Thoughts on the Yankees’ pursuit on Shohei Ohtani

(Getty)
(Getty)

The offseason is in full swing. The other day, Shohei Ohtani’s NPB team the Nippon Ham Fighters announced that they will post their two-way player/phenom to the Major Leagues.

Ohtani will be a special case. You know the deal. He is uber-talented on both sides of the ball and has the potential to be great as a pitcher and hitter in the MLB. Because of his skills, marketability, etc. the Yankees are expected to go hard after him and many experts have predicted Ohtani will head to Bronx. Wouldn’t it be nice?

However, even if the Yankees are objectively favored to be his destination, many things have to go right in order for the marriage to happen. And even if things work out, there are question marks that will only be answered by time. Here are few thoughts on things to be addressed assuming Ohtani gets successfully posted and the Yankees are in strong contention for him (duh).

1. Could the two-way talent become a sweet poison?

The skills Ohtani has shown as a 23-year old are insane. 2017 was a down season because of his injuries, but take a look at how well he did in 2016, his MVP season. As a pitcher, he went 10-4, 1.86 ERA with 174 K/45 BB in 140 IP while allowing only 4 home runs (!). As a matter of fact, he hit way more than that. On the plate, he hit .322/.416/.588 (1.004 OPS) with 22 HRs (41 extra-base hits) in 323 AB’s. For a player to excel like that on both sides of the ball is utterly insane. Again, we’re not talking about a guy who just merely helped the team out. He was a superstar on both facets of the game. The Fighters had a Corey Kluber and Freddie Freeman morphed into one player.

Now, it’s no secret that Ohtani wants to continue being a two-way guy in the MLB. He certainly has the potential and tools to be very good at both. Because Ohtani has been seen as a special talent since he was drafted by Nippon Ham, the team took care of him quite differently than other NPB players. Having to practice and play two different positions can take a toll on body. In the NPB, Ohtani was a weekly starting pitcher and hit DH two or three times a week. From 2014-16, he racked up more than 140 IP each season and from 2013-2017, he had more than 200 plate appearances in every season but one.

I don’t know how much that workload contributed to his injury troubles in 2017, but he started out this season with a thigh injury and recently, he underwent an ankle surgery (but is expected to be ready for the Spring Training). Now, it’s not great when you hear a 23-year-old get hampered by lower body issues. You just hope that they don’t turn into something long-term. Though he should be 100% and ready to go come Spring Training, these injuries at this stage of his career should serve as a cautionary guideline on how to handle him going forward.

2. How much would a team be willing to work around him?

This is something that will probably be talked about on and off for years. Never in recent ML history has a team had to adjust their roster and usage based on one player. Ohtani – and whichever club that would acquire him – could be a pioneer in something a bit more complicated.

I think this will play a big part in how a team can sell themselves to Ohtani. Remember, the initial contract is not a huge factor in signing him. He will choose a team that is the best fit for him and that club would most likely tell him that they will do this and that to accommodate his playing interests.

Let’s go back to the injury aspect though. It is worth noting that an ankle trouble for someone at Ohtani’s age is troubling – especially considering that he pitches and bats. Both of those activities require a lot of use of lower body (as does athletics in general) and it’s conceivable that the stress of all those motions have caught up to Ohtani’s ankle and caused him to miss the 2017 World Baseball Classic and beyond. It is quite possible that his lower body troubles don’t suddenly end after the surgery he went through. It is reasonable for teams to feat that Ohtani’s ankle problem could reoccur later on and bring that up to him when proposing their plan.

The concern doesn’t end at his ankle either. There’s also the pitching workload. Typically, Ohtani’s had to pitch only once a week with 6 days of rest. In the MLB, starting pitchers get four or five days of rest before they go back to the hill. If a team wants to accommodate Ohtani’s two-way wishes, it means that they have to give him a good amount of rest time in between his starts AND have to find time for him to hit. That is a lot of physical demand, especially in 162 games (an NPB season lasts 146 games, with every Mondays off). That tells me that, if a team wants to keep Ohtani healthy and have him pitch and hit, they would have to run the roster a bit unorthodox than other teams. It will lead to some headaches, I would imagine.

