A calm, rational discussion about Gary Sanchez’s defense

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, for the second straight game, Gary Sanchez was not behind the plate for the Yankees. He started at designated hitter Saturday and did not play at all Sunday. Austin Romine caught the day game after the night game. Joe Girardi said Sanchez would catch Sunday after Saturday’s game, but nope, didn’t happen. “I really loved what Romine did,” said Girardi, explaining the change in plans.

Sanchez did not catch Saturday and Sunday for one reason and one reason only: his defense. He’s struggled blocking balls in the dirt all season and it all came to a head Friday night, when Sanchez didn’t stop a Jaime Garcia fastball and a run crossed the plate. Here’s the play:

That was Sanchez’s league leading 12th passed ball of the season. He missed about a month with the biceps injury earlier this season, remember. That’s 12 passed balls in 553.2 innings. Yasmani Grandal, the only other catcher with double-digit passed balls this year, has eleven in 708 innings. Sanchez is first in passed balls and 20th in innings caught. That’s not good.

Sanchez’s inability to consistently block blockable pitches is unquestionably a problem. I can’t imagine anyone will disagree. Is it enough of a problem that all of this was necessary? The back-to-back Romine starts, all the public comments, and taking Sanchez’s bat out of the lineup Sunday? I know the Yankees broke out for eight runs without Sanchez, but still. Let’s talk this all out.

1. Yes, this is a message. Prior to yesterday’s game Girardi insisted sitting Sanchez in favor of Romine was not a message. Here’s exactly what he said, via Andrew Marchand:

“The start is not the message,” Girardi said. “The message came from us verbally that, ‘Your defense needs to improve. That you need to get better. You need to work at it.’ We have stressed how important it is. There are certain situations that some people may not think that something that happens in the game affects the next game. It could if it leads to 10 extra pitches for a reliever.”

Come on. This was very clearly a message. You can talk to the player as much as possible and tell him whatever you want. Nothing will get a player’s attention quite like taking away his playing time. Girardi did not fall so in love with anything Romine did Saturday that he just had to put him in the lineup Sunday. Nope. Sitting Sanchez yesterday was a message, and that message was you need to be better defensively.

2. Is it possible the passed ball problems are being exaggerated? Like I said, Sanchez has allowed 12 passed balls in 553.2 innings this season. That’s one every 46.1 innings. One every five games plus one inning, or thereabouts. One a week, basically, when you factor in rest days and all that. Is one passed ball a week that huge a deal when a guy is hitting .265/.339/.488 (119 wRC+)? Eh, maybe it is.

The real problem isn’t 12 passed balls in 553.2 innings. It’s three passed balls in the last five games and five passed balls in the last 12 games. Sanchez committed only seven passed balls in his first 52 games, and now it’s five in the last 12 games. That’s making all this look worse than it really is. That’s probably not the right way to put it. Five passed balls in 12 games is a definite problem. Sanchez hasn’t been allowing them at that pace all season though.

Perhaps this is a fatigue issue? This is Sanchez’s first full season as a starting big league catcher, and while he’s caught full seasons in the minors before, it’s not really the same thing. There’s much more responsibility at this level. Add in the All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby and all that, and I’m guessing the body isn’t feeling as fresh these days as it usually does. Sanchez is only 24, but man, catching is brutal.

3. There’s more to catching than blocking balls. Defense stats in general are pretty sketchy, and that goes double for catcher defense stats. It’s hard to quantify what they actually do back there, especially when it comes to working with pitchers. Here, for the sake of discussion, is where Sanchez ranks among the 87 catchers to play a big league game this season in the various catcher defense metrics at Baseball Prospectus:

  • Framing: +4.0 runs (13th)
  • Blocking: -1.3 runs (80th)
  • Throwing: +0.8 runs (10th)
  • Total Fielding: +3.5 runs (15th)

Blocking pitches is the only thing Sanchez does poorly according to these stats, which may or may not be accurate. I don’t see how looking at these is any different than the pointing out Sanchez leads the league in baseball balls. The more information, the better. These are all tools in the shed. To call Sanchez a bad defensive catcher is unfair. He’s bad at blocking balls. He’s a quality framer and thrower and that stuff matters too.

