Back in November I wrote about how Derek Jeter was simultaneously overrated and underrated - his talent made him so well known that people eventually picked apart his career and declared him to be worse than he was. That makes me think about the way we talk about players, and how important context is in evaluation, especially for more statistically minded people like myself.
Which brings us to Gary Sanchez, quite possibly the Yankee most discussed since the rise of the Baby Bombers. At his best, Gary is a nearly unique force in baseball, and at his worst...well, he’s unique in those moments too. It’s interesting then to look at the coverage of Sanchez as we approach Opening Day, and see that even at PSA, it’s optimistic but somewhat wistful, as though we were remembering some lost opportunity.
In a way, sure, we’ll never get a 500 plate appearance season where Gary replicates his 2016 debut. His 2019 offensive output was a step up from a lost 2018 season, but not as good as the truly spectacular 2017 campaign. Gary looks more and more like a fine complimentary piece, not a core part of a contending team.
But that really ignores the important positional context of Gary Sanchez. He doesn’t hit like a catcher, and so we’ve forgotten just how bad catchers are. In fact, since the new millennium, the Yankees have had just three seasons where a catcher hasn’t had at least a 100 wRC+. That’s really impressive, especially when you remember that catchers don’t really hit for a 100 wRC+ - league average for catchers over that time frame hovers in the mid-80s. Catchers are not good hitters, and Yankee fans have been spoiled by getting good hitters behind the plate.
To drive this point further, look at how Gary measures up, not just to the league as a whole, but the top quartile of catchers as well:
Again, 2018 was a lost year for Gary, and probably has poisoned a lot of people’s opinions on him. He’s still well above even the good hitting catchers, and his .348 wOBA projection is pegged to lead all catchers in baseball in 2020.
He’s not a perfect hitter by any stretch - he does get pull happy, and probably strikes out more than you’d like. The tendency to pull the ball is an approach problem that can be solved, but interestingly enough, you may want to think twice before saying he needs to work on plate discipline:
Gary’s best season in terms of plate discipline was that rough 2018. Swing away, young man, the strikeouts aren’t the problem.
Much ink has been spilled over Gary’s defensive performance, the tradeoff between improving his blocking and maintaining his frame rates, and the changes he’s already made in spring training to get back to being at least a reliable defender. The Yankees have already signaled their faith in him by letting Austin Romine walk and poaching Tanner Swanson, coming off a season where he seemingly rebuilt Mitch Garver from scratch into an All-Star. The core of Gary’s value is the same as it ever was, though. He’s as good a hitter as anyone at his position in baseball, and that’s the kind of weapon most teams salivate over.