In February, Gary Sánchez reported to spring training coming off a solid season in 2019, and with a chance to work the Yankees’ new catching coordinator, Tanner Swanson. Most Yankee fans had accepted that Gary would never be his 2016 self, but if he could pick his defense up while maintaining a 116 wRC+ like 2019, he’d still be incredibly valuable.
Instead, he was the definition of replacement level, and the worst catcher in baseball with a minimum of 150 plate appearances. With just two years left of team control, the Kraken took a significant step back and his future in the game got a whole lot cloudier.
2020 Statistics: 49 games, .147/.253/.365, 69 wRC+, -0.8 FRM, -0.1 fWAR, -0.5 bWAR
2021 Contract Status: Arbitration Eligible
That is one of the ugliest stat lines you’ll ever see. Batting average doesn’t much matter — I’ve never made my opinion on that a secret — but it’s really, really hard to be productive with an average that low. You’re just not putting enough balls in play to do any damage, and even though Gary’s 10% walk rate is more than respectable, he struck out at the sixth-highest rate in baseball.
When he did make contact, he still barrels the ball — top five percent in the game in hard-hit rate and barrel rate — but his contact has become much more volatile:
Exit velocity histograms ideally should be roughly normally distributed. You’d have a smooth incline up to a vertex, then decline as you reach a player’s maximum exit velo. You roughly get that in 2019 — Gary’s exit velocity is in a much tighter band, especially compared to 2020. It’s kind of like how, if I have $100 and you have $0, we each have an average of $50. The band of Sánchez’s batted ball is much wider, meaning he still has elite max-level velocity, but also makes a lot of useless contact. Combining that more volatile contact output with the fact he made much less contact overall explains the offensive backslide.
Defensively, on the whole Sánchez did make some gains, especially over his dreadful 2019 defense. I wrote a lot last season about how a focus on better blocking made Sánchez a much worse framer, and framing is more valuable than blocking, which is part of the reason the Yankees brought Tanner Swanson in. Most TV commentary booths deride the one-knee-down catching style that Swanson made popular in Minnesota and now in New York, but that’s largely because most TV commentary booths don’t understand what framing is, and somewhat like kindergartners, become rather skittish and uneasy when they encounter a new idea or change in thinking.
Going one knee down allows catchers to steal strikes at the bottom of the zone, and you can see that improvements in Sánchez’s catching stance brought him back to respectable framing stats. He was virtually identical to his 2017 season, and as I said at the beginning of this post, if his bat was above average, combined with that kind of defense, he’d be extremely valuable.
There have been some whispers about Gary being non-tendered, and MLBTR projects his arbitration salary to be somewhere between five and seven million. I think it’s extremely unlikely the Yankees cut bait with Sánchez completely, but the team may try to non-tender him and sign him for below the arb estimate. However, this runs the risk of another team taking a flier on Sánchez, and then the Yankees are caught without a catcher.
Sánchez is at a significant inflection point in his career. His bat has to get better, unquestionably. If his defense stays at the level it was at in 2020, with a quality batting line, he becomes one of the best catchers in baseball again. But there’s a huge gap between a hypothetical 115 wRC+ and what he did in 2020, and multiple things required to fix the offensive output. Although the potential is still there, it’s fair to question whether Sánchez will ever be able to consistently reach it.