The start of the 2021 season for the Yankees has been somewhere between sluggish and downright depressing, depending upon where you fall on the fanatic spectrum. Yet despite the worst team start this century, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. We can certainly be encouraged by the bright spots that are Gerrit Cole, the bullpen as a whole, and of course, Gary Sánchez.
Seeing Sánchez in that group may be a surprise to some. A good number of fans had written him off as being either too up and down since his breakout 2016 season, or simply just too down after a horrible 2020 season. Many in the media joined fans in being skeptical about the catcher’s future, wondering aloud whether or not the Yankees should have severed ties with him this past off-season.
Generally speaking, criticisms have gone something like this:
He strikes out too much. He’s worried about being an all-or-nothing hitter and comes up nothing way too often. There are far too many swings and misses, especially against breaking balls. He doesn’t have the plate discipline of good hitters so he’s always going to be susceptible to the breaking stuff away, especially with two strikes. Instead of waiting for the perfect pitch to hit out of the stadium every at-bat he should try to put the pitches he sees in the zone into play, as he doesn’t have a good two-strike swing.
Although the season is still very young, Gary Sánchez is playing particularly well. The reason he’s playing well is that he’s improved in all the areas mentioned above and then some.
Is it fair to say “small sample size?” Absolutely. Yet given the specific areas in which he’s improved, and the extent to which he’s improving, it would be an enormous coincidence for it all to be due to sample size randomness. It’s more likely adjustments have been made and we can be optimistic about a good-to-very-good 2021 season from the Yankees’ catcher.
Let’s start with plate discipline. Sánchez ranks in the 67th percentile in chase rate so far this season in MLB, which is a staggering turnaround. His career percentage of swinging at pitches outside the zone is 33.3 percent — currently it stands at 23.6 percent for the season. This has led to a huge drop in his strikeout percentage (36 percent last season down to 20 percent) and a small increase in his walk rate up to 13.3 percent from 10.1 percent last season, culminating in an OBP of .356 – over 100 points higher than last season.
Yet it’s not just the improved selectivity of pitches that’s interesting, but what’s happening when he’s swinging.
There’s been a vast improvement in his performance versus breaking balls so far this season. His xwOBA against breaking balls is currently .457, up from .218 in 2020, according to Baseball Savant. FanGraphs also shows significant improvement on his performance against breaking balls with values of 0.1 against curves and 1.7 against sliders this season, up from -3.0 and -3.9 last season, respectively.
Also worth noting, two-thirds of his hits have been singles. This is interesting in spite of limited plate appearances for two reasons. First, over the past three seasons, less than half of his hits have been singles. Second, he’s been far more aggressive at swinging at pitches in the zone this season (71.1 percent up from 62 percent last season) and is also taking fewer called strikes. I’m not a MLB scout but perhaps there’s a philosophical change at play here — instead of waiting for the perfect pitch to “barrel,” he’s being more aggressive and avoiding the two-strike counts where he’ll be more susceptible to a breaking ball off the plate.
If that’s the case it’s working. Not only is the OBP up due to fewer strikeouts and more singles, but so is the batting average. Count me among the group who pays little to no attention to BA, but there are those that do. Those folks should be encouraged — Gary’s BA is 90 points higher than last season thus far.
For those of you who prefer more comprehensive numbers, the bottom line is just as encouraging. His current xwOBA, and wRC+ are both better than his career averages, as is his average exit velocity on batted balls. There should be no concern over whether or not he’ll maintain his power.
Why should all of this matter so early in the season?
Because the opposite — a bad start — could’ve been disastrous. Given the skepticism about his performance coming into the season, combined with the fact he’s never been a personal favorite of either the fans or the media, a bad start would have likely been met with loud calls for a change. This is impossible to quantify, but I’m sure you’ll agree that if D.J. LeMahieu or Aaron Judge started slowly with the bat, it would be met with passing references. A Sánchez slow start would have been cause for constant, sternly worded discussion from the media and fans. As it is, the general manager is already holding Zoom calls with the media to ask for patience — imagine the vitriol if Sánchez came out of the gate as he did last season.
On a more measurable level, Sánchez’s start equates to 4.9 WAR over a full season. That would not only be a career-best but would be more than a five-win improvement from last season. Given the way things have started on a team level, five wins could mean a lot to the Yankees — more than originally expected.
Can you find reasons to be skeptical? Sure. But given the specific areas of improvement and having one less concern about a team start that has many concerns, there’s no reason not to look at Sánchez’s start for what it is: a bright spot and reason for optimism.