At the end of the 2017 season, things were looking very bright for the New York Yankees at the catcher position. A twenty-four year old Gary Sánchez had just followed up his insane 2016 breakout with a 4.3 fWAR and 131 wRC+ in 122 games. His fWAR ranked him fifth among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in 2017, and his wRC+ led all catchers in the same group.
Sánchez, now twenty-six going on his age twenty-seven season in 2020, hasn’t really lived up to the lofty expectations 2017 set for him. In 2018, injuries limited Sánchez to only 89 games and 374 plate appearances. His .304 wOBA, 91 wRC+, and 1.7 fWAR all represent career lows. The Yankees backstop bounced back this past season, though injuries cost him playing time again: in 106 games and 446 plate appearances, Sánchez posted a .346 wOBA, 116 wRC+, and 2.3 fWAR.
Complaining about a 116 wRC+ from your catcher is the definition of a baseball first world problem. Catchers hit .236/.308/.405 for a .303 wOBA and 85 wRC+ in 2019, and Sánchez’s wRC+ ranked fifth among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances last season. Still, it’s hard not to feel like Sánchez is falling short of his massive offensive potential.
Part of what’s ailing Sánchez is his deteriorating ability to put the ball in play. The righty slugger’s strikeout rate has increased dramatically since 2017, from 22.9% to 25.1% in 2018 and 28.0% in 2019. According to numbers at FanGraphs, pitchers have progressively thrown more and more pitches to Sánchez outside the strike zone. Problematically, he’s offering less frequently at pitches in the zone and more often at pitches outside the zone in that timeframe.
In the heat maps from 2017, 2018, and 2019 below, you can see that pitchers are giving Sánchez less to hit with their breaking balls in two strike counts.
Sánchez has to improve his plate discipline to regain his 2017 form, and that lack of discipline is likely the real culprit here. But there’s more going on as well.
If you pay attention to Yankees baseball, you know that Sánchez has impressive quality of contact ability. In terms of average exit velocity, Sánchez ranked 17th among 466 hitters with at least 50 batted balls in 2017 (90.8 mph), 76th of 480 hitters in 2018 (90.3 mph), and 60th of 478 hitters in 2019 (91.8 mph). His exit velocity on balls in the air is even more remarkable: 23rd in 2017 (96.0 mph), eighth in 2018 (97.7 mph), and 47th in 2019 (95.9 mph). His maximum exit velocity is where he’s really stood out: 18th in 2017 (115.7 mph), second in 2018 (121.1 mph), and fourth in 2019 (118.3 mph).
Despite his elite exit velocity, since 2017, Gary’s wOBA has underperformed his xwOBA, which calculates a hitter’s expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle.
Some of this could be bad luck. Sánchez had a .304 BABIP in 2017, which was really close to the league average .300 BABIP that season. But his .197 and .244 BABIPs in 2018 and 2019 were a lot lower than the .296 and .298 respective league averages. Even with a league average BABIP in 2017, however, Sánchez underperformed his xwOBA that season. That coupled with the fact that this has been a consistent issue for Sánchez seems to indicate that his underperformance might be more than just misfortune.
Grounds balls definitely appear to be part of the problem for Sánchez. His wOBA has underperformed his xwOBA on all grounds balls, pulled ground balls, and pulled ground balls against shifted defenses in every season since 2017, as shown in the table below.
|Season||GB wOBA – xwOBA||Pulled GB wOBA – xwOBA||Pulled GB w/ Shift wOBA – xwOBA|
This is likely due to where Sanchez hits these ground balls, and it makes a lot of sense when you look at his ground ball spray charts from 2017 through 2019.
In 2017, Sánchez bombarded the left side of the infield with grounders, likely contributing to that higher 2017 BABIP. In 2018 and 2019, however, Sánchez has hit a ton of his ground balls to spots where shortstops and third basemen are able to easily convert those grounders into outs. That placement is likely a byproduct of his swing and approach. This feature of Sánchez’s batted ball profile will likely cause him to continue to underperform his xwOBA on grounders, as even his hardest-hit ground balls will be gobbled up by the elite fielding of major leaguers when hit right at them.
One note: despite a drastic increase in shifts against Gary since the start of 2017 (27.5% in 2017, 42.8% in 2018, and 65.9% in 2019), the underperformance of his wOBA on pulled ground balls against shifts has actually decreased each year. Additionally, his underperformance on pulled grounders against shifted infields was lower than his underperformance on pulled grounders against unshifted defenses in 2018 and 2019, which indicates that the shift hasn’t had much of a negative effect on Sánchez, probably due to the ground ball spray mentioned above.
While you always want as much offensive production as you can get from all your hitters, let’s be honest: no one’s main concern is what happens when Gary Sánchez hits the ball on the ground. With his elite max exit velocities and average exit velocities on fly balls and line drives, we want to know what’s happening when the Yankees’ backstop puts the ball in the air.
|Season||FB wOBA||FB xwOBA||FB wOBA – xwOBA|
As you can see in the table above, Sánchez has gotten less production than he should have on fly balls as well. Before you blame Yankee Stadium’s harsh dimensions for right-handed hitters, Sánchez’s wOBA has actually outperformed his xwOBA on pulled fly balls in every season from 2017 through 2019. His wOBA on balls to center, however, has dramatically underperformed his xwOBA.
|Season||FB wOBA to CF||FB xwOBA to CF||FB wOBA – xwOBA to CF|
In September, FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik published an article about the declining backspin of batted balls since 2017 and how it might have contributed to the 2019 home run surge. While backspin often creates more lift and can result in more carry on batted balls, Dr. Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois and a consultant for Major League Baseball, pointed out that more spin also leads to more air drag on the ball during its flight, which slows the ball down. Consequently, as spin rates of batted balls exceed the ideal levels for achieving greater distance, the distance balls travel actually decreases. Put simply: too much backspin can be a bad thing.
