In this writer’s opinion the best song of 2021 is The Hold Steady’s Lanyards, from their new record Open Door Policy. The narrator is a depressed, failed actor, whose doctor prescribes lifestyle changes in hopes of helping him “make more healthy decisions”. I am not a doctor, and can’t speculate on Gary Sánchez’s lifestyle, but I hoped, in the aftermath of 2020, he would make better baseball decisions.
It’s similar to the changes Clint Frazier made, which I wrote about a month ago. Frazier understood there are certain pitches he could hit, and certain pitches he couldn’t hit, and by focusing on the pitches he could hit, he would have more productive at bats. By making “healthier” swing decisions, he’d be a better player.
In Gary’s case, a whole host of his offensive problems in 2020 were caused by janky, inconsistent mechanics. His head was all over the place, his timing was consistently off, and all of this translates to less contact, robbing him of the potential of his all-world hard hit rate. Peter wrote about the mechanical changes Sánchez has made in spring, but I think there’s another element to his struggles: bad decisions.
These are the swing decisions Gary made last year. You can see the trend — he favored pitches on the inner third of the plate, and this likely contributed to his mechanical problems. For a hitter, pitches inside generally look good, especially fastballs. They’re closer to you physically, they appear to be bearing in right on your bat path, but to actually make good contact on inside pitches, you have to meet the ball out further in front of the plate, so you have to start your swing earlier. Start too late and the ball travels in too far, meaning you make contact further down the barrel towards the hands, or, you miss, and maybe strike out 36 percent of the time. You know, hypothetically.
It’s impossible to separate the swing decisions from the mechanics. Was Gary so amped up to hit the inside pitch that he sped his swing up and was thrown out of rhythm? Or was he so out of rhythm that the only pitches he felt he could get around on were on the inner third? The endogeneity has no beginning. In spring 2021, though, it appears to be at an end.
Yes, yes, sample size caveats, spring caveats, etc. Gary’s a much better hitter this spring than he was in 2020, boasting a 1.264 OPS. You can’t really worry about that level of performance, but what you can analyze are the very granular things, like what his swing decisions are in exhibition play. Thanks to Statcast, we can rebuild all of Sánchez’s swings in spring ball, entering play Friday:
This shows every swing Gary’s taken this spring, with red being swings he’s made contact on, blue being swings he’s missed. The darker each box, the more frequently he’s made contact or missed at that location. We can see a marketed difference — Gary’s swinging much more at pitches on the outer third of the zone, and up. Oh, and he’s hitting those pitches with much greater frequency than he was in 2020.
Like when he struggled, it’s impossible to separate the swing decisions from the mechanics. The higher leg kick slows down his movement, allowing the ball to travel more, and as is the opposite with inside pitches, you can wait just a bit longer to make good contact. Yes, going after pitches away helps you hit to all fields, but more important than hitting to all fields is the attitude of letting pitches travel and not rushing your swing.
It works even when Sánchez does offer at pitches middle-in:
This isn’t a ball away. It’s on the inner third of the plate, but because Gary’s focus is away, his swing is much more stable, and held back just a hair, rather than rushing like last year. The result is contact out in front of the plate with the barrel, instead of the janky, uncomfortable whiffs we saw a lot of last year.
Gary Sánchez doesn’t actually need to go to right field. That’s a narrative that’s been spread without any actual data backing it up — in 2016 and 2017, when he was the best catcher in baseball, he went to the opposite field less than any of the last three seasons. What he does need to do is think about the opposite field, focusing on balls farther out in the strike zone, that his retooled swing can put him in better positions to hit.
It’s March 13th. Gary needs to take about another 1000 swings before we can really say his mentality is different. But he came into spring needing to switch his mechanics up, and he’s done that. He also needed to make more healthy decisions at the plate, and two weeks in, he’s doing just that.