Gary Sanchez: What Happened?

Evan Woo ‘22


In August 2016, the New York Yankees called up 23 year old catcher Gary Sanchez from the Minor Leagues.  The expectations for Sanchez were sky high, but somehow, he managed to surpass them.  His rookie season was the stuff of legend – “the Kraken” exploded onto the scene, hitting .299 with an OPS of 1.032.  Defensively, he passed the eye test.  He was an above average pitch framer (74th percentile) while also displaying elite arm strength and pop time on opponents’ stolen base attempts [1].  Most impressively, he managed to hit 20 home runs and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting despite not joining the big club until August and playing only 53 games.  The Yankees finished just 4th in the AL East in 2016, but Yankees fans were ecstatic for the future of Sanchez and the team.  In Sanchez, they would have a franchise catcher for the first time since Jorge Posada, who could anchor the team behind the dish for the next 10+ years.  And while the team sold at the deadline in 2016, Sanchez invigorated the fan base for what would have otherwise been a lost season.  2016 was a transition year, a rebuilding year between two playoff seasons.  In just a single year, the Yankees completely overhauled their roster, replacing expensive aging veterans like Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez with cheap and exciting youngsters such as Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, and Aaron Hicks.  In addition, the trade deadline saw the acquisition of top prospects Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier, who had the potential to make an impact for years to come.  The future was bright for the “Baby Bombers”, and Gary Sanchez was the headliner.

Fast forward to 2021, and the Baby Bombers are yet to win their first title.  While Aaron Judge completely rebounded from a horrendous first season to become a top 5 player in the league, others from the youth movement have gotten off to strong starts only to flounder later on.  Greg Bird spent 2021 at Triple-A for the Rockies.  Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks have been on and off the field for years due to injuries.  Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier have slowly declined into liabilities both at the plate and in the field.  Last but not least, the face of the team’s decline was also the face of their rise – Gary Sanchez.

While Sanchez has indeed been the team’s starting catcher since he took the job in 2016, he would never again fly as high as he did that season.  While 2017 was a strong campaign for him offensively, he struggled with passed balls behind the plate, leading the league with 16.  In 2018, his bat took a huge step back as well.  By midseason, there were already calls for Sanchez to lose his job.  He wound up hitting for an atrocious .186 average and led the league in passed balls for the second year in a row.  To make matters worse, fans were beginning to question his work ethic, as Sanchez seemed to often put lackadaisical efforts into games, the most egregious example being July 23, 2018 against Tampa Bay.  Behind the plate in the first inning, Sanchez displayed an unforgivable lack of hustle chasing after a ball, allowing a run to score. Then again, at bat in the ninth inning, down one run with two outs and the bases loaded, Sanchez calmly jogged to first on a ground ball and was beat to the bag by half a step, turning a potentially game tying play into a game ending one [2].  Despite teammates and coaches crediting him as a hard worker, he has struggled to shed his reputation as a slacker among the fanbase.  In 2019, Sanchez cut his passed balls in half, but this came at the expense of his pitch framing – he fell from a 72nd percentile pitch framer (2018) to a 25th percentile framer (2019) [1].  In spite of this, 2019 was something of a rebound season for Gary, who hit 34 home runs and made the All Star team.  However, Sanchez would go on to hit rock bottom the very next year.

In the COVID shortened 2020 season, Sanchez hit just .147 and struck out in a brutal 36% of at bats [1].  He adopted a one knee down catching approach hoping to reduce passed balls, but led the league in passed balls anyways.  Pitchers consistently threw better games and looked more comfortable with backup catcher Kyle Higashioka, who received high praise from ace Gerrit Cole and established himself as Cole’s personal catcher.  The numbers support Higashioka’s seemingly superior game calling and pitch framing – in games where Higashioka was the catcher, pitchers threw to the tune of an exceptional 3.79 ERA, which ballooned to 4.53 when Sanchez was behind the dish [3].  To the disappointment of very few fans, when the games mattered most, Sanchez found himself on the bench.  Throughout the 2020 playoff run, Higashioka was the team’s primary catcher for the first time in his career.  Despite Sanchez’s struggles, the Yankees displayed their commitment to him by passing on top free agent catchers JT Realmuto and James McCann.  Many viewed 2021 as a make or break year for Sanchez, who went into the year with a fragile hold over the job.  He wound up hitting .204 with 23 home runs and an OPS+ of 99 (100 is league average).  Luckily for Sanchez, Higashioka hit a brutal .181 and did not do enough to steal the starting job [1].  

Sanchez’s monstrous start to his career may in the end be the root of the fanbase’s frustration with him.  After seeing exactly what he was capable of, many people struggle to view him as the player he now is – a decent, but not spectacular, starting catcher.  Sanchez is constantly on the roller coaster of fan emotions, and he has voiced his disappointment with how quickly the fans often turn on him when he struggles.  In typical Bronx fashion, expectations soar during every hot streak as fans get a taste of what they expected him to be, but a single bad game sends a chorus of boos in his direction.  His bat remains solidly above average among catchers, and while he is a defensive liability, Higashioka does not hit enough to warrant taking the job.  Although many fans are clamoring for the Yankees to look outside the organization for a new catcher, this year’s free agent catcher class is one of the weakest in recent memory.  With free agency looming for him at the end of the season, 2022 will likely be Sanchez’s final shot at redemption in New York.  Will the Kraken finally emerge?