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The Yankees’ Gary Sánchez did the least with the most in 2020

Despite hitting the ball harder than almost anyone, Gary Sánchez found his name at the bottom of the leaderboards.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Gary Sánchez’s 2020 season was by all accounts a disappointment, including our own, as we graded Gary’s season with an F during our report card series. Now, the two-time All-Star and once one of the franchise’s most promising prospects is verging on reclamation project status, if the Yankees can even commit to moving forwards with him as their everyday catcher. Despite shoring up some of his defensive deficiencies, Sánchez posted career lows in basically every offensive category, looking more than ever like a lost cause than a work in progress. He even had MLB’s single-worst batting average (.147) among players with at least 150 plate appearances.

However, the one bright spot in the Kraken’s statistical offensive package remains his ability to hit the ball harder than just about anybody not on the Yankees. As Josh noted in his report card, Gary’s problem isn’t his ability to hit the ball hard, it’s his inability to do it with any consistency.

Across MLB, no one capable of hitting the ball as hard as Sánchez performed worse than he did in the 2020 season per wOBA:

Surprisingly, though a player’s maximum exit velocity had some positive effect on their overall offensive production, it was minimal. It turns out, to the delight of old-school baseball fans everywhere, broadly speaking, it’s more important to present a balanced offensive game than being capable of hitting the baseball harder than almost anyone else. Even with Sanchez’ historic top-end power, he finished 2020 with a .266 wOBA and a .618 OPS.

While Gregory Polanco and Javy Báez each produced worse wOBA marks than Sánchez—marks even farther from the trendline than Gary’s—neither finished in the top-five of the max exit velo leaderboard (Báez was sixth). Like Sánchez, particularly in Báez’s, both are free-swingers who experienced especially down years due to their limited value when they didn’t put the ball in play; they all had strikeout and walk rates near the bottom of the league. As wOBA is so dependent upon walk rate—a way of generating value without adding to an at bat total—guys like Gary, Báez, and Polanco especially suffered.

On the opposite side of the same coin, a couple of Braves, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, were able to leap-frog the trendline with constant, excellent contact. In Freeman’s case, he didn’t ever hit the ball nearly as hard as Gary, finishing with the league’s 174th highest max exit velo, but won the NL MVP on the back of his elite strikeout and walk rates, along with constant line drive production (and the fact that he played defense well).

Sánchez’s combination of power and ineptitude is historically unusual, yet not entirely unique. In the Statcast era (since 2015, coincidentally the same year Sanchez recorded his first big league at bat) only one other player finished a season as one of the game’s five hardest hitters while recording a wOBA under .300 and an OPS below .700: Mark Trumbo in 2017, during which he posted a maximum exit velocity of 118.5 mph with a .295 wOBA and a .686 OPS.

Trumbo finished third that year behind Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge’s lasers in the low-120s, and significantly outperformed Sánchez in each category. Trumbo had one more passable offensive season in 2018 at age-32 before balky knees cost him the rest of that season, and possibly his career. Offensively, Trumbo’s best nearly matched Gary’s, as in 2016 Trumbo posted a .358 wOBA and an .850 OPS, two numbers that closely resemble Sanchez’s 2017 and ’19 marks.

Still, Sánchez has done what Trumbo did twice in half as many years, and is only entering his age-28 season at the game’s most valuable defensive position as opposed to its least. Maybe, as was the case with Trumbo barring a comeback, Gary’s greatest moment in a baseball uniform will be relegated to some Home Run Derby. While the potential remains as tantalizing as ever, Gary’s one step forwards one step backwards career has worn down the Yankee faithful. Hopefully, 2021 is as kind to Sánchez as the past two odd-numbered years have been, and not the continuance of his nearly-unique package of offensive ineptitude.