4. Sanchez won’t improve on the bench. Let me make something crystal clear: Sanchez is the catcher of the present and the catcher of the future. He’s not moving to first base or designated hitter anytime soon. Great teams are strong up the middle and Sanchez is the man behind the plate. And that’s probably part of the reason these passed balls are so frustrating. You can’t help but want him to be that complete player right now.

That’s not really how it works though. Catching is very hard and pretty much every young catcher struggles with something. Most struggle offensively because they’re so focused on defense. Not everyone comes up and is an immediate two-way impact player like Buster Posey. Posey’s going to the Hall of Fame (yup) because there was no learning curve. He had instant success. Not everyone is so lucky.

Sanchez is not going to become that catcher of the future by sitting on the bench. He does all the drills with Tony Pena, arguably the best catching instructor in baseball, but nothing can replicate game action. You want Sanchez to be better at blocking balls in the dirt? Then you’ve got to put him in the game and make him block balls in the dirt. That’s the only way. If Girardi and the Yankees want Sanchez to improve, they can’t continue to bench him.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

5. Girardi went about this in the best way possible (probably). Think about how long this had to be brewing for Girardi to say what he said Friday — “He needs to improve. Bottom line, he needs to improve” — and to actually go through with benching Sanchez on Sunday. Girardi is very protective of his players. He typically defends them even when they aren’t worth defending.

We saw Girardi pull Sanchez aside in Chicago a few weeks ago, when he let a Masahiro Tanaka splitter get through his legs. I can only imagine the conversations we haven’t seen. This has been going on for a while now and Girardi finally decided enough was enough, it’s time for tough love. Words aren’t working so it’s time to send a message the most effective way a manager can send a message, and that’s by taking away playing time.

Girardi said what he had to say Friday. He let Sanchez serve as the DH on Saturday, then sat him out entirely on Sunday. There’s an off-day today, so that’s three straight days away from catching for Sanchez. Three days away from catching but only one game completely on the bench. It gets Sanchez away from catching long enough to drive home the “you need to be better” point without hurting the team that much.

* * *

The Yankees and Girardi know Sanchez better than anyone. They know when to be gentle with him and they know when to be tough. The passed ball problems have become extreme of late — again, three in his last five games and five in his last 12 games — and they couldn’t go unaddressed any longer. No one actually thinks the Yankees are a better team with Romine behind the plate, right? I mean:

  • Pitchers with Sanchez: 3.48 ERA (3.43 FIP) with 25.8% strikeouts and 7.2% walks
  • Pitchers with Romine: 4.22 ERA (4.02 FIP) with 24.1% strikeouts and 8.7% walks

If the pitchers prefer throwing to Romine, it isn’t showing up in the stats. Are they more comfortable bouncing a two-strike breaking ball with Romine behind the plate? Yeah, probably. Do they enjoy having a great hitter at the catcher position and getting all that run support? You bet they do. Literally the only thing Romine does better than Sanchez is block balls in the dirt. The numbers say Sanchez is a better framer and thrower, and I’m pretty sure he could out-hit Romine one-handed.

The Yankees are going to continue to work with Sanchez to improve his defense, and, truth be told, he’s already worked really hard to get to where he is today. Sanchez was not a great defender when he signed as a teenager. He was never Jesus Montero bad, but he was bad. Now he’s not so bad, recent passed ball issues notwithstanding. Sanchez is a core player for the Yankees going forward and the Yankees are going to spend a lot of time and energy helping him get better. The benching this weekend was a timeout intended to remind Gary he can be better, not a sign his days at catcher are numbered.

Yankees want Sanchez to shed added bulk to improve blocking behind the plate

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Because Aaron Judge is out there crushing everything in sight, it can be easy to overlook Gary Sanchez‘s impressive .276/.358/.530 (138 wRC+) batting line this season. Among the 21 catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, Sanchez is third in wRC+ and third with ten homers. He’s been awesome! Judge has been otherworldly.

One area in which Sanchez has seemed to struggle this season is blocking balls behind the plate. For what it’s worth, the blocking numbers at Baseball Prospectus say he’s been better this year (+0.2 runs) than last year (-1.4 runs). That doesn’t really match the eye test, I don’t think. Sanchez has appeared to have trouble keeping the ball in front of him at times this year. At least moreso than last year.

