As Gary Sanchez enters his fourth full season as the Yankees’ starting catcher, we’re all familiar with the annual debates about his potential. His offense is superlative among all other catchers, while his defense leaves something to be desired at times. This isn’t anything new.
However, Sanchez is trying something new to try and improve his defense. According to NJ.com, Sanchez is working with new coordinator Tanner Swanson (who was with the Twins last year) on lowering his center of gravity in his catcher’s stance, specifically with his right knee. According to Sanchez, this is an effort to steal more strikes from the bottom of the strike zone.
This sounds good on paper, but let’s dive deep into Sanchez’s defense. The big story with Sanchez last year was that he greatly improved his blocking, cutting his passed balls from 18 to 7 while catching 89 more innings along the way. His wild pitches allowed (which aren’t always the catcher’s fault) also dropped from 53 to 45 to 30 over the last three years. In terms of blocking, Sanchez was right around league average last year, which is a dramatic improvement from where he was.
That said, this created a few different problems with Sanchez’s defense. His pitch framing declined from a net positive in 2018 (three runs above average, 49.9 strike percentage) to a negative in 2019 (four runs below average, 47.0 strike percentage). His caught-stealing rate also dropped from 40 percent to 30 percent to 23 percent last year. Is this because Sanchez devoted too much time to trying to block pitches in the dirt, which in turn made it easier for runners to steal off him and harder for Sanchez to steal strikes with framing?
It’s a logical conclusion. Despite the gains Sanchez made last year with his blocking, his pitch framing, particularly on low pitches, declined. According to Statcast, he was 10 percent below average at getting strikes called in the bottom-left window, and six points below average on strikes in the bottom-center window. These were easily his two worst areas of framing out of the nine segments that make up the strike zone, and a noted decline from his totals in 2018.
Sanchez was above-average in some other areas, but routinely got hosed on pitches low in the zone last year. In that respect, Swanson and Sanchez have correctly identified a problem area and are seeking to correct it by a change in technique. It is fair to wonder though, if this change will re-open other problems in Sanchez’s game. Last year, he sacrificed his framing for better blocking. If Sanchez tries to frame a little more this year, might he give up more passed balls again? How will this affect his pop time, which has hovered around an elite 1.9 seconds throughout his career, but has gotten slightly slower in recent years (by a few hundredths of seconds)?
It’s a give-and-take relationship, and the Yankees need to ask this question: what is the most important aspect of a catcher defensively? Is it blocking pitches, throwing out runners or stealing strikes? Whereas the former catching instructor, Jason Brown, clearly thought it was blocking pitches, Swanson seems to think it’s framing. Our own Joshua Diemert has some thoughts on this, including how the potential advent of Robo-Umps could change everything.
It will be interesting to monitor Sanchez’s catching metrics this season. In a perfect world, he steals more low strikes with this new stance while maintaining the improvements in blocking he showed last year. However, last year’s results indicate that focusing on Sanchez’s framing might come at the expense of his improved blocking.