Yankees: Gary Sanchez, the forgotten MVP candidate

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Gary Sanchez
TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Gary Sanchez /

After the Yankees acquired NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton, to team up with the AL MVP Runner-up, Aaron Judge, much of the media focus has been placed on these two behemoth sluggers to replicate the numbers they produced last year.

While all this attention is warranted, and both Judge and Stanton are certainly capable of having another great season, it has distracted the media and Yankees fans alike from another sleeper MVP candidate in their clubhouse: Gary Sanchez.

In fact, much of the press coverage on Sanchez has been criticism about his defense, an exaggerated storyline that accompanied the Yankees catcher in his first full-season as the primary backstop. Yes, although he improved later in the season, Sanchez did have a league-leading 16 passed balls in 2017, and when those miscues happened, boy were they ugly.

However, compared to the other aspects of catching (such as pitch-framing, pitch-calling, and arm strength), blocking might be less impactful on the outcome of the game.

Passed balls are rare for major league catchers and must occur at the perfect time to significantly affect the game. However, pitch framing, on the other hand, can affect a significant number of pitches a game, and batting averages and slugging percentages drop substantially with each additional strike a batter accrues.

Analyzing Sanchez’s passed ball statistics more deeply, his numbers may also be elevated in part due to the Yankees penchant for throwing breaking pitches, which more often bounce in the dirt either intentionally or unintentionally.

More from Yankees News

In fact, the Yankees have thrown the fewest fastballs in the league over the last three years, and have consistently ranked above average in passed balls and wild pitches even before Sanchez was the starting catcher. Although the Yankees are a trend-setter for this in analytics, it no doubt has left the them more susceptible to passed balls, but they’re okay with this due to the generally superior offensive numbers batted against fastballs.

For other defensive categories? Sanchez had the 5th highest caught stealing rate in MLB at 38%, and that’s with some notorious slow-throwers in both the Yankees rotation and bullpen. Gary has one of, if not the top, throwing arms in the league as a catcher.

Among regulars with 4500+ framing chances, Sanchez rates around average in Framing Runs (14th), according to Baseball Prospectus. Fangraphs rated him as the 9th best defensive catcher who caught at least 50% of total innings for their team.

Even further, he finished the year with zero defensive runs saved, the average for the league. With all the negative attention his defense received last year, he still rated as a solid defensive backstop who also has a quality reputation working with his pitchers.

While he definitely has flaws defensively, he is far from a liability and, according to former Yankees third base coach and Gold Glove catcher Tony Pena:

"“There’s no question that Gary wants to get better, there’s no question he’s going to get better and there’s no question he’s going to be one of the frontline catchers in the future. You watch.”"

Sanchez has all the tools to become an elite catcher as he perfects his training and approach behind the plate. If spring training is any indication of how 2018 is going to play out, Aaron Boone thinks he is ready to take that next step defensively.

No matter the promise he shows on defense, there is no disputing what makes him an MVP candidate: his thunderous bat. After missing the first month of the season to injury, Gary still hit 33 HRs and had 90 RBIs while sporting a .278/.345 batting average and OBP. Had he not been injured that probably would have put him in range of a 40+ HR and 100+ RBI campaign over a full season at only 24 years old.

This puts The Kraken in historical company for catchers. Have you ever heard of Johnny Bench? In his first MVP season in 1970, he batted .293/.345 with 45 HRs and 148 RBIs. In 1972, he hit .270/.379 with 40 HRs and 125 RBIs, again winning the MVP. Those numbers seem within Gary’s potential, considering he has 53 HRs and 132 RBIs in the 177 games he’s played in the big leagues (which is good for 49 HRs and 121 RBIs over 162 games).

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez won his MVP trophy behind Gold Glove defense and 35 HRs, 113 RBIs, and a .332/.356 line. Other catchers who put up big offensive numbers include Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, who also won MVP awards.

Mike Piazza finished in the top 3 on three separate occasions, and even our beloved Jorge Posada took home a top 3 finish. Neither one was widely regarded for their defense.

Next: Predicting who could be the next Aaron Judge

The point is, that when catchers serve as elite hitters, they are often worth more than any other player on a roster because of the general scarcity of offense at the position and the overall impact they can have on every pitch. Although Sanchez may not be the favorite for MVP, perhaps even on his own team, the majority of attention and pressure is on Judge and Stanton to perform like they did in 2017. That could allow El Gary to flourish and have his own MVP campaign.