Either way, the Yankees acknowledge Sanchez has had some blocking issues, and Ken Rosenthal says they want him to shed some of the bulk he added over the winter to improve his mobility behind the plate. From Rosenthal:

Gary Sanchez, like Severino, had only good intentions when he packed on 12 pounds of muscle last winter. But rival scouts all season have noted that he is again struggling to block pitches.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman believes that the added weight affected Sanchez’s mobility behind the plate, but adds that Sanchez is working to address the problem and become more like the catcher he was last year.

Sanchez holds a slightly different view — he said through an interpreter that he is indeed working on losing some weight, but didn’t think the added bulk created an issue with his catching.

Luis Severino, you may remember, added quite a bit of muscle last offseason, then all of a sudden last year his fastball command disappeared and his delivery was too stiff. Severino trimmed down a bit this past winter and he regained the fluidity in his delivery. His tempo is so much better.

Something similar could be happening with Sanchez behind the plate, and given Cashman’s comments to Rosenthal, the Yankees seem to think it is at least a possibility. Sanchez is not a great defender. He’s a bat first, second, and third guy. But he is adequate back there and he has improved quite a bit over the years. Sanchez doesn’t need to be peak Yadier Molina defensively to have value. Just be okay.

Because he is such a big dude — Sanchez is listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 lbs., and he is rock solid — Sanchez is always going to have to work hard to keep his weight in check, and that doesn’t necessarily mean bad weight either. Severino bulked up last year and it hurt him on the field. Sanchez bulked over the winter and now he’s not moving well behind the plate. There’s a happy medium somewhere and Sanchez is still searching for it.

Let’s talk about Aaron Judge’s defense in right field

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

If the season ended today, Aaron Judge would finish in the top three of the AL MVP voting. Forget Rookie of the Year. I’m talking MVP. Judge is hitting .315/.419/.685 (195 wRC+) overall and he’s tied with Mike Trout for the MLB lead with 15 home runs. Do that for a first place team and you’re going to get plenty of MVP support. He’s been awesome thus far.

The home runs get all the attention and deservedly so, but Judge is not a one-dimensional player. It can be easy to stereotype him as a lumbering slugger given his size, though Judge is a good athlete and he helps the Yankees with his right field defense too. He’s a sneaky great athlete, and that athleticism was on full display Sunday:

That’s the catch of the season so far, right? For the Yankees, anyway. I’m having a tough time coming up with other memorable defensive plays. I’m sure they exist, but nothing is immediately coming to mind. If that ball falls in, the game is tied and Evan Longoria is on second base with no outs, giving the Yankees a 30.9% win probability. Instead, it was a double play, leaving the Yankees with a 68.4% win probability. Massive defensive play, that was.

The catch this weekend was not the first time we’ve seen Judge make a highlight reel catch. Remember when he flipped over the wall at Fenway Park? Or when he did this? Or this? Those aren’t easy plays! Judge made them look easy. His throwing arm is also a weapon. His throws look effortless and yet they carry and carry. Look:

Before the season Baseball America (subs. req’d) said Judge is a “slightly above-average runner underway and plays average defense in right field with a well above-average throwing arm.” UZR says he’s been about average in the field (+0.8 runs saved). Total Zone thinks he’s been a bit better (+5). DRS thinks Judge has been elite in the field. The outfield DRS leaderboard:

  1. Jarrod Dyson: +9
  2. Jason Heyward: +8
  3. Aaron Judge, Kevin Kiermaier, Guillermo Heredia: +7

Heyward has split time between center and right fields this season, so Judge is first among full-time right fielders. That’s pretty awesome. It’s difficult to say which defensive stat is right. UZR? DRS? Total Zone? The important thing is they all agree Judge has been a positive in the field. He’s saving the Yankees runs. Exactly how many is up for debate.

