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Why the Yankees have to keep Gary Sánchez

On Opening Day, everyone exhaled. Gary Sánchez put the ghosts of his disastrous 2020 season to rest in the second inning, plating the Yankees’ first two runs of the year with a bomb off Hyun Jin Ryu. Another home run in their second game of the season confirmed it— The Kraken was back.

Or so we thought. The remaining 160 games included a lot more strikeouts and ugly defensive lapses than home run magic. After two consecutive disappointing seasons, many fans have seen enough. However, moving on is easier said than done.

How Good is Gary?

Sánchez finished 2021 batting .204/.307/.423 with 23 home runs, but that stat line belies his streakiness. It obscures his scalding hot .289/.372/.663 June and conceals his .183/.273/.373 second half. Overall, his 99 OPS+ was just one percent lower than MLB average.

Catchers are a different matter though. He plays baseball’s most demanding defensive position and least productive offensive position (other than pitcher). Catchers across MLB produced an 89 wRC+ in 2021— 11 points worse than the league average. His 99 wRC+ was ten points higher than that of a standard catcher. Again, there was a lot of hot and cold baked into that, but over the course of the full season, his production at the plate was the envy of many teams.

Of course, defense matters too. Pitch blocking has been his bugaboo since he first arrived in New York in 2015. He usually fares better as a pitch framer than observers might expect, but in 2021 every component of his defense was just plain bad. Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Defensive Adjustment (CDA) is the most comprehensive publicly available metric for catcher defense. His -2.6 CDA ranked tied for 90th out of 106 catchers in MLB.

How much does his poor defense mitigate his above-average offense? We’ll use WARP (the Baseball Prospectus version of WAR) as a means of comparison. He accumulated 2.0 WARP in 2021, tied for 11th among catchers. No WAR metric is precise though, and 13 catchers finished in the realm of 1.6-2.3 WARP. In other words, he was solidly middle-of-the-pack compared to his positional peers, in spite of his flaws.

Finding an Upgrade

Middle-of-the-pack isn’t necessarily good enough when the goal is to win a championship. In a vacuum, the Yankees would love to move on from Sánchez in favor of someone better, and for what it’s worth, so would the majority of fans.

Seven catchers achieved a WARP of 2.8 or higher in 2021:

  1. Will Smith, Dodgers: 4.2
  2. Yasmani Grandal, White Sox: 4.0
  3. Buster Posey, Giants: 3.9
  4. J.T. Realmuto, Phillies: 3.7
  5. Salvador Perez, Royals: 3.6
  6. Mike Zunino, Rays: 3.1
  7. Omar Narváez, Brewers: 2.8

That more or less passes the eye test for a list of the best backstops in the game. Unfortunately, none are available. Five of them suited up for playoff teams. The other two— Perez and Realmuto— are both signed to hefty contracts through 2025. Their clubs intend to build around them.

Posey has a club option for 2022 so technically he could become a free agent, but it’s difficult to envision San Francisco moving on from him after a resurgent campaign. The same holds true for Zunino, whose $4 million option is such a great deal even the Rays can’t decline it.

Everyone else in MLB falls into or below the average range where Sánchez resides. A few will be free agents this winter: Yan Gomes, Manny Piña, and Martín Maldonado, but none of them are clear improvements. Christian Vázquez and Tucker Barnhart have team options that could be declined, exposing them to free agency. Once again, neither player represents an uptick in production over the incumbent.

Since his incendiary debut in 2015, Sánchez has given the Yankees lots of reasons to both cheer and cringe. Lately, there have been more of the latter than the former, but on the whole, he’s no worse than the majority of catchers across MLB. With no chance of acquiring anyone better, he’ll have to suffice in 2022.