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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Gary Sánchez

It’s hard to overstate how important this season is for the mercurial catcher.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a little bit of a layup to write the Gary Sánchez preview piece. We talk about him perhaps more than any player since A-Rod, and he’s equally as divisive among Yankee fans. However you feel about him, though, he enters 2021 as the team’s starting catcher, and is truly facing a make or break season.

2020 Stats: 178 PA, .172/.253/.365, 10 HR, 24 RBI, 36 K%, 10.1 BB%, 68 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR

2021 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 384 PA, .217/.305/.467, 24 HR, 68 RBI, 30.3% K%, 10.7% BB%, 100 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR

Yes, that is the actual stat line of the AL’s starting catcher in the 2019 All Star game. We’ve written ad nauseum about Gary’s nightmare 2020 season, and I hope this post serves as an opportunity for all of us to put it behind us. Gary Sánchez was awful in 2020, but there’s at least some signs of optimism pointing to a rebound in 2021.

For starters, we’ll get to see the real impact of Tanner Swanson. He was brought in as the Yankees’ catching coordinator during last year’s offseason, and his most noticeable impact — introducing the knee-down catching stance — did improve Gary’s framing in 2020.

I think we can credit Gary and Tanner for this, since the season before Sánchez committed so hard to reducing passed balls that his framing dropped off the planet. Combine that with the new catching stance, and we should all be excited for what Swanson can do with Sánchez over a full year. Similar to the hiring of Matt Blake and Eric Cressey, these kind of programs need time and repetition to bear fruit, two elements that baseball was missing in great quantity in 2020.

Second is Sánchez’s spring. Peter and I have written about Gary’s exhibition outings, his new mechanics and swing decisions. It’s folly to talk about OPS or top-line stats in spring training, but there are really changes that matter in spring. If a pitcher’s spin rate is suddenly 15 percent higher, that matters no matter what the competition level is. Similarly, a rebuilt swing matters too, and Gary looks much better in the small spring sample.

And we should all cling to that optimism, because so much of what happens for the rest of Gary’s career comes down to his 2021. He’s a free agent after the 2022 season, and the Yankees have more than one talented catchers in the MiLB pipeline. Josh Breaux and last year’s top draft pick Austin Wells can be counted on to rise quickly in the minor league ranks. The footsteps behind Sánchez aren’t loud just yet, but another 300 terrible PAs will increase the volume considerably.

He had so little value after 2020 that it’s pretty much impossible to keep getting worse. But if Sánchez wants to really build a career in New York, he needs to get back to being a net positive, behind the plate and at it. So that begs the question of what a successful season for him looks like?

He’s projected for a .772 OPS, and honestly, if he’s catching 120 games with that kind of production, I’m good with it. More than that, though, he needs to enjoy the confidence of the ball club. He sat on the bench in the postseason last year, in lieu of a guy who couldn’t crack a full time job until a pandemic-shortened season at age 30. Sánchez sat because the club just didn’t trust him to be an asset, in the most important games of the year. Success in 2021 is reclaiming that trust, no matter what the OPS is. If Gary is catching Gerrit Cole in Game One of the ALDS, that’s a good season.