For what it’s worth, that will make it much harder for NL teams to pursue him. If they promise him a hitting gig, it would mean that he has to go out and field. Being a pitcher and DH can be strenuous enough but pitch + hit + field? Lordy.

3. Prospect

Let’s take a different look at Ohtani – him as a prospect instead of a guy who’s expected to produce big time right away. He may not dominate right away in the majors. He is young, he just came off a season hobbled with injuries, and he will have to get acclimated to a whole other league. However, a healthy Ohtani could be as nasty as anyone. I’m sure you’ve seen a share of Ohtani pitching videos by now, but here’s a reminder of how deadly he can be:

Ohtani will be 23-years old on the 2018 Opening Day. That’s the age where a lot of young ML players either reach the show or start settling in. Aaron Judge reached to the bigs at age 24, for instance. Ohtani can grow more by getting ML experience, which is an exciting thought.

Now, what am I trying to say? I’m saying that you can see him as an exciting potential ML’er that can make an impact right away but can improve significantly after a few seasons. Now, it’s also reasonable to expect some growing/adjustment pains as well. It would be neat if he performs like a superstar from the game one, but it’s never easy to just come over to a different league and do that.

As exciting as he is, Ohtani does come with certain flaws. For instance, he struck out for a 27.3% clip at the plate in 2017. That number would most likely increase in the MLB. Also as mentioned, there are question marks with his health, which certainly impacted his pitching performance in ’17 (19 walks allowed in 25.1 IP). The greatness might not come right away and, frankly, it doesn’t have to. It’s perfectly normal for guy like him to take some time to blossom in the MLB.

Ohtani has already put his skills and potential into action in the NPB with monstrous performances. All that needs to happen – much easier said than done – is for him to do the same in the MLB. Ohtani has the potential to be a big part of the core of a team’s future. Think of how much the Yanks are counting on guys like Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, etc. going forward. Ohtani could be one of them.

4. Are the Yankees going to get him anyways?

The Yankees have their share of history bringing in Japanese talents. Because of that, it’s easy to assume that they are one of the very likely destinations for Ohtani. In their recent history, the Yanks went all-out to convince Masahiro Tanaka to sign with the team with video presentations, etc. I’m sure they’ll do at least the similar for Ohtani as well.

However, you never know what goes behind the curtains. Ohtani would not cost a lot of money for any team thanks to the CBA rule, which means, hypothetically, a small-market club like the Rays could sign him without financial hitch if they somehow can appeal to him. Remember, the big factor to signing him is how much a club can sell themselves to him. The Yankees are obviously very charming but so are many other clubs. One thing that goes well for them and other AL clubs is that Ohtani wants to hit and they can plug him in a DH role regularly. Good luck to NL teams trying to get him convincing him that he can try to hit regularly without having him to field.

On a personal note – I remember the Daisuke Matsuzaka saga in the winter of 2006. The rumored posting fee to get to talk to him was $25 million and it seemed a lot at the time. The Yankees were interested and, of course, that was around the amount that they bid to the Saitama Seibu Lions. However, the Red Sox blew everyone out of the water by giving an unprecedented $50 million bid. That was shocking to many. And sure, the Matsuzaka and Ohtani situations are quite different, but my point here is that anything could happen when all 30 MLB teams are in play.

This Ohtani situation is something truly unique. Whatever happens and however he pans out as a player, it’s a good bet that the next month or two will be talked about for a long, long time.

The homer-prone ace with a flourishing finish [2017 Season Review]

ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)
ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)

After a strong 2016, it’s hard to argue that Masahiro Tanaka‘s overall numbers in 2017 weren’t disappointing. He pitched to a 4.74 ERA (107 ERA-) and allowed 35 home runs, fourth worst in baseball. Still, with the way he closed out the year, the 29-year-old starter left Yankees fans with a smile on their faces heading into next year.

