By Aug. 5 2021, New York Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez had seen his share of ups and downs. One more down was about to come: a positive test for COVID-19.
Sánchez’s stint on the COVID IL saw him lose 11 games of playing time, but it may have cost him something far greater — his eventual roster spot.
The Yankees would go on to trade Sánchez in the offseason, which was hardly a surprise. Sánchez was set to receive a decent salary as a third-year arbitration player (he ended up getting $9 million), but after he had struggled through years of inconsistency, it simply wasn’t worth it for the Yankees to make that investment.
But what if his inconsistency could have been explained and overcome? Was there a way that Sánchez could have finally found his form and retained it?
Sánchez’s best month of 2021 was June. He hit eight Home Runs, batted .289 and put up an OPS of 1.035. June was also the month that saw him play in the most games and get the most at-bats. He had 83 ABs in June, compared to totals of 58, 61, 64, 48 and 62 in the other five months of the season.
Simply put, players benefit from consistent playing time. A hitter who faced major league pitching the day before will be more adjusted to seeing and hitting pitches than a hitter who has had a few days off. No-brainer.
And this may be particularly true of hitters who swing for power rather than for contact. Connecting a bat and ball while swinging at an angle requires a pristine sense of timing. If Sánchez had gotten to play throughout the month of August, it’s very possible he would have found his rhythm and put up an August and/or September as strong as his June.
There may, of course, be more to this story than missed games. COVID-19 is known to leave individuals with lingering symptoms including fatigue and brain fog. And while, unfortunately, there’s little documentation of how Sánchez was personally affected by COVID, manager Aaron Boone blamed the disease for Sánchez’s struggle upon returning to the team in September.
Sánchez ended the 2021 season with 23 home runs, which wasn’t a special number, given his low batting average and other athletic limitations. But what if he had found his groove mid-August and got that number up to 30?
Prior to El Gary’s arrival in New York, the record for home runs by a Yankee catcher was 30 (shared by franchise icons Yogi Berra and Jorge Posada). Sánchez passed that mark twice in 2017 and 2019. If he had reached that mark a third time, it would certainly have made the Yankees think twice before trading him.
Sánchez has now played a lot of games since his stint on the COVID-IL, and they haven’t gone well. Since moving to Minnesota, he has put up a WAR of 0.8 on Fangraphs and 0.2 on Baseball Reference.
But that doesn’t mean the COVID hypothesis should be dismissed. A small incident can set off a chain reaction. In a parallel universe, Sánchez ended the 2021 season strong and got to play another year with the support of familiar scenery and teammates. And as the sad story of another 2021 Yankee, Joey Gallo, has shown us, seemingly small mental factors can make all the difference for a player’s success or failure.