MLB: The Yankees’ Gary Sanchez “Problem”

If you didn’t catch it on Friday night, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi called out Gary Sanchez for his high number of passed balls this season.   A team that is fumbling its way over the past few months of the season has found its scapegoat:  A young catcher who is allowing, on average, one passed ball per week.  It is important to note that one passed ball per week is not good for a Major League catcher.  This is not defending Gary’s issues with catching the ball lately as much as it has to do with some misguided frustration towards the wrong player.

The Yankees won on Saturday night, though it was once again not due to their offense.  Their 2-1 squeaker was mostly the byproduct of great pitching by Jordan Montgomery and three relievers.   This is not a bad thing.  At this time of the year, you take every win you can get by any means you can get.  However, the offense remains in a state of hibernation.   Chase Headley rescued the entire team with his timely 8th inning home run.

So, why are the Yankees focusing on Sanchez, when many on the squad have run into walls as the season has gone along?   Are there reasons that we, as fans, are not seeing?   That is quite possibly the case, given his history.

When Sanchez was in the minor leagues, he had a documented case or two of not hustling.   His attitude problem become a bit of a story line on its own, and his less than stellar performance (which I thought was a bit overblown) caused him to drop off of Top 100 Prospect lists.   To be exact, on mlb.com, they dropped him off of the list of the top ten catchers in baseball.   Some of this could have been “prospect fatigue” – Sanchez was talked about forever since he was signed as a teenager and almost instantly became a hot-shot prospect.   After years of waiting for him to bloom, evaluators may have just moved onto the next flavor of the month.  It happens.    Some of it could have also been this attitude issue that lead to multiple run-ins with minor league managers.

When I see stuff like this, I instantly think about how I was (and how most people are) when they are in their late teens into their early 20’s.   I was a relatively tame person during those years, but still did stuff that I would never do again now that I am in my 40s.    Imagine being a hot-shot prospect that is constantly under the spotlight.   All of your shortcomings with your immaturity are going to rise to the surface, and it is up to the minor league managers and veteran players to help tame the kid and keep him focused.

This may explain why Girardi has been more willing to call out Sanchez than he normally would any other player.   It could be that the organizational philosophy on Gary is that sometimes he needs to be refocused to get his head back into the game.   I don’t necessarily agree with the approach of calling him out during a media session, but if Sanchez still needs the occasional reminder to get his focus back, I have no problem with the coaching staff being tougher on him in general.  This is especially true if these methods worked in the minors.

This is just speculation.  I have no idea how Sanchez is taking to instruction.  He might be out there all afternoon working on technique, for all I know.    Brian Cashman has also brought up that Gary may have bulked up a bit too much in the off-season, and that cost him some mobility behind the plate.  This is not necessarily permanent:   He could just need time to adjust to his new body.  He could just need to cut back next winter on bulking up.   Jorge Posada had a similar philosophy during his career:   Bulk up during the winter, because he knew that by the time the season was coming to an end that most of that bulking up will have faded away.  Catchers need to maintain their strength for 162 games with all of the wear-and-tear their bodies take behind the dish.  If you report to spring training a bit too lean, it could threaten your stamina later in the season.   Sanchez may need to find the perfect balance.

The headline for this post was intentionally misleading.  The Yankees don’t really have a Gary Sanchez problem.   He is still above average throwing out potential basestealers (35%, 10th in all of baseball), even if he isn’t doing it at the insane rate he did last year.  Pitch-framing seems to indicate he is pretty good at that technique.   His 4.0 framing runs (using Baseball Prospectus) ranks him 13th in all of baseball.    His overall 3.0 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) ranks him 15th.   Are these numbers great?  No.  Are they solid for a catcher with Sanchez’ offense abilities?  Yes.   The passed balls are an issue, as are some of the wild pitches he has been unable to stop or keep in front of him.   I am not going to doubt that, but his overall defensive picture is not poor.

Turning to the offense, among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances (Sanchez does not qualify for the rate statistics due to his injury earlier this season), he ranks 3rd in offensive fWAR, behind Buster Posey and J.T. Realmuto.   The advanced metrics rank him very high offensively among all catchers in baseball.  He is in the top five in most of the important offensive categories, and is in the top three in many of them.  This is not a player having a bad season – this is a player who is one of the most valuable players on the roster.

All young players have their rough edges – Sanchez came into the league last season and had instant success.  Teams started to study him more, and have been able to keep him off of a 65 home run pace in 2017.  Anyone who is surprised by this hasn’t followed the game for long:  Teams and pitchers adjust.  Sanchez needs to adjust back, and he has done a solid job of that for the most part.

His defensive issues are all fixable.  Most of what can be fixed will be done through experience.  Pulling him from the starting catcher role is counterproductive.  He can only do so much in side sessions.  He has to figure it out within game situations.   Given his overall talent, I think he will be able to work through the issues he has – he may never be great at blocking pitches.  He may always have a tendency to let a catchable ball or two get by him.   Nobody should expect Johnny Bench II.   We also shouldn’t expect him to become a catcher in name only.  He is going to be a net positive behind the plate.  The only question we should really have is just how much of a net positive he will be.

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