Statcast’s new catch probability drops batted balls into five buckets based on how often similar balls are turned into outs around the league. Here are Judge’s catch probability numbers:

  • One-Star Catches (caught 91-95% of the time): 100%
  • Two-Star Catches (76-90%): 100%
  • Three-Star Catches (51-75%): 100%
  • Four-Star Catches (26-50%): 50%
  • Five-Star Catches (0-25%): 0%

Batted balls that are turned into outs 51% to 95% of the time around the league have been turned into an out 100% of the time by Judge so far this season. The only thing he hasn’t done is make the super duper highlight reel plays, the ones very few outfielders can make. The Five-Star Catches. Eventually he’ll make one of those too. For now Judge is making all the defensive plays he’s supposed to make, and then some.

The last few seasons the Yankees have typically enjoyed strong outfield defense thanks mostly to Brett Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center. Right field has been a problem. The Yankees lived with Carlos Beltran‘s glove out there because he brought offense. Now they’re getting the best of both worlds from right field. Judge is giving them offense and defense. He impacts games on both sides of the ball.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with all this other than to say Judge has been really good in the field this season. There’s much more to this guy than mammoth dingers. He’s a very good all-around player. Probably better than most non-Yankees fans given him credit for. Watching him every day though, we’ve been able to see exactly how good he is defensively, and that two-way play is a reason he’s a extremely super early MVP candidate.

Aaron Hicks has been working out of first base, and hopefully the Yankees won’t need him there

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

All winter long, I and many others said there was no way the Yankees would get worse production from first base this year than what Mark Teixeira gave them last year. Teixeira hit .204/.292/.362 (76 wRC+) last season. And so far this season, Yankees first basemen are hitting .164/.276/.295 (59 wRC+), and that’s with Chris Carter hitting a home run last night. Welp. First base has been a sore spot.

Help is kinda sorta on the way. Bird swung a bat yesterday for the first time since landing on the disabled list, and Tyler Austin started a minor league rehab assignment over the weekend. That’s good. They’ll give the Yankees options. Will they improve the first base situation? Man I hope so. It’s hard to think they’ll make it worse once healthy, but who knows? No one thought Bird/Carter would be a downgrade from Teixeira, yet here we are.

In an effort to give themselves more options, the Yankees have had fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks work out at first base recently. Here’s what Joe Espada, the third base and infield coach, told Brendan Kuty:

“He’s athletic, and sometimes we get deep in games,” Espada said. “It gives (manager Joe Girardi) some flexibility. (Girardi) asked me to hit him some ground balls in the infield, just in case … If he learned it, yes, I think (he’d be an option there). During the season, it’s really hard to get him to learn it. But he’ll take some ground balls on his off days and see what he can do. He does have some athleticism but it takes time to learn.”

The Yankees put Rob Refsnyder through a first base crash course last season — literally one day of work! — before playing him at the position during a game, though that was out of necessity. Teixeira was banged up and they ran out of options. I doubt the Yankees want to do that again, and they haven’t. Hicks has been working out at first base and nothing more. He’s yet to play there in a game.

I get why the Yankees are having Hicks work out at first base, and there’s no reason not to try to increase the versatility of your players, but I hope they don’t decide to actually play him there in anything other than emergency. I am totally cool with sticking with Carter at first base until Bird and/or Austin returns. Carter has gone 7-for-29 with two homers since the end of the NL city road trip. That’s a .241/.333/.483 line in nine games. That’s Chris Carter.

First base has been a problem area for the Yankees since last season. They’re getting little production from a position in which the offensive bar is quite high. It’s actually kinda amazing they’re second only to the Nationals (5.72) in runs per game (5.62) without getting anything from first base. Giving Hicks work there is fine as long as he’s an emergency only option. Playing him there full-time shouldn’t be a consideration right now. The Yankees aren’t that desperate yet.

What does Statcast’s catch probability tell us about Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Barring injury or a last minute Spring Training trade, when the 2017 regular season begins, the Yankees will have Brett Gardner in left field and Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. That’s been the regular arrangement for three years now. The Yankees will have some things to figure out once prospects like Clint Frazier or Dustin Fowler are ready, but that’s not a pressing issue.

Both Gardner and Ellsbury are 33 and will turn 34 later this year. Gardner in August, Ellsbury in September. They’re at the age — beyond it, really — when everything usually begins to slip. Offense, defense, speed, everything. Soon-to-be 34-year-old baseball players are rarely as productive as they were in their 20s. Such is life. The Yankees will have to navigate their declines in the coming years.

