Gary Sánchez burst onto the scene in 2016 with one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory, a titanic two-month torching of AL pitching. He followed that up with an excellent 2017 campaign, and set himself up to be one of the core members of this team for a very long time to come.
Since then, injuries, inconsistency, and maddeningly poor performance have destroyed what was shaping up to be such a promising career. Although Sánchez had stretches of solid performances throughout 2021, the simple fact of the matter is that the Yankees need more consistent production from Sánchez if they want to seriously contend for a title.
2021 Statistics (with New York): 117 G, 440 PA, .204/.307/.423, 23 HR, 11.8 BB%, 27.5 K%, 99 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Third-year arbitration eligible; free agent in 2023
Let’s start with the positives, shall we? While Sánchez’s slash line isn’t the prettiest thing in the world, he actually did have a productive season at the plate when compared to other catchers. He finished fifth in home runs, fifth in walk percentage, sixth in ISO, and 13th in wRC+. While these numbers are certainly a far cry from the production he flashed when he first got called up, these offensive rankings show that he’s fine, albeit not the hitter that he used to be.
In my eyes, that’s where the positives end for Sánchez’s 2021 campaign. His inconsistency at the plate is what frustrated me most about this season. The same talent that he had in 2016 and 2017 is clearly still in there somewhere, but he’s seemingly only able to harness it for a short stretch every few weeks.
When Sánchez first excelled, he had the natural ability to spray the ball across the field. Since then, however, his batted-ball profile demonstrates that he’s seemingly lost the ability to hit the ball back up the middle. Whether this was due to a mechanical issue or even a philosophical issue in approach is up for debate, but it seems pretty clear to me that, in order to return to his 2016-17 self, he needs to get back to that type of hitter.
Now to address the elephant in the room: Gary’s defense. Catcher defense is particularly tricky to pin down statistically, but FanGraphs does a fairly good job of it. For years, Sánchez’s defense was predicated on the fact that he had a rocket of an arm and made it very hard for runners to steal on him. His rSB—which FanGraphs defines as a DRS-based stat that measures how a catcher ranks compared to other catchers across the league when it comes to Stolen Base Runs Above Average—was in the negatives (-1) for the first time in his career. In fact, this number has been falling every year he’s been in the majors.
Speaking of defensive runs saved, Sánchez posted a -10 in that category, which was, by far, the worst of his career. It is important to note, however, that DRS represents a very small percentage of defensive plays for catchers, so take this one with a grain of salt. Sánchez routinely gets killed by the media and fans alike for the trouble he has when it comes to blocking pitches. While FanGraphs seems to have stopped tracking their Runs on Passed Pitches, which helped give a clearer sense of how impactful passed balls actually were, Sánchez ranked seventh in passed balls this season with eight. While he is, of course, on the hook for those eight passed balls, he actually experienced 60 wild pitches — for comparison, Salvador Perez saw 69 in over 120 more innings — so it’s not like the Yankees pitching staff was the pinnacle of control this season.
And, finally, framing. Before we get into this part, I would like to remind people that framing is becoming less of a concern for teams across the league each year as the floor is raised and we approach the inevitable introduction of robo-umps. With that being said, though, Sánchez’s framing leaves a lot to be desired. This year, FanGraphs has his framing rate at -2.5. While it’s certainly an improvement on 2019, his mark of -2.5 actually ranks him 36th out of 47 catchers with at least 400 innings behind the plate.
I came to terms with the fact that Gary is always going to have some issues on the defensive side of the ball a while ago, but the thing that makes his defense appear worse than it actually is—which is saying a lot, because it’s not particularly good—is the fact that, when he’s not hitting, things get really ugly really fast. At that point, suddenly even the most trivial defensive miscue, like a passed ball with no one on base, are amplified that much more.
Call me foolish, but I still believe in Gary Sánchez. I think the talent is in there somewhere, and, despite calls to upgrade at catcher, I do think legitimately good options behind the plate are so few and far between that it makes it really hard to find a replacement for him right now. In the meantime, let’s hope the new hitting coach that’s brought in is able to help him tap into that talent, because lord knows both Sánchez and the team need his bat to come back in a big way.