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Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez has refined his approach

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Quietly, Gary Sánchez has worked his way back from the depths of ineptitude through a brand new means of production.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Every player not named Mike Trout goes through peaks and valleys relative to their own overall production. However, not many hitters do so to the same extremes of Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez. Having lived through 2016 and 2017 seasons, it’s impossible to forget that he’s still the guy who homered at least nine times in a month on five separate occasions, including months of 11 and 12 ding-dongs respectively. At his highs, Sánchez has been the best-hitting catcher in the majors, but at his more recent lows, he’s performed so poorly he’s become borderline unplayable.

After homers on each of the first two days of the season, Sánchez regressed towards production in line with his meager 2020 campaign. Through the end of April, he’d batted a buck-ninety with a .291 wOBA. Only in the past month has he started to find his groove, showing some improvement against fastballs, the pitch that he once dominated yet had recently found especially troublesome over the past season and change. While Sánchez is still not clubbing homers at historic rates — like he’d been apt to do in the past couple of odd-numbered years (67 of his 121 career homers in 2017 and 2019 combined) — he’s found a new way to stabilize his offensive production.

In each of the past few seasons, Gary’s struggled to maintain a consistently disciplined approach at the plate. Coupled with his propensity for swings and misses, his consistently below-average chase rate led to elevated strikeout totals, averaging more than a K per game played in all but one of his big league seasons. This year however, he’s somewhat mitigated the toll of a near 30 percent strikeout rate, the second-highest mark of his career, with a career-best chase rate. That’s led to a career-high walk rate of 13.3 percent, good for the 87th percentile in the majors.

Despite still hitting just .207, Sánchez has elevated his offensive production to roughly MLB average by most advanced metrics via his frequent free trips to first. His wOBA and xWOBA straddle either side of their respective ML averages, and his wRC+ of 99 and OPS+ of 97 tell similar stories. It’s not Sánchez’s best-case scenario by any stretch, but for a catcher, offensive production around the league average is good enough to get the job done.

Even without making pitchers pay for mistakes in location, Sánchez has earned his keep by laying off of pitches that he wouldn’t be able to do much with in the first place. By run value per zone, Gary’s been worth -2 runs in the heart of the zone, and -6 runs in the shadow portion, but +5 and +3 on pitches classified as chase, and waste, respectively.

Although he’s struggled to make enough solid contact on what should be hittable pitches with the lowest zone-contact percentage and highest whiff percentage of his career (even worse than in 2020), Sánchez is swinging at the right kinds of pitches more often than ever. He has the highest meatball swing percentage, the highest zone-swing percentage, and the lowest chase rate of his career by almost five percentage points. Since swing rate is one of the quickest batting stats to stabilize, it’s fair to infer that Gary’s improved pitch selection denotes a legitimate skill improvement.

All hitters heat up and cool down, but the very best at their craft do so with a narrower gap between the peaks and valleys of their performance. Walking often, as all of the game’s uber-elite do, is essential to maintaining a sky-high production floor even when their swing is slightly off. While Sánchez still has yet to flash much of the light show power this season that he’s displayed in the past, his improved ability to draw walks makes his lowest lows a bit more palatable, and should give him a longer runway to keep on trying to figure out how to regain access to the best version of himself at the plate. As a more stable, albeit still strikeout-prone producer, Gary’s better positioned now for a sustainable career in the majors than he was before, even if he rarely, if ever, goes supernova again.

All statistics are as of the end of the day on Saturday, June 5th.