Interestingly enough, the various stats say Gardner and Ellsbury both had their best defensive seasons in several years in 2016. That surprised me. I though the opposite would be true. The quick numbers:

DRS UZR Total Zone FRAA
2016 Gardner +12 +3.5 +0 +11.9
2015 Gardner +1 -0.9 -6 -3.5
2013-15 Gardner +5 +1.9 -21 -39.2
2016 Ellsbury +8 +0.7 +1 -15.7
2015 Ellsbury +1 -3.2 +1 -9
2013-15 Ellsbury +11 +7.3 +26 -1.9

You’ll have a hard time convincing me Gardner cost the Yankees nearly 40 (!) runs in the field from 2013-15 as FRAA alleges, but that’s why it’s good to look at several metrics. Generally speaking, the four main defensive stats say Gardner and Ellsbury were better in 2016 than they were in 2015 and on a rate basis from 2013-15. That’s the direction the numbers are pointing.

If you’ve watched the World Baseball Classic at all, you know there’s a new Statcast metric out called Catch Probability, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: how likely is it this ball will be caught? Here are the nuts and bolts of catch probability, via MLB.com:

With Statcast tracking the exact start position on the field for each fielder and also measuring the hang time of each batted ball, the two most important pieces of data to define the difficulty of a catch opportunity are: 1. How far did the fielder have to go? 2. How much time did he have to get there?

Accordingly, each tracked batted ball to the outfield is assigned an expected Catch Probability percentage — relative to comparable catch opportunities in the Statcast era — based on distance needed and opportunity time. The more time a fielder has to react to a ball and the less distance needed to reach it, the higher the Catch Probability.

Seems simple enough, right? This is only the first pass at a catch probability metric, remember. I’m sure there will be ballpark and other adjustments added as time goes on. Catch probability drops batted balls into five buckets:

  • One Star Outs: Catches made at least 91% of the time.
  • Two Star Outs: Catches made 75-90% of the time.
  • Three Star Outs: Catches made 51-74% of the time.
  • Four Star Outs: Catches made 26-50% of the time.
  • Five Star Outs: Catches made 0-25% of the time.

One Star Outs are your routine cans of corn. The plays every outfielder should make even if he’s, say, late career Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday. Five Star Outs are the most difficult plays. The fly balls and line drives that rarely get caught by even the best defenders. The math may be gory behind the scenes, but catch probability is easy to digest on this end.

We have two years of Statcast data available and therefore two years of catch probability. The defensive stats in the table above tell us both Gardner and Ellsbury were better defensively in 2016 than 2015. Does catch probability agree? Let’s look. (Shout out to the indispensable Baseball Savant for the data.)

Brett Gardner

One Star Outs Two Star Outs Three Star Outs Four Star Outs Five Star Outs
2015 100.0% 81.5% 50.0% 46.7% 16.7%
2016 100.0% 75.0% 94.4% 21.4% 12.1%

Those Three Star Outs jump out at you, eh? Gardner went from making those catches, the ones that are made 51-74% of the time, at a 50.0% rate in 2015 to a staggering 94.4% rate in 2016. Only two players had a higher Three Star Out catch probability last year: Mookie Betts and Desmond Jennings, who were both at 100.0%.

Therein lies part of the problem: sample size. Jennings played only 65 games last year due to injury and he had only only six Three Star Out catch opportunities. Gardner, who played full-time both seasons, had only 14 Three Star Out opportunities in 2015 and 18 in 2016. He made seven of those plays in 2015, hence the 50.0% catch probability. Last year he made 17 of 18.

So, with that in mind, here again are Gardner’s catch probabilities, this time with the number of opportunities added to provide more context:

One Star Outs Two Star Outs Three Star Outs Four Star Outs Five Star Outs
2015 100.0% (37) 81.5% (27) 50.0% (14) 46.7% (15) 16.7% (30)
2016 100.0% (36) 75.0% (16) 94.4% (18) 21.4% (14) 12.1% (33)

The number of catch opportunities varies wildly from player to player. Adam Eaton had 65 One Star Out opportunities in 2016. Gardner had 36. They both played everyday, but one guy had nearly twice as many cans of corn hit his way than the other. Obviously the pitching staff plays a part in this. New York’s pitching staff generated way more strikeouts (23.1%) and ground balls (46.9%) than Chicago’s (20.5% and 43.1%), hence fewer opportunities for Gardner than Eaton.

