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Gary Sanchez and the career arcs of catchers

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Catchers tend to find success for shorter spans than other positions, but where does Gary fit in?

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s fairly common knowledge that most catchers have a limited lifespan, especially in comparison to comparatively-skilled players at other positions. The wear and tear of a season — spending large stretches of time on your knees while donning heavy protective equipment — and the physical beating taken behind the plate causes catchers’ bodies to break down, both over the course of a season and throughout a career. Because of this, catchers tend to see their performance at the plate start to fall at younger ages.

With Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez entering his fourth full season at the Major League level, I thought it would be a good idea to check and see where he currently fits along this career trajectory. To compare him to other catchers of the last few years, I collated the performance of fifteen catchers, both active and recently retired, who have put together a long enough career to show both their prime and at least the beginnings of their decline. While this unscientific choosing of a sample creates a rather arbitrary list, it should at least provide a good baseline of how “franchise catchers” should age.

The final numbers are based on OPS+, weighted by number of plate appearances by the catcher at that age.

The above chart shows that incredibly young catchers perform substantially better than average, posting a weighted OPS+ of 107 and 109 in their age 21 and 22 seasons. This makes sense, as only the most elite catchers — the Joe Mauer, Yadier Molina, Brian McCann and Salvador Perez’s — had reached the major leagues by this point in time. Ages 23 and 24 see a dip that drops to league average and below, as more catchers enter their rookie seasons, before stabilizing at roughly league average. They hit their peak in their age 29 and 30 season — which matches up with the prime of the average player.

This coincides with a drop of 13 points from the Age 30 to the Age 31 season, and for the most part, from this point forward catcher performance remains below-average. The only exception, the Age 33 season, is thrown off by career years from Carlos Ruiz and Kurt Suzuki; Ruiz’s 149 OPS+ and Suzuki’s 128 OPS+ were 40 points and 29 points above their previous year’s totals and career highs by more than 20 points apiece. Lastly, the final two years listed on the chart, can be ignored, as only Ruiz has played substantial innings at that age in recent years.

So far in his career, with the exception of his Age 25 season (2018), Gary Sanchez has consistently lived above this weighted OPS+ mark, right around where Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, and Brian McCann spent their early years. Even so, that does not mean that we should expect Sanchez to defy this general trend — almost every catcher on the list saw a substantial drop in OPS+ at this age: Yadier Molina’s dropped from 129 to 102, Buster Posey’s from 127 to 108, and Joe Mauer’s from 142 to 107.

In fact, Mauer’s offensive drop-off happened despite the fact that he moved to first base that season — suggesting that it’s the cumulative time behind the plate, not continued time spent at the position, that causes the decline. While they were still providing above-average offense, they never were the same offensive forces that they once had been.

Based on these career arcs, we should expect to see Gary Sanchez sustain his offensive firepower for another three seasons or so before the nature of his position begins a decline. Although he’d still likely be an above-average bat, based on his career performance to date, it would be unwise to expect anything approaching the level of offensive output that he has been capable of. Catchers, unfortunately, have earlier expiration dates, so when we finally get back to playing some baseball, let’s enjoy one of the best hitters at the position while he’s still near the top.