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Gary Sanchez’s defense might be more important than his bat this season

There are no holes in Gary Sanchez‘s bat. Offensively, he is one of the most gifted catchers in the game. The 25-year-old hit .278 with 33 home runs and drove in 90 RBIs last year. One can make the argument that he is the most talented catcher in baseball. This article isn’t going to be about Sanchez’s bat, my colleague Conrad Milhaupt already explained how vital his bat is to the Yankees lineup. This article is about the defense Sanchez needs to improve upon, and if he does, Sanchez and the Yankees can reach an even higher level of success.

If you didn’t know, Sanchez is a catcher and with being a catcher like Spider-Man, comes great responsibility. You are in charge of calling pitches, and you are the last line of defense against runs scoring. You are also responsible for making sure the baseball doesn’t go bouncing, rolling or flying past you on a pitch. Something, Sanchez did not do well last season.

In 99 games (he completed 91 of them) as a catcher, he had 16 balls go by him. 16?! That doesn’t seem like a lot, right? Wrong. Sanchez was tied for the most in the MLB last year with Yasmani Grandal of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Grandal also played in over 100 innings more of baseball (999.1) than Sanchez, who played in 881.0. The odds are if Sanchez played as many innings as Grandal last season, he would have led the majors by himself. The next closest catcher in the passed ball statistic to them was Philadelphia Phillies Cameron Rupp with 11 in only 83 starts.

The one statistic that stands out the most amongst defensive players is the one fans see on the scoreboard, errors. Sanchez had 13 of them last year, tied for most by a catcher with Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras. No one said catching was easy, but the errors need to stop. On top of the errors, Sanchez also led all catchers in wild pitches against with 53.

There is a reason Yankees backup catcher Austin Romine is still on the roster, and it’s not because of his lumber. In 80 games last season, Romine batted .218 with two home runs and only 21 RBIs. It’s because of his blocking ability and the way he can call a game. In 67 games last season behind the plate (58 starts), Romine logged 517.2 minutes with just one error, and four passed balls. But as reliable as a blocker Romine is, he doesn’t have a great throwing arm. Romine only threw out three of the 29 players that ran on him last season. An abysmal 10%.

But where Romine falters, Sanchez excels. Sanchez does have a heck of a throwing arm, which he has shown off pretty well during his MLB tenure. Sanchez threw out 23 of 60 runners he faced in 2017, a very respectable 38%. The league average was 27%. Romine is the perfect safety net for Sanchez; they cover up each other’s flaws.

If you remember back on August 5, 2017 (you probably don’t, but I’ll fill you in), former manager Joe Girardi had some criticism of Sanchez after his twelfth passed ball of the season gave up one of the seven runs the Cleveland Indians scored in their 7-2 victory.

In his postgame press conference, Girardi stated, “He needs to improve. He’s late getting down. That’s what I see sometimes. It’s something we’ve been working on. We need to continue to work on it.”

Quite possibly Girardi was harsh on Sanchez because he was a former catcher, and well, of course, the stats above show Sanchez wasn’t that great at blocking the ball.

Fast forward to March 5 of 2018 and new manager Aaron Boone had some wondrous things to say about Sanchez’s blocking ability.

“He was blocking great all day,” Boone said after the Yankees 9-1 spring training loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. “I don’t know how many balls in the dirt. Six? Seven? Eight? There were a few of them with runners on third base. I think he’s in a really good place defensively right now.”

If Sanchez ups his blocking ability to let’s say league average (or possibly better!) this season, the Yankees will be even tougher to beat. They will have to start Romine fewer games, thus keeping Sanchez’s scintillating bat in the lineup even more. We know what Sanchez can do with his bat and throwing arm. Boone and the Yankees are hoping his defense behind home plate can match this season. So far he hasn’t given up a passed ball or wild pitch this season. He’s off to go a good start.