After officially tendering Gary Sanchez a contract, the New York Yankees are essentially guaranteeing that he will be on the team for the 2021 season. The decision was met with a range of opinions from fans, with some hoping that the Yankees would turn over a new leaf at the catcher position. Despite Sanchez’s struggles, he’s one of the best catchers in baseball and the Yankees would not be better off with someone like Kyle Higashioka, Yadier Molina, or James McCann – who recently signed a 4-year, $40 million contract with the team across town – as the starter.
Admittedly, Sanchez had a truly awful 2020 season. In 49 games he hit .147 with 10 HRs and a 69 wRC+. He struck out 36% of the time and had a negative fWAR. By the end of the season and during the postseason, Kyle Higashioka had taken a lot of his playing time, even starting 4 of the 5 ALDS games against the Rays. When a frustrating season came to an early end for the Yankees against their division rivals, Sanchez received a ton of criticism and blame for the loss. There were calls for the Yankees to move on from Sanchez and sign a more consistent catcher such as James McCann or Yadier Molina. But short of signing J.T. Realmuto, there are no catcher options out there better than Gary Sanchez.
The important thing to remember about 2020 is that it wasn’t a full season, it was 60 games (only 49 in Sanchez’s case). Sanchez’s 2020 season should not be given as much weight as the full 2019 season and the rest of Sanchez’s career. And in 2019, Sanchez was fantastic. In a year where he started for the AL in the All-Star game, Sanchez slugged 34 HRs in just 106 games while putting up a 116 wRC+, which is fantastic for a catcher. Among catchers with at least 400 PAs that year, he ranked 1st in HRs, 4th in wRC+, 2nd in SLG%, and 6th in BB%. That also doesn’t tell the whole story. In July of 2019 he posted a -7 wRC+ in a month where he only got 6 hits. Outside of July, Sanchez’s wRC+ was 137, which would be far and away the best of any catcher that year. He was a fantastic hitter the last time he played a full season and had the potential to be even better.
So why is it likely that Sanchez returns to his 2019 level? Because last year he hit the ball really, really hard. In 2020, Sanchez was among the very top in the league in average exit velocity, hard hit %, and barrel %. Just looking at his league-wide percentiles shows how crazy good he was:
Among qualified catchers, he was nearly unmatched. His average exit velocity, 91.8 MPH, was 3rd best. His hard hit %, 50%, was 2nd. And his barrel %, 17.4%, was 1st. This is typical Gary Sanchez. Ever since his breakout 2016 stint, he has put up numbers very similar to these. Sanchez is at the top of hard hit metrics every single year. He has led catchers in barrel % each of the last three seasons and finished 3rd in 2017. Consistently hitting the ball this hard is not an easy thing to do, especially at as physically demanding a position as catcher.
Sanchez’s hard contact but lack of results can largely be chalked up to horrible luck. Sanchez had a .266 wOBA in 2020, but Baseball Savant’s xwOBA, which is based on exit velocity and launch angle, had Sanchez at .299. Considering league average is around .320, this still isn’t good, but that .033 difference between wOBA and xwOBA was the 17th largest gap out of 257 qualified batters last year. In a small sample size, there are always going to be players who underperform and overperform, and in 2020, Gary Sanchez severely underperformed.
A .299 xwOBA is still not very good, and despite his poor luck, Sanchez did have a bad year offensively. Although he walked at a decent clip, his strikeout rate was 36% in 2020, whereas in 2018 and 2019 Sanchez only struck out 25.1% and 28% of the time respectively. This is a problem because hitting the ball hard is worth less if you make contact less, and a 36% strikeout rate was 6th highest in the league among 203 batters with at least 150 PAs last year. Sanchez’s jump in K% will likely normalize in a full season, and if it does, Sanchez’s production should see a huge jump.
Gary Sanchez is one of the most talented catchers out there, and his unlucky 2020 does not define him as a hitter. There is no reason to believe that the Gary Sanchez of 2017 and 2019 isn’t who we’ll see in 2021. Despite bad luck and nagging injuries, Sanchez has been the 5th most valuable catcher since 2017 by fWAR, and that’s not a player you give up on for a bad 49 games.