It’s possible that Sánchez is suffering from this effect. xwOBA is a statistic that is based on two inputs: exit velocity and launch angle. If Sánchez is getting too much backspin on his fly balls, they are likely not traveling as far as the average fly balls hit with those same exit velocities and launch angles. If a batted ball doesn’t travel as far, it might mean that it doesn’t clear the fence or lands in a fielder’s glove instead of on the outfield grass or off the wall, resulting in less offensive production.
Let’s see if we can find examples of Sánchez-struck fly balls that came up short in 2019. To do that, I looked for balls that Sanchez hit hard (above 95 mph) that Statcast designated as fly balls.
Two caveats before going to the tape: some of these clips are from March and April games early in the season. Research by Dr. Nathan has shown that temperature can affect how far batted balls travel: an increase in 10 degrees in temperature can lead to a 2.5 foot increase in distance. While that should be kept in mind when considering the following examples, the average distances of batted balls listed below are taken from balls hit throughout the season, which should mitigate some of the potential distortion due to temperature differences. Secondly, I didn’t account for the effect wind might have had on these fly balls.
On March 28th against Andrew Cashner, it looks like Sánchez absolutely crushes this ball to left at 107.6 mph off the bat and a 33.1 degree launch angle, but it lands in Dwight Smith, Jr.’s glove on the warning track. According to Statcast, the actual distance on this fly ball was 380 feet on a day when the high temperature in the Bronx was 51 degrees. In 2019, the average distance of balls hit between 107 and 108 mph and 33 and 34 degrees was 412 feet. That gap of thirty-two feet is enormous and, as you can see, only a few more feet would have netted the Kraken a home run. While Sánchez’s issue seems to be on balls hit toward the middle of the field, this serves as evidence that some of his pulled fly balls might also be affected by excess backspin.
Sánchez punishes this middle-middle hanging slider from Jimmy Yacabonis on March 30th at 102.6 mph and 28.4 degrees only to have it corralled by Drew Jackson, again on the warning track. Statcast measured Gary’s fly out at 390 feet, but the average ball hit between 102 and 103 mph and 28 and 29 degrees in 2019 traveled 408 feet. The high temperature in the Bronx that day was 65 degrees.
More Orioles: on April 4th, Sánchez takes Alex Cobb deep 411 feet to center at 109.3 mph and 20.2 degrees on a day where the high was 66 degrees in Baltimore. Though there were only five of them in 2019, on average, balls hit to center between 109 and 110 mph and 20 and 21 degrees traveled 426 feet. Because this ball left the yard, this isn’t an example of a ball where Gary missed out on production, but it goes to show that his distance is being affected even on balls that wind up going for homers.
Against Thomas Pannone on June 6th, Gary takes a fastball to the warning track 395 feet away from home plate in center at 103.9 mph and 31.7 degrees. The average fly ball hit between 103 and 104 mph and 31 and 32 degrees went 403 feet in 2019, which certainly would clear the fence at the Rogers Centre.
On June 11th, Jason Vargas induces a 99.4 mph and 30.7 degree Sánchez fly ball that lands in Carlos Gómez’s glove without a threat 370 feet away. The average distance of balls hit between 99 and 100 mph and 30 and 31 degrees in 2019 was 385 feet.
Sánchez takes a Ryne Stanek fastball to center on June 18th at 103.6 mph and 21.5 degrees only for it to be tracked down by Kevin Kiermaier in the rain 384 feet from home. Average balls hit to center between 103 and 104 mph and 21 and 22 degrees traveled 401 feet last season.
There are even more examples than the ones highlighted above of Sánchez fly balls not traveling as far as the average batted balls hit at similar exit velocities and launch angles. Some of these balls might still wind up as outs with some extra distance, but others might leave the yard or bang up against the wall for extra bases. What seems obvious is that Sánchez definitely appears to be losing distance on these fly balls, and you can see how it might be affecting his overall production. Obviously, the difference between a home run or a double and an out is a huge swing.
If you really watch these videos, you can kind of see that, while Sánchez is hitting these balls hard, there’s something about the way his bat comes through the zone that’s preventing him from really squaring them up. The ball does seem to be almost spinning off the bat. With his defense an ever-present issue, it might not be the best idea to pile even more on Sánchez’s plate. But, if Sánchez works to improve his bat path, he might be able to eliminate some backspin and get more carry on his fly balls, harnessing more of his impressive raw power.
Again, the biggest issue here is probably Sánchez’s plate discipline. Excess backspin on fly balls is likely only a small part of why Gary is leaving some offensive firepower on the table. But it’s a piece of a puzzle that could help the Yankees fully unleash the Kraken in 2020.