Pitchers and catchers are back, and so too are the media microscopes, fine-tuned to analyze every long toss and every warm-up pitch of new Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. His massive presence brings added pressure to others, too, particularly Gary Sanchez, whose skill and effort behind the plate have long been sources of polarization among fans.
After Cole joined the team in December, fans and media speculated the Yankees might acquire Martin Maldonado, who acted as Cole’s personal catcher for the second half of 2019 after returning to the Astros in a July 31 trade. With Maldonado catching, Cole was phenomenal, allowing a 1.57 ERA in 68.1 innings, posting a 0.67 WHIP and 14.9 K/9 along the way. In 143.2 innings prior to Maldonado’s arrival, he produced a 2.94 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 13.3 K/9. Still awesome, but not the destroyer of worlds he became when he began working with Maldonado on August first. That day marked the start of 73 consecutive innings in which he threw at least one strikeout, and eleven consecutive starts with double-digit strikeouts, including the postseason.
The Yankees expressed little interest in Maldonado, who landed back with the Astros, which means it’s up to Gary Sanchez to be the backstop who gets the best out of Cole. Tanner Swanson, the Yankees’ new catching coach, helped Mitch Garver deliver huge defensive improvement for the Twins last season. Given the longstanding consternation surrounding Sanchez’s defense, it’s fair to question if he’s up to the same challenge.
Sanchez’s biggest bugaboo over the years has been the passed ball. He actually improved his blocking last year, despite the embarrassing and high-profile consecutive passed ball and wild pitch he conceded in Game Three of the ALCS. He allowed seven passed balls in 90 regular season games in 2019, clear progress over the 18 he allowed in just 76 games the year before. So how might he handle Cole’s arsenal? Importantly, Cole is a fastball pitcher, relying on his four-seamer 51.6% of the time and throwing it for a strike at a 58% clip, per Baseball Savant. So long as he isn’t crossed up, Sanchez should have no trouble staying in front of the heater. And Cole’s breaking stuff, while effective, is more about placement than movement. His slider, his second-most used pitch, actually moves less than the league average, and the pitch is a strike 46% of the time.
Compare that with the movement and accuracy of Zack Britton, the hurler on the other end of those back-to-back mistakes. Britton works two pitches: a sinker as his primary offering, and a slider as his secondary, like Cole. Britton’s sinker moves 13 inches away from a right-handed batter and drops 24 inches, right around league average. Meanwhile, his slider moves 11 inches horizontally and drops 52 inches, way above the league averages of five inches and 39 inches. To make matters even more difficult, Britton throws it for a strike just 27% of the time. Britton might always be a tough assignment for Sanchez, but considering the strides he’s made receiving the ball and Cole’s fastball-heavy pitch mix, he seems more than capable of stopping whatever the new ace throws his way.
Unfortunately, Sanchez’s blocking improvement seemed to come at the expense of other skills, like pitch framing. In 2018 Sanchez was good for a solid plus-2.6 framing runs, according to FanGraphs. In 2019 that number plunged to minus-6.8. The good news is Cole generates a lot of swinging strikes — no framing needed — and pounds the zone, throwing a total of 52.1% (versus a league average of 49.9%) of his pitches in the zone. He doesn’t have to rely on a catcher to get ahead in the count. And for all the magic Maldonado helped spin with Cole, he was just an average pitch framer last season. Whatever worked for them, framing wasn’t the primary driver.
If Cole’s stuff doesn’t prove too hot to handle, and if Tanner Swanson can revitalize Sanchez’s glove work, it’s reasonable to expect the Yankees’ backstop to return to defensive respectability in 2020. And if he does, all that remains is to forge a good working relationship with Cole, an athlete noted for his intensity and obsessive interest in pitching and preparation. Aaron Boone and the rest of the Yankees’ organization have defended Sanchez’s defensive intangibles, and insist he’s excelled at working with the staff to execute game plans.
That sentiment isn’t always universal — certainly not among fans, and not with a fellow Yankee at least once last season. In August, J.A. Happ let slip some frustration around pitch selection with Sanchez calling the game, conceding he felt he was being asked to pitch to a report, rather than to his strengths. However, when Happ was at his best in September, Sanchez caught the first two of Happ’s five starts, in which he went a combined 12.1 innings without surrendering a run.
Did Sanchez make an adjustment, or did Happ? It’s tough to tease out cause and effect based on a couple games, but whatever frustration Happ felt earlier in the summer appeared to resolve itself as his season turned around. Even if Sanchez was the foremost cause of Happ’s struggles, which seems unlikely, it bodes well for his partnership with Cole that he and Happ managed to work through the problem.
It might be the least satisfying answer to hear, but the most likely outcome for Gary Sanchez isn’t embarrassing failure, and it’s not Gold Glove-caliber success; it’s the gradual improvement of someone who works at his craft every day. For all his struggles, real and perceived, Sanchez isn’t such a disaster defensively that he’ll derail the success of a unique talent like Cole. There will likely be moments of frustration for fans, but he has shown a capacity for incremental growth that is cause for optimism, too, especially with Swanson in the fold. And with Gerrit Cole around for close to a decade, there’s plenty of time for them to grow together.