The sample sizes cause us some problems. I’m hesitant to read too much into so few data points. Gardner’s Four Star Out catch probability dropped from 46.7% in 2015 to 21.4% in 2016, but we’re talking about 29 batted balls total across two seasons. We wouldn’t attempt to analyze 29 at-bats spread across two years, would we? Can’t do the same with defense. Anyway, I promised to look at both guys, so let’s get to Ellsbury now.

Jacoby Ellsbury

One Star Outs Two Star Outs Three Star Outs Four Star Outs Five Star Outs
2015 93.9% (33) 91.7% (12) 75.0% (12) 68.8% (16) 26.1% (23)
2016 94.6% (37) 82.4% (17) 80.0% (20) 50.0% (16) 3.6% (28)

Yeesh, look at that Five Star Out catch probability. Ellsbury made one such play in 28 opportunities last year. One! As with Gardner, there aren’t enough data points here to say anything definitive about Ellsbury and which way his defense is trending at this point of his career, but gosh, one catch in 28 opportunities? These numbers are a record of what happened on the field, remember. If a hitter goes 1-for-28 at the plate, it doesn’t mean he’s a true talent .036 hitter, but the 1-for-28 happened and it hurt the team.

Keep in mind Ellsbury hurt his knee in May 2015 and missed close to two months, and it’s possible if not likely the injury hampered him in the field after he returned. It sure seemed like the injury threw him out of whack at the plate. The same is possible in the field. Even then, Ellsbury’s catch probabilities were pretty good in 2015. Like Gardner, Ellsbury performed worse in three of the five catch probability categories from 2015 to 2016. And that means … I’m not sure. It could be normal year-to-year fluctuation.

* * *

As with the other defensive stats like DRS and UZR, it seems you need a sample of several seasons for catch probability to be reliable. I do think it’s a better measure of single-season defense than the other stats because Statcast more accurately measures the batted ball trajectory, the defender’s positioning, stuff like that. DRS and UZR are estimating.

So, while Ellsbury’s 1-for-28 effort on Five Star Outs in 2016 may not accurately reflect his true defensive ability given the limited amount of data, it did happen, and it did cost the Yankees runs. My eyes told me both Gardner and Ellsbury were still above-average defenders last season, Gardner moreso. Neither was as good as we’ve seen them in the past, I don’t think, and that makes sense given their ages. The various defensive stats say the opposite is true, that they were better than they’d been in previous years. I was hoping catching probability would clear that up for us, but alas. It’s just more information to consider, not a definitive answer.

Dellin Betances has been working to correct his problem throwing to the bases this offseason

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Last September, all the flaws of Dellin Betances were on full display. He struggled to throw strikes, possibly due to fatigue considering it was the second straight season his control vanished in the season’s final month, and he was still unable to hold runners. Runners went 9-for-9 stealing bases against Betances in the second half.

Dellin, who has never been great at fielding his position, also made some errors. He threw away a ball that led to a run against the Dodgers (video) and also bobbled a bunt against the Blue Jays (video). Betances also made a critical error against the Astros on Opening Day (video), and there were other throwing issues that didn’t go for errors, like this one:

This offseason, at the behest of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Betances has worked on his fielding, specifically throwing according to George King. He’s not the only pitcher to struggle throwing to the bases, lots of guys have a similar problem — they’re so used to throwing off a mound that throwing off flat ground feels weird — but Dellin’s throws were far from textbook. He’d shot put the ball, not throw it with conviction.

“We pretty much worked on (pitchers’ fielding practice),” said Betances to King over the weekend. “It was mutual. He wanted a couple of days and it helped me. I feel good right now. He gave me drills to do while I am in the (Dominican Republic). I will continue to work on it in Spring Training … Right now I am throwing the ball. Before I was lobbing it over. I am in good position with my feet and making the throw.”

