With the start of Spring Training approaching, anticipation is building for the 2019 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing this week with the catchers.
No Yankees player may have been more pleased to see the calendar flip to 2019 than Gary Sanchez, though he is thankful for the experience from his tumultuous second full season in the big leagues.
"Thank you 2018 for giving me adversity," Sanchez said on Instagram earlier this month. "Thank you because that adversity has only fueled my fire to have a healthy, focused and improved 2019."
The Yankees believe that the 26-year-old Sanchez will return to his previous form, coming off a forgettable campaign in which he batted .186, endured a pair of stints on the disabled list with right groin strains and led the Majors with 18 passed balls despite making only 74 starts behind the plate.
Though the season ended earlier than the Yankees would have liked, Sanchez finished strong. He enjoyed a two-homer performance in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Fenway Park, their only win of that series, including a mammoth 479-foot, three-run shot off lefty Eduardo Rodriguez.
"I would like to think that he was very much back on track at the end of the season," manager Aaron Boone said. "I think this year is going to be a huge year of growth for him. Going through some of the challenges and adversity that he went through, I think, is going to make him a better player."
In November, Sanchez had surgery to remove tissue from his left shoulder, which had intermittently plagued him with irritation since 2017. He had a cortisone shot to address the issue in '17 and two more last season, and opted for surgery after experiencing more discomfort when he resumed workouts.
"There was a lot of rumblings on social media among the fan base about, 'Romine should catch,'" general manager Brian Cashman said. "I think people saw towards the end really what Gary is again. Once that shoulder declared itself as a continuing problem and he ultimately had surgery, that probably gives us all more insight about some things that he was dealing with."
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As such, Sanchez will report to Spring Training on rehab while catchers Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka receive most of the starts in early Grapefruit League games. The Yankees believe that Sanchez will be prepared to catch on Opening Day, when the Orioles visit Yankee Stadium on March 28.
"He's spent a lot of time in Tampa this winter. He's already in very good shape," Boone said of Sanchez. "I feel like he's going to come back and have a really great season for us on both sides of the ball."
Behind the numbers
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and Cashman have both said that they are looking beyond the back of Sanchez's baseball card to evaluate his 2018 season, which is part of the reason why Cashman rejected all offseason trade proposals involving Sanchez.
"Our underlying metrics show that he had, offensively, a pretty impactful season," Cashman said. "The impacting the baseball was all there, but there was a lot of bad luck. I think early on he probably got frustrated with balls not falling in, hard line-drive outs to deep center or what have you, and he wasn't getting anything to show for it."
Statcast™'s metrics support that conclusion. Sanchez's actual slugging percentage was .406, but his expected slugging percentage based on contact quality was .461, a 55-point "unlucky" gap that was tied for the 16th largest of 312 hitters with 250 or more plate appearances. His wOBA of .304 was also below his expected wOBA of .340.
Given the league average slugging of .409 and wOBA of .315, Sanchez would go from below average to well above-average if he can reach his expected metrics. Despite poor outcomes, he continued to scorch the ball; 10 percent of his batted balls had exit velocities of 110 mph or harder, sixth highest in the Majors.
Though the Yankees acknowledge that Sanchez's ball-blocking is an area that needs improvement, they also point to numerous strengths, including his powerful arm that shuts down opponents on the basepaths and his ability to implement game plans for each pitcher. He posted a 3.47 catcher's ERA last year, throwing out 12 of 40 basestealers (30 percent).
"To me, the main deficiency on his game is blocking, which does show up every now and then," Cashman said. "It's not something that we run and hide from, but in terms of boxes checked about what he does good, it's so overwhelming on one side of the ledger versus the other side of the ledger. We'll always focus on trying to improve on any areas of deficiency with all of our players, including him."
Current projected catchers (2018 stats)
Sanchez (.186/.291/.406, 18 HR, 53 RBIs, 86 OPS+ in 89 G)
Romine (.244/.295/.417, 10 HR, 42 RBIs, 90 OPS+ in 77 G)
Higashioka (.167/.241/.319, 3 HR, 6 RBIs, 50 OPS+ in 29 G)
Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings in Yankees system)
No. 5 Anthony Seigler (age: 19, highest level: Rookie)
No. 14 Josh Breaux (age: 21, highest level: Class A Short Season)