Sunday’s three-homer game wasn’t exactly a breakout day for Gary Sánchez, seeing how he already ranks among the game’s best catchers. But his potential re-emergence could be a huge boost to the Yankees -- particularly with 11 of their players already on the injured list.
Sanchez is now slugging .813 with an American League-best six homers and a 215 wRC+ through his first eight games as the Yankees travel to Houston, and the ball is jumping off his bat in vintage “Kraken” fashion. The backstop struck each of his three homers Sunday with exit velocities of at least 108 mph, joining former White Sox first baseman Matt Davidson (Opening Day 2018) as the only players to hit three homers that hard in one game since Statcast began tracking in 2015.
But Sanchez has always possessed elite power. What’s more encouraging is the peripheral changes surrounding his torrid start, which the Yankees hope can help their catcher rebound from his below-average offensive campaign in 2018. While it’s still extremely early, here are some of the most encouraging signs for “The Sanchize”:
He’s hitting the ball in the air more
MLB.com’s Mike Petriello dug into Sanchez’s struggles last summer and concluded that the biggest issue was that he was hitting too many ground balls. That makes sense, seeing as Sanchez ranks among the league’s slower players and isn’t likely to leg out infield singles. The Yankees wouldn’t want him to do that anyways; they’re paying Sanchez to slug.
In fact, the contrast in Sanchez’s outcomes when he hits the ball in the air compared to on the ground is incredibly stark:
Sanchez’s outcomes on fly balls + line drives vs. grounders, since 2015
Fly balls/liners: 97.0 mph avg. exit velocity | .776 wOBA (4th of 351 MLB hitters, min. 250 flies and liners)
Grounders: 87.7 mph avg. exit velocity | .180 wOBA (324th of 338 hitters, min. 250 grounders)
Hitting more air balls is easier said than done, but that’s what Sanchez has done so far. He’s trimmed his ground ball rate by more than half from 2018, and doubled his fly-ball rate up to 52%.
He’s faring better against secondary pitches
Like most sluggers, Sanchez has rarely had trouble launching fastballs. But the catcher was exposed against secondary pitches in 2018, hitting .146 and slugging .278 against all offerings except four-seamers, two-seamers, sinkers and cutters.
Sanchez’s chase and overall swing rates against secondary pitches are relatively the same in 2019. The difference so far is that Sanchez is lifting those pitches, hitting just two of his 11 batted balls against those offerings on the ground. The catcher homered off a slider from Orioles reliever Mike Wright on Sunday and punished this changeup from fellow Baltimore reliever John Means on March 30. Sanchez’s current .286 average and .714 slugging percentage against these secondary pitches are likely unsustainable, but as we already noted, he gives himself a much better chance when he keeps these diving pitches off the ground.
He’s leaning into his strength
Notice something similar about Sanchez’s three homers on Sunday? All three of them were tattooed, and all three were pulled to left field.
Pulling the ball is nothing new for Sanchez; he ranked ninth among right-handed hitters in that regard over the first four seasons of his career, and it’s where his power lies. But Sanchez has pulled an even higher percentage of his line drives and fly balls to begin this year, going 5-for-9 (including four of his homers) when doing so. Six of Sanchez’s league-leading 10 barrels -- the best kind of batted ball for any hitter -- have also been lifted to left.
The caveat for all of this is the calendar (again, it’s early), but Sanchez’s career .205/.273/.536 slash line in March and April shows he’s typically a slow starter. Contrast this year’s start to last year, when Sanchez was hitting .063 with one homer through his first eight games, and it’s easy to see why the Yankees are encouraged.
"He's a great player that is still growing, and it's our job to help him continue to reach his peak in every facet of the game," said manager Aaron Boone on Sunday. "He's making strides in a lot of areas of the game. We know we've got a special talent on our hands and a guy that impacts the game, period."