Obvious statement is obvious: players working to correct their flaws is a wonderful thing. Fielding is something a pitcher can work on at any time too. He can’t get up on a mound and throw, say, 50 changeups a day in the dead of winter, for example. He can go out on the field, scoop some grounders, and make throws to first though. I’m glad to hear Betances is working on this. Some quick thoughts:

1. Betances won’t be with the Yankees for part of Spring Training. The Dominican Republic plays their first World Baseball Classic game on March 9th, 22 days after the pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, though I’m not sure when Betances is leaving camp to join his WBC squad. In previous years the WBC teams got together a few days before their first game to work out and play a tune-up exhibition game. (The Yankees are playing Canada on March 8th this year.)

The WBC will cut into Betances’ time with the Yankees this spring no matter when he leaves camp. The WBC Championship Game is March 22nd at Dodger Stadium and the Dominican Republic team, which won the 2013 WBC, is very much a contender. Dellin could miss up to three weeks of Spring Training, which cuts into his time to work with Rothschild and the rest of the staff on his fielding. It’s not ideal, but what can you do? The Yankees can’t force Betances to stay, and while fans may be apathetic about the WBC, players are eager to represent their countries.

2. The throwing issues are real, but perhaps a bit overblown. There is no doubt Betances has had issues throwing to the bases. The impact of his poor fielding is generally overblown, however. Dellin faced 299 batters last season and he fielded the baseball 13 times. That’s all. The year before? Thirteen times. The year before that? Fourteen times. So in his three full seasons as a big leaguer, Betances has faced 972 batters and had to field the ball only 40 times.

Furthermore, 15 of those 40 fielding chances were Dellin covering first base, not making a throw. He’s made four throwing errors (five errors total) in the 25 times he’s had a baseball hit his way in the last three years. There’s been a ball hit his way roughly once every ten innings. That’s it. But Mike, what about bunts!? Fine point, RAB reader, but trying to bunt a dude throwing in the high-90s with a breaking ball that is literally the hardest pitch to hit in the PitchFX era ain’t easy.

Over the last three seasons ten batters have successfully laid down a bunt against Betances. And buy successfully I mean simply bunt the ball in play, not necessarily beat it out. Only three got a bunt down last year, and two were thrown out. More bunt attempts have resulted in foul balls (seven) than baserunners (four) against Betances the last three seasons. This isn’t a video game where you just push a button and bunt. A 6-foot-8 dude throwing 100 mph without much control is scary as hell. You try squaring around against him.

3. What about holding runners? To me, holding runners is a far bigger issue than throwing to the bases. Runners went 21-for-21 stealing bases against Betances last year, including 6-for-6 when Gary Sanchez‘s rocket arm was behind the plate. They’re 50-for-57 over the last three seasons. Runners have attempted a stolen base in 15.9% of their opportunities against Betances since 2014. It was 17.7% in 2016. The league average is 5.5%.

Because he’s a high-leverage reliever, Betances pitches most often in the late innings of close games, when that extra 90-feet can be really valuable. He does have a slide step and he does vary his times to the plate, but obviously that’s not enough. No one is asking Dellin to develop an Andy Pettitte (or Nathan Eovaldi!) pickoff move. But he has to at least put something in the back of the runner’s mind. Something to keep them on their toes.

Hopefully all this fielding work will make Betances more comfortable throwing to the bases, and also make him more comfortable making a pickoff throw over the first. Again, he doesn’t need to actually pick guys off. He just has to keep them closer to the bag and reduce their chances of stealing the base. Dellin fields the ball so infrequently that his throwing issues don’t worry me much. The stolen bases are a far bigger concern.

The Yankees are likely to get fewer borderline pitches with Gary Sanchez behind the plate in 2017

(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)
(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)

Gary Sanchez is no longer the catcher of the future. He’s the catcher of the present. The Yankees made it official earlier this offseason, when they traded Brian McCann to the Astros for two Single-A pitching prospects and salary relief. They’re handing the catching reins over to Sanchez and he’ll be the centerpiece of the youth movement.

As we saw this past season, the 24-year-old Sanchez can be a true middle of the order impact hitter. Is he going to continue producing like Babe Ruth going forward? Probably not. It’s unrealistic to expect that kind of production all the time. Especially from a catcher. But his bat has always been his calling card and the Yankees are counting on Sanchez to hit and hit big going forward.

