The once revered catcher is seeing his playing time split with Kyle Higashioka, a career backup who is two-and-a-half years Sanchez’s senior.
Sánchez has been struggling since the second half of the 2019 season. It is becoming less and less probable that the 2016-17 version of the Kraken will rear his head (or tentacles) again.
And unfortunately, when a player is caught in a downward spiral, benching can make the problem even worse. How is a player supposed to break out of a slump without daily practice?
But as I write this piece, Sánchez is still a Yankee. And furthermore, as good as Kyle Higashioka has been so far, it’s hard to believe the Yankees truly see the 31-year-old as a formidable starting catcher.
As such, there’s no use in giving up hope that Sanchez can find some way to be a meaningful contributor on the 2021 Yankees. He may spend the year in a platoon, but if platooning allows Sánchez (and Higashioka) to come to the plate at the right moments, he might be just as productive as many everyday players.
Below are some factors that may help the Yankees assess when to start Sánchez and when to start Higashioka.
Over the course of their careers Sánchez and Higashioka have strikeout rates against left-handed pitchers of 28.6% and 21.1% respectively. Against righties, it’s 25.5% and 32%.
And Higashioka’s overall results are also better against left-handed pitchers than righty hurlers. He has posted a wRC+ of 92 versus lefties as opposed to 70 versus righties. Sánchez, by contrast, is not particularly affected by pitcher-handedness. While his career ISO is .290 against lefties, and only .250 against righties, his batting average on balls in play against righties is .261 against a .225 mark against lefties.
At least when it comes to making contact and getting hits, Sánchez appears to fair better against right-handed pitching. And if the numbers Higashioka has put up over his short career hold up, he is the better choice against lefties. Thus lies the perfect foundation upon which to split the two catchers’ playing times.
Fangraphs provides data on the relative success of players when they hit ground balls, fly balls or line drives. The difference between Sánchez and Higashioka is most pronounced in the fly ball category. Sanchez’s career wRC+ on fly balls is 267, whereas Higashioka’s is 163.
Hitting fly balls has been Sánchez’s secret in the past to breaking out of slumps. When Sánchez was at a better place in his career (early 2019), Mike Petriello observed, “When Sánchez hits the ball in the air, he does it very well. When he hits it on the ground, he does it worse than almost anyone.”
Since data is also kept on which pitchers are prone to giving up fly balls, and which are better at keeping the balls on the ground, this can also be a factor in determining whether Sánchez or Higashioka should get the start.
Kyle Highashioka and Gary Sánchez’s plate discipline numbers look fairly similar. Sánchez walks markedly more than Higashioka, though that may have less to do with his plate discipline and more to do with his (now fading) track record as a slugger.
Both have somewhat high swing-and-miss rates (12% for both Sánchez and Higashioka, where 9% is around average). Both players also make less contact than the average major leaguer when they swing at pitches outside of the zone (55.7% for Sanchez, 51% for Higashioka, 60% being an average rate).
One element of plate discipline where Higashioka may have the edge, however, comes in the way the two hitters respond to different counts. Both unsurprisingly perform well with 3-0 counts, with Higashioka’s 345 wRC+ dwarfing Sánchez’s (perfectly good) 253 mark. What’s interesting is where the numbers go from there. For the most part, Sánchez’s wRC+ goes down as counts become less favorable
Higashioka’s numbers, by contrast, are all over the place.
SANCHEZ: 3-0: 253 3-1: 222 3-2: 131 2-0: 212 1-0: 131 2-1: 143 1-1: 97 0-1: 94 2-2:73 1-2: 55 0-2: 33
HIGASHIOKA 3-0: 345 3-1: 102: 3-2: 53 2-0: 193 1-0: 73 2-1: -25 1-1: -26 0-1: 63 2-2: -24 1-2: 5 0-2: 120
There are two things one can make of the complete lack of a pattern in Higashioka’s numbers. One is that he has still played very few games, and the numbers will align into more of a pattern over time. The other, however, is that Higashioka’s ability to hit may be relatively independent of the count. Sánchez, by contrast, may not have bad plate discipline overall, but may struggle more (psychologically and/or strategically) the more strikes he has on him.
Gary Sánchez mashes all kinds of pitches. He has a career wRC+ of 140 against fastballs, 165 against sinker, 146 against changeups and 190 against splitters. Unfortunately, another very common pitch appears to be his kryptonite. To quote a movie title, Sanchez has “trouble with the curve,” a pitch against which his wRC+ is a paltry 57.
Higashioka’s pitch splits make him look the inferior player to Sanchez. He has a wRC+ of 10 against the curve, negative 20 against the slider and negative 100 against the splitter. Higashioka may turn out to share Sanchez’s trouble with the curve and then some. But, given the brevity of Higashioka’s career, all of these numbers may still be flukes.
A STRATEGY GOING FORWARD
When it comes to getting the most out of struggling players, there are always two questions: the question of the player’s actual value and their perceived value. So far this season, Gary Sánchez has not been as terrible one might think given his below-the-Mendoza-line batting average. His defense seems to be back on track, and his base running value has managed to stay (barely) above zero (he’s always finished his previous years with a negative base running value). Even his hitting sits at a league average wRC+ of 102 — offense is down across baseball, after all.
But the reality is that averageness is not good enough for a player competing for a spot on a top team, with a fanbase that expects nothing less than World Series glory. For Sánchez to succeed, the Yankees will need to put him in situations where his talents are most readily apparent. Especially if Sánchez is someone who struggles under pressure, he cannot afford to be put in situations that expose his weaknesses to unforgiving fans for much longer.
A simple rule for platooning Gary Sánchez and Kyle Higashioka would involve starting Sánchez against righty pitchers and Higashioka against southpaws. On top of that, Sánchez should start against pitchers who give up fly balls, while Higashioka should be used against those apt at keeping balls on the ground. Other factors to consider are the abilities of a pitcher to throw strikes, and the dominance of a pitcher’s curve. When the ability to work a walk, or capitalize on a hanging curve seems useful, El Gary is still your guy. But when it comes to facing pitchers who can get ahead on counts, it might be worth considering what Higashioka has in store.
Needless to say, balancing the above factors may already require that Aaron Boone work with some sort of complex algorithm. And that doesn’t even take into account which catchers work better with which pitchers.
Baseball stars have long been assumed to be everyday players. Gary Sánchez now has to hope that he can challenge that conventional wisdom. The Kraken has 30 home run potential, and now he’ll have to see if a platoon can once again make that potential a reality.