In the past few weeks, we have written about Gary Sanchez’s offense and defense to show how special of a player he is. There is no doubt that Gary is already one of, if not the, best catchers in baseball, and I think he can break out even further this year to become an MVP candidate.
This idea may sound far-fetched or overly optimistic, but my reason is simple: He and Luis Severino appear to be following the same career path. Here, take a look:
Severino came up in 2015 and pitched to the following line, according to fangraphs: 11 GS, 62.1 IP, 2.89 ERA, 22.0 K%. Those are incredible numbers for such a young pitcher, and he went into the 2016 season with very high expectations.
During that offseason, Severino was excited by how well he performed, and wanted to get stronger so that he could be even better. Brian Cashman noted that Severino “hit the weights pretty strongly,” and was much more built in 2016, according to Yankees beat writer Bryan Hoch. Unfortunately, as you probably know, Severino had a massive sophomore slump, was sent down to the minors, and finished the season pitching out of the bullpen.
That offseason, Severino worked to increase his flexibility and drop any excess weight. The results were nothing short of spectacular. In nearly 200 innings, Severino had a 2.98 ERA, 230 strikeouts, and finished third in the AL Cy Young voting. Severino’s 2017 season was the first time since CC Sabathia in 2011 that any Yankee starter had an ERA 3.00 or below and was the third highest fWAR of any Yankee starter (behind CC’s 2011 and 2009) in the new stadium.
Now let’s see how Gary Sanchez compares to Severino’s career.
Sanchez came up in the summer of 2016 and absolutely mashed. In just over 50 games, he hit .299/.376/.657 with a .425 wOBA and a 171 wRC+. For comparison’s sake, Mike Trout has a career wRC+ of 169. Similar to Severino’s 2015-2016 offseason, Gary gained muscle, according to George King of the NY Post, after his rookie campaign. His offense dipped from its Trout-ian levels, but he was still the best offensive catcher in baseball and produced a 130 wRC+. It was his defense, specifically pitch blocking that was in issue.
Even with missing a month due to a bicep injury, Sanchez led the league with 16 passed balls last season. To the relevant Cashman quote, according to Hoch: “He [Sanchez] is physically bigger but not fat. He has limited flexibility…It [putting on muscle] was good intentions and bad results.”
Just like Severino, Sanchez put on muscle and the weight gain had some adverse effects. This past offseason, Brendan Kuty reported that Sanchez lost weight and emphasized being able to block balls in the dirt better. Losing weight and gaining flexibility worked wonders for Luis Severino, so let’s take a look at how Severino improved and see if there are connections to how Sanchez could improve his game with the added flexibility.
How Severino Improved
1. New Coaching Perspective. After his disappointing sophomore campaign, Severino worked with Pedro Martinez on a mechanical change that would help keep his release point more consistent. Severino felt that his releasing his fastball, slider, and changeup from different locations, which made it harder for him to have success. In the GIF below, you can see that 2016 Severino (left) raised his hands before bringing his pitching arm back and in the 2017 GIF (right), he keeps his hands at waist level before they break.
2. Pitch Speed Variation. In 2016, Severino was not getting a large speed difference between his fastball and his off-speed pitches. When that happens, batters can gear up for a particular speed knowing that regardless of what pitch is thrown, their timing will be the same. A larger pitch differential makes the batter have to think about 1. which pitch is coming and 2. when is it coming. That extra variable makes it harder to stay back on an off-speed pitch or gear up for a high fastball. The chart below shows Severino’s pitch speeds by year:
As you can see, in 2016, there was barely a 5 mph difference between Severino’s fastball and his slider. Compare that to 2017 when there is almost a 10 mph difference. Those 5 mph can make a huge difference in results.
3. Pitch Usage. During the 2016 season, Severino lost confidence in his changeup and threw it much less often. What that change did was it again, allowed hitters to key in on a particular speed for all of his pitches. In 2017, Hoch reported that Severino made a concerted effort to throw his changeup more often and regain the confidence in the pitch. The graph below shows the shift:
Forget the latter stages of 2016 because that was Severino was in the bullpen and opted not to use his changeup at all, and instead focus on how in 2017, you can see the changeup usage increase in the beginning months of the season as Severino regained confidence in the pitch.
How Sanchez Can Improve
1. New Coaching Perspective. It’s no secret that Girardi grew frustrated with Sanchez’s defense to the point of calling him out in public and benching him for a few games. Now, Gary has a chance for a clean slate with a new coaching staff. CC said on the R2C2 Podcast that he was excited for new bench coach Josh Bard to get to work with Sanchez because he thinks they will have a great working relationship, and thus far, all the reports have been glowing, according to Randy Miller of NJ.com and Mike Mazzeo of the NY Post.
Sanchez is already a great throwing catcher – new Statcast metrics have Sanchez with the highest velocity among all catchers (87.8 mph) and the third best overall pop time on throws to second base. If he can improve his blocking, he can be an elite defensive catcher.
2. Using the Whole Field More. In the past weeks, in addition to being called the Yankees best overall hitter, Sanchez has been compared to Miguel Cabrera and Manny Ramirez, who along with Albert Pujols are probably the three best right-handed hitters over the past 20 years. All three of those guys were known not only for their prodigious power, but also for using the whole field and being overall incredible hitters. Below is a side-by-side comparison of Miguel Cabrera’s 2012 Triple Crown season spray chart and Sanchez’s 2017 spray chart:
As you can clearly see, Cabrera did a much better job of using the whole field which helped him have a higher batting average and OBP. Sanchez is an uber talented hitter, and for him to reach a ceiling as high as someone like Miggy, he can’t let himself get pull happy. Anecdotally, it seems that Sanchez pulls a lot of ground balls to third base, and his spray heatmap backs it up:
In last year’s playoffs, I remember this being a very common occurrence. Sanchez broke through in the playoffs in Game 4 of the ALCS when he doubled to right-center off Ken Giles for the game winning hit.
It’s easy to be optimistic about Sanchez’s continued growth as a hitter because 1. he hits the ball extremely hard – he had the 17th highest exit velo of all hitters last year (90.8 mph) and the 22nd highest xwOBA among all hitters at .376, which is slightly above his actual wOBA of .368. Both of these metrics are predictive and paint an exciting picture for Sanchez moving forward. Hopefully the weight loss and increased flexibility will help Gary stay back on the ball better and drive it the opposite way with authority.
3. Familiarity with the Pitching Staff. Last season was Gary’s first full season and it can take time to learn a pitching staff. Most young players only have to focus on their hitting or defense, but catchers have to learn the pitching staff, improve game calling, and develop rapport with the pitchers.
This spring, Hoch reported that Sanchez has made a concerted effort to know Sonny Gray better and catch him as much as possible because they have not been working together as long. It often takes catchers longer to break out offensively because they put in so much effort on the defensive side – both mentally and physically. This season, the mental aspects of catching a game should be more natural, so just imagine what a further offensive breakout could look like for Gary Sanchez.
There are several similarities between Luis Severino’s and Gary Sanchez’s career arc up to this point. Both had impressive half seasons as rookies, gained muscle after their rookie seasons, and had some struggles in their sophomore campaigns. Both lost weight and improved flexibility the following offseason, and it worked wonders for Severino. He had some new coaching advice, made mechanical adjustments, and refound his confidence. There are reasons to believe that Sanchez can make similar adjustments – he has new catching coaches, should be able to make offensive adjustments, and should have more confidence in his defensive work.
If all of this comes together, Gary Sanchez could be in for a truly special year. As John Sterling puts it, “Gary is scary!”