Defensively, there have long been questions about Sanchez behind the plate. His arm is, obviously, a cannon. One of the best I’ve ever seen. There are other aspects of catching though, such as blocking balls in the dirt and general receiving, and that stuff generated questions about Sanchez’s defense. He’s improved, but as we saw in 2016, he’s still rough around the edges. That’s okay. He’s still learning.

The Yankees were among the first teams in emphasize pitch-framing — Ben Lindbergh, a former Yankees intern, wrote about the fellow intern who stumbled on the value of framing back in 2009 — which is still a relatively new phenomenon in the sabermetric world. I mean, we all know it’s a valuable skill. We just didn’t know how valuable, and really, we still don’t fully understand it. The numbers are still being refined.

McCann came to the Yankees with a reputation for being a top notch pitch-framer, a reputation he maintained throughout his time in New York. Sanchez? Well, we don’t know too much about his pitch-framing skills yet because he just got to the big leagues. Minor league pitch-framing data exists, but it’s even more dubious than Major League numbers. Here are McCann’s and Sanchez’s 2016 pitch-framing numbers (MLB only for Sanchez):

McCann per StatCorner: +0.51 calls per game
McCann per Baseball Prospectus: +1.84 runs per 1,000 chances

Sanchez per StatCorner: -0.15 calls per game
Sanchez per Baseball Prospectus: +0.73 runs per 1,000 chances

On a rate basis, McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez and not by a small margin either. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate McCann as one of the top framers in the game. Sanchez is closer to middle of the pack. Not terrible, not great. Just … average-ish.

Let’s try to visualize the difference between McCann’s pitch-framing and Sanchez’s pitch-framing. With an assist from Baseball Savant, here are all the called strikes with McCann behind the plate this season and all the called strikes with Sanchez behind the plate. Again, this is MLB only for Sanchez. I created a GIF and overlaid the strike zone plots to make the comparison easier:

mccann-sanchez-framing

Do you see the difference? McCann’s strike zone is a little wider on the edges of the plate, though I suspect that might have as much to do with sample size as it does his framing ability. The bottom of the strike zone is what really caught my attention. Based on the data, Sanchez didn’t get nearly as many called strikes at (or below) the knees as McCann.

Framing a borderline pitch requires good technique as much as it does hand and wrist strength. The catcher has to receive the pitch, hold it firm, and subtly pull it into the strike zone as necessary. Too much movement is a bad thing. Here are McCann and Sanchez framing two fastballs in the same spot. McCann, on the left, got the strike. Sanchez didn’t.

mccann-sanchez-framing

Again, those fastballs are in the same spot — the coordinates are damn near identical, per PitchFX — yet McCann got the call and Sanchez did not. Sure, we could blame the umpire for missing the borderline call, but look how the two catchers frame that pitch. McCann receives it nice and quietly. Sanchez stabbed down with a big recoil to get back into the strike zone. He didn’t present it well for the umpire. McCann did.

The numbers and the eye test both indicate McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez. Exactly how much better? That’s up for debate. I don’t think framing metrics are accurate enough to give us exact runs saved values myself, but to each his own. Either way, McCann is a better framer than Sanchez, and that’s going to affect the pitching staff going forward. The Yankees figure to get fewer borderline calls next year, particularly on pitches down in the zone.

Framing seems to be one of those things that can be taught, though maybe only to a point. At the end of the day, it’s an athletic move that requires a certain level of strength and athleticism and reflexes. Some have it, some don’t. If it could be easily taught, everyone would do it. The Yankees clearly value pitch-framing and I’m certain they’ll have Sanchez work on it going forward. Tony Pena and Joe Girardi are two pretty good catching mentors, I’d say.

Pitch-framing is a very real skill that does impact the pitching staff. The Yankees are poised to go young at the back of the rotation, and turning a few extra borderline pitches into strikes could be a big help. McCann’s advantage in framing might not be enough to make up for Sanchez’s advantage in, well, everything else, but when it comes to getting those borderline calls, it appears the Yankees will be worse off next season.