an expected near-everyday starter) was 0.7 feet per second — about three times more than his usual year-to-year loss of speed.

The cross section of catchers I looked at is small, but nonetheless, my examination seems to suggest that the decline in Sánchez’s speed during his mid-twenties is not the norm. Sánchez is experiencing a steeper drop-off in speed than his fellow catchers. The question is why?

While I couldn’t find enough reliable information about Sánchez’s weight, he reportedly lost about 20 pounds and bulked up, adding a significant amount of muscle mass to start the 2018 season. In searching for reliable sources of information concerning Sánchez’s conditioning, however, I did reference several old scouting reports on him.

No one, it seems, can diagnose why Sánchez is a great talent prone to poor results. Sánchez is being discussed as if he was a mystery, especially at the present moment. He is an enigma; then again, he’s always been an enigma. It was a surprise to me that scouting reports from as early as 2012 describe him as such. One report even sounds like it could have been written yesterday. Bernie Pleskoff said the following in a scouting report from 2015:

Sanchez was on fire for the first four seasons of his career. He was the top-ranked Yankees prospect. But then Sanchez seemed to decline. The recent past has not been overly bright.

Sanchez in a word? Perplexing.

Perhaps fans should consider Gary’s inexplicability as a trait; it’s not an odd phenomenon, but rather the most consistent part of his player profile.