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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Gary Sanchez

The Yankees’ catcher hasn’t approached his ceiling in years, but he still enters 2020 with a surprisingly high floor.

Washington Nationals v New York Yankees Photo by John Capella/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

It may seem like a lifetime ago at this point, but just over three years ago, Gary Sanchez was one of the biggest phenomenons in the sport. He announced himself during the summer of 2016 with an historic stretch of hitting, one of the finest ever from a rookie. During that time, it didn’t feel possible to prescribe a ceiling to Sanchez’s potential. Anything was possible.

After that debut, it may seem like a bit of a surprise that Sanchez has essentially developed into a high-floor catcher that struggles to reach his ceiling. As long as Sanchez stays behind the plate and continues to hit for power, he’ll profile at worst as a solid starter at catcher. He’ll need one or two more dominoes to fall to reach the star-caliber performance we all know he’s capable of.

2019 Stats: 446 PA, .232/.316/.525, 34 HR, 77 RBI, 116 wRC+, 28.0 K%, 9.0 BB%, 2.3 WAR

2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 456 PA, .243/.324/.520, 31 HR, 84 RBI, 118 wRC+, 26.3 K%, 9.4 BB%, 2.6 fWAR

It might appear strange to describe Sanchez as a high-floor player, given the slumps at the dish he’s occasionally prone to, but take a look at both his 2019 statline and his 2020 projections. Sanchez muddled through another injury-riddled season last year, which likely contributed to the slump he endured midseason, yet still managed to produce numbers fitting of a first-division starter.

His projections understandably don’t suggest any bump in playing time, what with Sanchez having missed significant chunks of games in each of his past three seasons. Even so, he’s projected again as an above-average starter at catcher, despite the injury issues, despite the swings and misses that can plague his game.

That Sanchez can still produce quality seasons in spite of myriad injuries and a couple holes in his skillset speaks to how valuable he is even when it’s not all clicking. Any catcher that can consistently blast 30 home runs and slug over .500 is almost automatically enviable by virtue of the low standard of hitting for the position. Catchers as a whole have hit .235/.307/.391 over the past two seasons. Merely donning the tools of ignorance and bringing significant pop with the bat is enough to ensure that Sanchez’s floor sits above starter level.

And of course, Sanchez’s ceiling remains sky-high, even if each passing year makes it less likely he’ll ever truly reach it. We’ve already written here about how Sanchez is working on a new catching stance in spring training. That new stance is just one possible avenue Sanchez can take on the road back to stardom.

Sanchez’s new stance is meant to help him be more consistent and stable when receiving the ball. It will also hopefully improve his ability to keep balls in front of him, or at least allow him to consolidate the gains he made in that area last season. In a dream scenario, Sanchez can leverage his new approach to fielding to frame pitches as well as he did in his earlier years, while blocking pitches as well as he did in 2019.

Per Baseball Prospectus’ calculations, Sanchez was just about average in terms of blocking last season. He rated below average by their framing metrics, but rated 10 runs above average across 2017 and 2018. Should Sanchez rebound to that standard of framing, while maintaining his average blocking skills, the subsequent bump in defensive value would easily make him an All-Star caliber player.

Progression on defense isn’t the only way Sanchez can stretch past his floor, though. Simply staying healthy or avoiding the slumps that can at times drag him down would allow him to produce at higher level than he has the past two seasons. Just last year, Sanchez’s OPS hit the 1.000 mark as late as June 5th. He managed a .575 OPS over his next 38 games, which coincided with another groin injury.

If Sanchez can avoid such slumps, stay on the field more, or both, he’ll have a much more straightforward path to a four-to-five WAR campaign. Given the rigors of the catching position and his track record, it’s unlikely Sanchez will ever last a full season without sustaining some sort of ailment. There’s still hope, however, that he can do more than the 103 starts he’s averaged over the past two years.

If Sanchez is still a polarizing Yankee at this point, he really shouldn’t be. No non-Mike Trout player is without flaws, and Sanchez’s particular flaws haven’t kept him from providing significant value to the Yankees. It’s difficult to envision him posting anything worse than a solid season at catcher, and it’s much easier to imagine a star-turn from him than virtually any other catcher in the league. If Sanchez turns in another campaign similar to his 2019, the Yankees will be fine. If he finds a way to approach his ceiling, well, that could help push the Yankees toward the pennant.