Catching is a grueling position. Few are able to reach the kind of offensive milestones set by their teammates. The record shared by Posada and Berra was modest, but it was an accomplishment nonetheless.
Then 2016 came along and the Yankees’ rookie catcher, Gary Sanchez, took baseball by storm. In the final two months of the season, Sanchez hit 20 home runs. Had he kept up that pace over the course of a full season, he would have doubled the Posada-Berra mark.
Well, Gary Sánchez is yet to do that, but in 2017, his first full year of play, he hit 33 home runs. The record was his alone, and he broke it playing 20 fewer games than Posada did in 2003. In 2019, Sánchez broke the record again. That year he hit 34 home runs.
Sánchez has been the Yankees’ starting catcher for parts of six seasons. He has broken a record held by two team icons who (pretty much) played their entire careers in the Bronx. But has Sánchez become a Yankee icon himself? Has he joined the unofficial Yankees catchers’ pantheon with Berra and Posada (along with Bill Dickey, Elston Howard and Thurman Munson)?
The answer as of now is no. Sánchez has remained a controversial Yankee for almost the entirety of his career. Fans have resented his defensive blunders, the loss of Joe Girardi as manager, and for the fact that the Yankees chose to trust in him instead of trying to acquire J.T. Realmuto.
But incremental changes in a player’s performance can be a big deal for their long-term legacy. So I suspect, if Sánchez passes the Posada-Berra mark again this year, then the third time will be the charm, and Yankee fans will come to appreciate the player Brian Cashman once saw as his franchise cornerstone.
Sánchez is maligned for his inconsistency. His defensive numbers have fluctuated over the years, but admittedly that’s not how most fans will judge him. His offensive value, meanwhile, has also been wildly inconsistent. Sánchez goes through streaks where every ball that touches his bat goes out out of the park. But from 2018 onward, he has failed to hit for a respectable batting average.
He may never be the .300 hitter that some traditionalist baseball fans want him to be. But if he can show the world that he’s capable of being a formidable slugger year after year while avoided disastrous setbacks in other areas of his game, then little else matters. While there are exceptions, it’s hard for a catcher to have a season where he hits 30 home runs and not be of immense value to his team.
If one judges Sánchez on his underwhelming 2018, his inconsistent 2019, and terrible (except for the home runs) 2020, he doesn’t impress as a player. But if one bookends and contextualizes those seasons with strong slugging performances in 2017 and 2021, suddenly the good (the consistent power) rises above the bad.
In 2018, Sánchez hit 18 home runs, but he also only played 89 games. At that pace he would have hit 32 home runs over a full 162-game season.
Even in Sánchez’s historically bad 2020 season, in which he was a wRC+ of 68 (32% worse than the league average hitter), he still hit 10 HR in 49 games (good for 32 over 162).
To be clear, I’m not saying that Sánchez’s 2018 and 2020 should be treated as successful slugging campaigns. What I’m saying is that when viewed next to a strong 2021, those years provide evidence of Sánchez’s consistent home run potential. And he’s still only 28 years old.
Sánchez faces disadvantages that Posada and Berra did not. His non-fluency in English means it’s a bit more difficult for him to endear himself to (non-hispanic) fans through his personality (especially since he’s not outwardly expressive), as did the quotable Berra and the over-competitive Posada. Furthermore, Sánchez plays in an era where fans are polarized in regard to analytics. While Cashman and Aaron Boone may value Sánchez for the talents he does possess, many fans are easily put off by strikeouts, bad base-running and lapses on defense.
But at the end of the day, baseball is a game of numbers. Sánchez’s HRs/games played rate easily passes that of Berra and Posada. And after a strong performance in June, it looks like things are going to stay that way. The future didn’t look bright for Sánchez only a few months ago, but, to quote Yogi, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”