Last week, Bronx Pinstripes writer Stephen Leonardi wrote a piece about why Yankee fans shouldn’t give up on Gary Sanchez just yet. He made some great points such as Sanchez’s improvement with pitch framing this year and his offensive performance relative to the rest of the catchers in the league, who also struggling for the most part. Both of those arguments are in Sanchez’s favor but I want to play devil’s advocate and make a case for finally giving up on El Kraken and start the conversation about finding the next New York Yankee backstop.
We all know Sanchez’s calling card with the bat. It’s power. Since his debut in 2016, he hasn’t posted an ISO of less than .220. For reference, the league average for ISO last year was .175 putting Sanchez comfortably above average. Power is great, especially for a catcher, but you need to be average in other offensive categories in order to get the most out of that power. This is where we talk about strikeouts and batting average. This year, Sanchez has a strikeout rate slightly north of 41%. That is terrible and the primary reason why current batting average sits at .132. Sanchez definitely hits the ball hard but it’s nearly impossible for a player to post a satisfactory batting average when you strike out four times for every ten at-bats.
Now, Sanchez most likely will not end the year with a strikeout rate of 41% but he does have a history of elevated strikeout rates. His lowest strikeout rate in a given year was 22.9% in 2017. The league average strikeout rate for that year was 21.6% and his 2017 season marks the closest he has gotten to league average. His strikeout rates for 2018 and 2019 were 25.1% and 28% respectively. The bottom line is that his ability to control strikeouts has not been improving. In fact, it is actually getting worse. The best-case scenario for Sanchez is that all the BABIP luck goes his way and he manages to hit .250 with a strikeout rate closer 30% instead of 20%.
Defense: The root of the problem
Leonardi covered the pitch-framing improvements quite well so please reference that article for more on that. There are other areas on defense where Sanchez had excelled before but is starting to show some decline. He has always had a cannon (an accurate cannon to be more specific). In 2016 and 2017 he posted caught stealing rates of 42% and 46% respectively. However, in 2018, his caught stealing rate dropped to 30%. Still above average and understandable in a single season but in 2019 it dropped again. This time his caught stealing rate went all the way down to 23% which is about five points below the league average. So far in 2020, he has a caught stealing rate of 40% again but teams have only decided to run on him five times thus far.
The biggest gripe you will find amongst Yankee fans when discussing Sanchez are passed balls and wild pitches. Last season, Sanchez finished with only seven passed balls. A career-best in a full season. This year he already has five passed balls. I think his new catching stance is partially responsible for that.
The stance allows him to frame and present the pitches to the umpires better but it compromises his lateral movement and his ability to react to balls in the dirt. It doesn’t matter how good his pitch framing is if he can’t keep the ball in front of him with men on base. For reference, he is on pace for 25 passed balls (career-high) and 40 wild pitches (second-most in a single season). Granted, that wild pitches aren’t necessarily his fault but it does show his inability to pick up his teammate when one of them throws a 58-foot curveball.
The only problem with giving up on Sanchez is that you’re going to have to replace him with another catcher. The only option I would consider in the same breath as Sanchez is JT Realmuto but he will be 30 years old after this season and is going to command a long-term deal for big money. Given he is on the wrong side of 30, I’m not comfortable making that deal. The Yankees have two more seasons of control over Sanchez after this year. During that time, they should focus their minor league development of catchers they have like Anthony Seigler, Josh Breaux, and Austin Wells. Developing a more rounded player at the backstop is a process that needs to start now.