Yankees: Should Gary Sanchez be the starting catcher in 2020?


Yankees fans and team executives have been extraordinarily patient with Gary Sanchez’s performance behind the plate. Yet, the quality of his efforts on offense and defense have been mixed.

If the Yankees are going to go deep into the playoffs next season, they need to replace Sanchez as the starting catcher. His continued inconsistent play both fielding and hitting at this point in his career suggests that he has been unable to improve despite his hard work. Given the disappointing quality of his overall play on the diamond, he is now a liability for the Yanks.

Admittedly, both the Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman and skipper Aaron Boone continue to praise his level of play and support his starting role on the club. Yet, Sanchez has been with the team now for parts of four seasons, and he has yet to pull it all together for the Bombers.

Level of performance

A major problem is that Sanchez has been injury-prone throughout his MLB career, limiting his ability to produce solid stats, specifically, and consistently perform on the field, generally. Consider this data: In 2017, he caught 104 games, in 2018, 76 games, and in 2019, 90 games.

Fans of Sanchez might argue that once he becomes healthy he will be able to play in more games and become a much better player. Thus, we need to be patient. But when will that be? Will he ever be able to play 140 or so games as the starting catcher for the Yanks? I doubt it.

As we all know, even if someone is not injury-prone, catching takes a severe toll on the body, and it is very difficult to avoid injuries and play regularly. Catcher is the most demanding and difficult position in baseball. As fans, we often take this for granted.

Let’s examine his overall track record as the starting catcher for the Yankees.

Defensively, he had 16 and 18 passed balls in 2017 and 2018, respectively. He reduced that number considerably to just 7 in 2019. This is a noteworthy accomplishment. Unfortunately, he also committed a major-league-leading 15 errors as a catcher in 2019, up from 6 in the prior year, essentially canceling out his improvement in handling passed balls. His fielding percentage over the last four years is .988.

In addition, he is framing pitches worse than before (thus costing pitchers called strikes and extending opposing batters time at the plate). Also, while he caught 41 percent of baserunners stealing in 2016, that number has decreased steadily each year. In 2019 he only caught 23 percent of runners attempting to steal a base. Overall, the data demonstrate that he is now saving fewer runs.

Similarly, his performance as a hitter has been mixed and has generally declined over time. In 2016, his best year at the plate, he had 229 plate appearances and hit 20 home runs and drove in 42 runs. He also had a .299 batting average that year. His OBP, SLG, and OPS in 2016 were an impressive .376, .657, and 1.032, respectively. These numbers have declined steadily since. In 2019 he had 446 plate appearances and hit a solid 34 home runs and had 77 RBIs. His batting average, however, declined significantly to .232 as did his OBP (.316), SLG (.525), and OPS (.841).

Postseason play

Sanchez has not hit well in the postseason either. He has played in a total of seven playoff series during 2017, 2018, and 2019. In a combined 111 plate appearances, he has a respectable 6 home runs and 16 RBIs. However, he has struck out a lot, 40 times, and his overall batting average is .176. These are not very good numbers.

In particular, Sanchez did not play well during the 2019 ALCS against the Houston Astros. In 24 plate appearances, he only hit .130. He had one home run, three RBIs, and struck out 12 times, a dismal 50 percent of his total plate appearances.

Over one year ago I wrote a piece for Yanks Go Yard evaluating Sanchez’s performance. I specifically discussed his lack of focus and an undisciplined approach to the game as an issue.

About two weeks ago the New York Times published an article centering on his lack of focus and concentration during games. In the article, Sanchez admits that he thinks too much and is too easily distracted during games. (This may partially explain why it seems to take him longer than other players to hit his way out of batting slumps.)

Chad Bohling, the Yankees’ director of mental conditioning, worked with Sanchez in 2019 to improve his focus and his ability to “stay in the moment.” Bohling reports that there has been some progress and that Sanchez must continue to work hard on increasing his concentration during games. His family members have also noted that his mind tends to wander and that he can be easily distracted while at home.

The future

Given the analysis presented above involving the quality of Sanchez’s hitting and fielding, there is a legitimate concern as to whether he will ever be able to fulfill his potential and become a truly outstanding catcher like Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, or Jorge Posada. Presently, the Yankees are on the verge of becoming the most dominant team in baseball. In order to reach the next level, however, it would help to have a stellar catcher behind the plate.

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The team could elect to continue to have him as the starting catcher next season, hope that he avoids long stays on the IL and that his hitting and fielding will improve. Whether these expectations are realistic at this point is very uncertain in my view given his record of performance over the last four years with the club and the fact that he tends to be injury-prone.

Apparently, given the level of support to continue Sanchez as the team’s starting catcher on the part of both Cashman and Boone, the Yanks are willing to wait and see if Sanchez can improve. My feeling is that he has been given enough time to show his abilities and to measure his rate of improvement. Based on his performance over the past four seasons, I am doubtful that he will ever become an elite receiver.

One alternative is to trade Sanchez for an equally strong player that fills a roster need (such as a veteran relief pitcher or a designated hitter, assuming the Yankees decline Edwin Encarnacion’s club option). The Yanks could then resign Austin Romine, a free agent this offseason, and have him become the starting catcher until they can find another promising catcher who fields well and also hits for power.

Romine is no slouch; he had a very good 2019 season as the backup catcher for the Yanks. In 240 plate appearances Romine hit .281, nearly 50 points higher than Sanchez, and he had a superb .997 fielding percentage in 70 games. While he might not be able to hit as many home runs and drive in as many runs as Sanchez, he can still carry his own weight at the plate, and he will be a significantly better fielder than Sanchez. He is very smart, and he already is a well-respected presence in the clubhouse.

Another possibility is to make Sanchez the permanent designated hitter. Since he would not be catching on a regular basis (he would be the backup catcher), he probably will spend a lot less time on the IL and find it much easier to stay focused since he wouldn’t have to deal with the complexities of catching. He could very well become an outstanding designated hitter. Romine can become the starting catcher in the short term until the Yanks can find another Yogi Berra or Elston Howard to fill the role.

The Yankees brass seems committed to keeping Sanchez behind the plate. While I can understand why the team may want to do this (perhaps to save money, although Sanchez is up for arbitration this year), the Yanks desperately need a superb, all-around catcher if they are going to improve their overall play and advance in the playoffs. Transforming Sanchez into the DH and acquiring an elite catcher would be the best way to go in my opinion.