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What role have Gary Sánchez and the Yankees’ catchers had on the pitching staff slump?

The Yankees pitching staff had their share of the blame during the team’s recent 5-15 stretch. What role did Gary Sánchez, Erik Kratz, and Kyle Higashioka play?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that during the Yankees’ recent 5-15 slide the pitching staff — and the bullpen in particular — struggled, with everybody from the Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole to the important bullpen anchors like Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton melting down and blowing games. We’ve spent a lot of time here at Pinstripe Alley looking into the pitching side of the equation, trying to explain bad outings by pitchers and analyzing its impact to the team through the lens of the pitching staff.

Much like throwing a touchdown pass or performing a duet during a Broadway musical, the art of pitching is a group project. In order to have a successful outcome, all members of the group need to be working in sync, not only performing their own jobs well but also being hyper-aware of and adjusting for the performance of their partners. It does not matter how perfectly-thrown the pass is if the wide receiver runs the wrong route, and the world’s greatest performers will still sound terrible if they’re singing in different keys. In baseball, although impacted by all members of the defense behind him, the pitcher’s primary partner is the catcher.

Yankees catchers during 5-15 stretch

Date Catcher Game Result Pitcher L/BS Big Inning
Date Catcher Game Result Pitcher L/BS Big Inning
8/18 Sanchez Loss, 6-3 Tanaka (L) 3rd inning (4)
8/19 Sanchez Loss, 4-2 Britton (L) -
8/20 Kratz Loss, 10-5 Ottavino (L) 6th inning (5)
8/26 Sanchez Loss, 5-1 Cole (L) -
8/26 Kratz Loss, 2-1 Green (BS)
8/28 Sanchez Loss, 6-4 Green (BS) 6th inning (5)
8/28 Kratz Loss, 4-3 Chapman (BS) -
8/29 Kratz Win, 2-1 Ottavino (BS) -
8/30 Sanchez Win, 8-7 (extras) - -
8/30 Kratz Win, 5-2 (extras) - -
8/31 Sanchez Loss, 5-3 Cole (L) -
9/1 Higashioka Win, 5-3 - -
9/2 Sanchez Loss, 5-2 Montgomery (L) 1st inning (4)
9/3 Higashioka Loss, 9-7 (extras) Chapman (BS) -
9/4 Sanchez Win, 6-5 - -
9/4 Kratz Loss, 6-3 Garcia (L) 5th inning (4)
9/5 Higashioka Loss, 6-1 Cole (L) 6th inning (5)
9/6 Kratz Loss, 5-1 Tanaka (L) -
9/7 Higashioka Loss, 12-7 Ottavino (L) 6th inning (10)
9/8 Sanchez Loss, 2-1 Happ (L) -

To begin, let’s take a look at some basic stats. During this stretch of time, the catcher’s “records” were 2-7 for Gary Sánchez, 2-5 for Erik Kratz, and 1-3 for Kyle Higashioka. In Sánchez’s starts, the team has given up 5 runs per game, in Kratz’s 3.85 (although he has an advantage in that two of his 7 starts were by Deivi García), and in Higashioka’s 7.5. Lastly, Sánchez has presided over one blown save and three big innings, Kratz over three blown saves and two big innings, and Higashioka over one blown save and two big innings.

At first glance, it looks like all three catchers have been responsible for some of the pitching deficiencies, and to some extent, that is accurate. It’s important, however, to draw attention to where the big innings have occurred for each catcher. Two of the three big innings that Sánchez had occurred with the starting pitcher on the mound, including Jordan Montgomery’s absolutely horrendous two-out performance on September 2. Meanwhile, Kratz and Higashioka tended to have things fall apart in the later innings, with relievers on the mound for at least part of their big innings — not to mention the fact that they combine for four blown saves in only two more games.

We’re obviously dealing with a small sample size here, but that does raise the question as to whether or not the Yankees relievers are more comfortable with Sánchez behind the plate than they are with the teams’ other backstops. Although the relief pitchers’ statistics by catcher can’t quite be isolated — and indeed, in such a short season, that may be academically dishonest due to the infinitesimally small sample sizes for the overlap between relief pitcher and catcher — it is possible to highlight a fairly common trend in recent years: catchers’ ERA and runs per game. While admittedly not the most reliable statistics, they nonetheless represent the best opportunity we have to isolate the catcher’s impact on pitching outcomes when compared relative to the team as a whole.

For 2020, Gary Sánchez leads the Yankees with a 3.98 ERA and 4.37 runs/9 in 230 innings, with Erik Kratz behind him with a 4.50 ERA and 5.01 runs/9 in 70 innings, and Higashioka in last with a 5.20 ERA and 6.19 runs/9 in 64 innings. For comparison’s sake, the teamwide statistics are a 4.29 ERA and 4.33 runs/9. For most of his career, this has been a trend with Gary Sánchez — his catcher’s ERA of 3.45 and runs/9 of 3.83 in 2017 were about a third of a run better than the teamwide 3.72 ERA and 4.07 runs/9, and his 3.50 ERA and 3.93 runs/9 in 2018 were in a similar range compared to the teamwide 3.78 ERA and 4.13 runs/9. Last season serves as the sole outlier beyond his rookie season, in which his catchers’ ERA of 4.31 matched the team’s exactly, and his 4.74 runs/9 came in below the team’s average of 4.56.

Unfortunately, outside pitch framing and pitch blocking, most advanced data on catcher defense is not easily accessible, making it difficult to dive more deeply into these trends. Nonetheless, as Josh mentioned in the Pinstripe Alley Slack, there’s a reason that the Yankees kept penciling Gary Sánchez into the lineup as the catcher even while he was struggling at the plate, and it took the total evaporation of his bat for him to be benched — and even then, only temporarily. It appears that, although his pitch-blocking skills leave something to be desired, Sánchez does something right behind the plate that allows him to more regularly bring out the best in his pitching staff over the course of his career.