Sports fans are reactionary by nature. Some people may open this article (or not read it at all) expecting to get a hot take on why Gary’s fast start is proof that he’s back, that he’s put last season’s demons behind him and is on track for a monster 2021.
This will not be that type of article. Because Gary Sanchez doesn’t have to prove he’s “back” — he remains one of the top catchers in the league.
Every player in the history of baseball has had a bad 49 game stretch at some point in their careers. And players are humans, not robots. It’s easy to see how a slow start compounds under the pressure of a shortened season. JD Martinez had the second lowest WAR in all of baseball last season after making consecutive All Star games and winning MVP votes in 2018 and 2019. Strange things happen with a sample size that small in the most unprecedented season in baseball history.
So I will not sit here and defend Sanchez’s abysmal 2020 season. His struggles have been well documented, and led to some fans comically calling on him to be non-tendered — not traded, but cut — in the offseason. If you are one of those fans, I recommend you stop reading now, because we cannot and will not ever see eye to eye on the game of baseball.
Put simply, Gary Sanchez has been one of the best Yankees and best catchers in baseball since he set the world on fire in his rookie year in 2016. Some people seem to forget that Gary announced himself to the world with one of the best debut seasons in recent memory, hitting .299/.376/.657 (170 wRC+) with a 3.1 fWAR in just 53 games. If you tend to roll your eyes at stats like that, here’s an easier one: 20 home runs in 53 games, a pace that would project to more than 60 homers in a full 162 game season. By fWAR, he was the 7th most valuable catcher in the league while playing less than half the games of the other catchers in the top 10.
You might rightly think it’s hypocritical to slate people evaluating him based on a shortened 2020 season and respond with arguments from an equally short stint in 2016. So let’s evaluate his full body of work.
Sanchez followed his 2016 campaign with an All Star caliber year in 2017, winning the Silver Slugger and garnering an MVP vote in his first full season in the bigs. In 2019, he became the fastest catcher and second fastest player in baseball history to hit 100 home runs, doing it even faster than Aaron Judge.
Since he broke into the league, Sanchez has the most home runs, highest OPS, and highest wRC+ of any catcher in baseball. That includes his horrendous 2020 stats. Let me be quite clear: Gary Sanchez is statistically the best offensive catcher in the game.
That level of offensive production is also more valuable at catcher than it would be at any other position. From 2016 to now, only 13 qualified catchers have graded out as above league average offensively (wRC+ of 100 or more), by far the fewest of any position. By contrast, 42 first basemen, 33 third basemen, and 85 outfielders have graded out above league average in the same time frame. In other words, it’s just much harder to find an offensive contributor at the catcher position, and the Yankees are lucky enough to have the best of the bunch. That’s a huge competitive advantage compared to almost every other team in the league.
While evaluating catcher defense is notoriously difficult, Gary is not unplayable defensively as some people would have you believe. Catcher defense is roughly composed of framing, blocking, stolen base prevention, and game calling. Most people focus on his blocking, which has been admittedly poor in terms of passed balls. But his poptime has consistently ranked in the top 10 in the league, and most metrics have him as among the three to five best catchers in terms of stolen base prevention.
Emerging evidence suggests that framing is an area where catchers have significant room to create value on defense, and Gary does grade somewhat below average by most metrics. But overall, he seems to be somewhere around league average defensively, and there are promising signs that his framing and blocking are improving to pair with his already great contributions in preventing steals.
Looking at the bigger picture, I have no problem saying that Gary Sanchez is a top 5 catcher in baseball. The stats back that up, as his 11.6 fWAR places him exactly fifth among catchers since he debuted in 2016. At his best, I think he flashes as the best in the league.
Back at the start of the 2018 season I argued he was the most important player for the Yankees. I still believe that today. He is an elite offensive player at a position where most teams have to accept an automatic out, a weapon that few teams besides the Yankees can boast. And the drop off between him and Kyle Higashioka is far greater than the gap between the first and second choice options at any other position in the team (except perhaps starting pitcher).
Some fans have a relentless narrative that Gary is lazy, he doesn’t understand the game, and he doesn’t care enough to reach his potential. They are wrong. Terrific reporting from Lindsey Adler at The Athletic demonstrates that Gary is a hard worker who desperately wants to succeed and help the team. It’s long past time for fans to stop slandering a homegrown talent and appreciate the incredible value Gary Sanchez provides to the Yankees.
Professional athletes in the social media age will always have doubters and defenders with extreme and sometimes irrational takes on their ability. But ultimately it won’t be evangelists like me writing articles that wins back the love of the demanding Yankees faithful. He’ll have to let his play do the talking.