Yankees: Examining the Gary Sanchez hate ahead of 2021 season
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez is fighting his own fans entering 2021.
It didn’t take long for Gary Sánchez’s career to become controversial. In 2017, as a mere sophomore, he set the record for home runs by a Yankees catcher. He also put up a very good FanGraphs WAR of 4.3.
That was also the year, however, that he gained notoriety after being benched for his defensive shortcomings.
Three-and-a-half years later, the manager who benched him has been replaced by the more forgiving Aaron Boone, Sánchez’s defense continues to be maligned, and his offensive output has taken a dramatic nose dive.
2021 was never going to be an easy season for El Gary, but neither was 2018, ‘19 or ‘20. What sets this year apart is not that Sánchez has his doubters; it’s that the anti-Sánchez camp has absorbed a new demographic.
Much of my modern baseball education has come from FanGraphs, an innovative baseball statistics database that also publishes baseball journalism and produces the Effectively Wild and FanGraphs Audio podcasts. As long as El Gary has had haters, FanGraphs has been an implicit and explicit voice in his defense.
In 2016, then-FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan published a piece called “Gary Sanchez is No Jesus Montero.” Sullivan argued that not only was the rookie a nasty slugger whose exit velocity fell in the 97th percentile, but he was also “the real deal” at playing catcher. Sánchez had a knack for pitch framing and catching base-stealers.
Sullivan also praised Sánchez’s work ethic relative to Montero’s, something that might come as a surprise to Sánchez’s more recent detractors.
In 2017, FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) metric for Sánchez was 6.6. A score of 0 is considered average, and a score of 4.0 is markedly above average. That was in the same year that Joe Girardi benched Sánchez for his defense.
In 2018, Sanchez’s Def went up to 8.9. He also, however, allowed two more passed balls than had had the year before (18 vs 16), meaning his popular reputation didn’t get any better.
Passed balls may look bad on TV, but that doesn’t mean they substantially undermine a catcher’s defensive contribution. Think of it this way; if Shakespeare’s original scripts were full of spelling errors, it would certainly be humiliating, but it wouldn’t jeopardize his status as a literary icon.
2018 was also an interesting and polarizing year for Sánchez on the offensive front. In an injury-shortened, 89-game season, his WAR was 1.7 and he hit 18 home runs (that’s 32 home runs and 3.0 WAR over a full season). His overall offensive value wasn’t great: his wRC+ was 91 (or 9% below league average).
What was notable overall about this season, however, was that he put up these numbers despite a .186 batting average. Sánchez could, in short, be a pretty valuable player, while still looking terrible because he fell short in the metrics most visible to the casual fan’s eye.
I had grown used to the above narrative about Gary Sánchez: that at his worst, he was still a decent player, even as fan-social-media said otherwise. It thus caught me off guard when, on the Effectively Wild episode from November 25, FanGraphs writer Craig Edwards dismissed Sánchez as a failed catcher.
Sánchez’s 2020 was undoubtedly a disaster. Still, it was striking to hear a statistically savvy sportswriter describe Sánchez with little more nuance than a bleacher heckler.
Edwards elaborates on his perspective in a piece called “Gary Sanchez Has No Trade Value.” Edwards’s piece notably skips the defense issue. While Sanchez’s Def did drop all the way to -0.1 in 2019, it went back up to an impressive 2.2 in the shortened 2020 campaign, something that should perhaps be credited to new catching coach Tanner Swanson.
Edwards does, however, provide a compelling case as to why Sánchez’s 2020 offensive woes may not be a fluke. He cites Sánchez’s career struggle with the slider, combined with a drop in power on occasions when he did make contact with sliders in 2020. Furthermore, over the last two years Sánchez has increasingly struggled to make contact with four-seem fastballs: his whiff rate on the pitch went up from 10.7% in 2019 to 17% in 2020.
Another recent, Sánchez-critical take came from Jeff Zimmerman, whose piece was called “Gary Sánchez Keeps Getting Worse and Worse.” Zimmerman briefly toys with the idea that Sánchez has been the victim of bad luck. Sánchez’s 2020 barrel%, Zimmerman notes, was close to those of Bryce Harper, Brandon Belt, Teoscar Hernandez, Brandon Lowe, Eloy Jimenez and Matt Chapman.
Ultimately, however, Zimmerman concludes that Sánchez’s offensive woes can be blamed on his own inability to beat defensive shifts.
Gary Sánchez may very well be one of the stars whose time came and went too quickly. Still, it is hard to reconcile Jeff Sullivan’s glowing praise with Craig Edwards’s overwhelming negativity. Surely the Gary Sánchez story can’t be reduced to “he was supposed to be good and then he randomly sucked.”
Perhaps the best piece I’ve found on the nuances of Gary Sánchez’s trajectory comes from one of Fangraphs’ amateur contributors. In 2019 Fangraphs user mwallach wrote that while Sánchez had improved at handling passed balls, his overall defense had deteriorated.
“Basically,” mwallach explained, “I began to wonder if Sanchez has been so focused on improving his pitch blocking that he has begun to sacrifice pitch framing and if this change has made Sanchez an overall better defender than he was in 2018.”
Mwallach’s hypothesis is particularly interesting, if one considers the bigger picture. Sánchez’s offensive value drastically improved in (the first half of) 2019, while his defensive value plummeted. And his defense seemed to come back in 2020, as his offensive value hit all time lows.
Perhaps we can infer that Sánchez, more than other players, needs coaches to correct his mechanics; that when he focuses too much on one area of his game, his muscle-memory fails in others. Alternatively, perhaps the grueling nature of catching has simply taken a toll on his body and his only hope for recovering as a hitter is switching to first base or DH.
The longer a player’s struggles continue, the harder it becomes for anyone to straight-facedly claim they are the victim of misleading statistical circumstances. As such, Gary Sánchez will go into 2021 with few defenders, be they users of traditional statistics or sabermetrics.
Luckily, these academic debates have little to do with a player’s personal journey. A Gary Sánchez comeback can happen, regardless of the distant speculations of us writers.