Flailing in the first half

Tanaka was the perfect example of why spring training means next to nothing. He had arguably the best spring of any pitcher in baseball, then fell flat in first game of the year. He allowed five of the first six batters to reach in Tampa before allowing a pair of homers later in the game. Overall, he lasted just eight outs and gave up seven runs. Yikes.

He picked up his game towards the end of the month, closing his April with a shutout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Outdueling Chris Sale, he only struck out three yet never allowed Boston to threaten while inducing plenty of weak contact.

But that wasn’t a sign of things to come. May treated Tanaka poorly. He allowed four runs or more in all but one of his six starts, including six runs or more in three of them. On Derek Jeter Day (and Mother’s Day), he allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings vs. Astros. Luckily, he wouldn’t have to face them again, right?

In a nine-start stretch from May 2 to June 17, he allowed 18 home runs. Yikes. That included four (!) three-homer games. It seemed like every game had a few balls crushed, even at spacious road parks like Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.

Returning from the Yankees’ hellish, mid-June West Coast trip, Tanaka put together a few dominant starts to end first half (not to mention him striking out 18 during two starts on that trip). He matched Yu Darvish out-for-out on June 23, tossing eight shutout innings while striking out nine. He held the Blue Jays to one run in seven innings before a less-than-stellar outing against the Brewers to close the first half with a 5.47 ERA.

Resurgence for #TANAK

But he would only fall so far. Tanaka lowered his ERA in six consecutive starts soon after the break, beginning with a near-perfect start against Tampa Bay in July at home. He hadn’t allowed a baserunner for 5.2 innings before allowing a single to Adeiny Hechavarria. He’d give up a homer to Lucas Duda, but struck out 14 and allowed just the one run in eight innings.

Tanaka held both the Mariners and Red Sox to one run in seven innings in consecutive starts before a clunker in Texas. After see-sawing between great and bad starts in September, he finished his regular season on the highest of notes, striking out a career-high 15 and surrendering just three hits in seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays.

For the season, tanaka struck out a career-best 194 while seeing his velocity increase across the board. His swinging strike rate was easily his best.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

However, his other peripherals (walks/HRs) and his hit rates both worsened en route to a poor regular season. Still, consecutive seasons of 30+ starts for a pitcher with injury concerns is a milestone nonetheless.

A dominant postseason

It’s easy to forget about regular season struggles when you ace your way through the postseason. With the Yankees facing elimination in ALDS Game 3, Tanaka gave them exactly what they needed for seven scoreless innings. He splittered the Indians to death and allowed just four baserunners. He got out of his only jam (started by an Aaron Judge-aided triple) with a pair of strikeouts, including one of Jay Bruce, who had hurt the Yankees significantly in Games 1 and 2. It was just a marvelous outing from the veteran starter.

Tasked with beginning ALCS Game 1, he allowed just five baserunners in six innings, but it wasn’t enough against a dominant Dallas Keuchel. His two runs allowed came on a string of hits in the fifth inning. He went away from his splitter and kept Houston off balance with his four-seamer. Regardless of the defeat, it went a lot better than his start against the same squad in May.

And then there was his Game 5 start. No offense to the Jays or Rays regular season games, or any other Tanaka start for that matter, but this was his best start since coming over from the NPB considering the circumstances. He put the Yankees one game from the World Series and put himself in line for ALCS MVP. Still relying on the fastball, he kept the ball on the ground and struck out eight. Still miss the moments when we could think about him vs. Clayton Kershaw in WS G1.

Side notes

Just a couple things to mention about Tanaka’s season. First, he continued to decrease his straight fastball usage, this year by four percent from 31.6 to 27.6 percent of the time. He upped his slider and cutter usage to make up for it and now throws the slider more often than the four-seamer. He uses his splitter just 1.3 percent less than his four-seam fastball.

Second, his home-road splits were stark. Having better stats at home is common. But for a homer-prone pitcher whose home games take place at Yankee Stadium? It’s surprising that he would have a 3.22 ERA, 112 Ks and 15 homers in 95 innings at home vs. a 6.48 ERA, 82 Ks and 20 homers in 83.1 innings on the road.

Finally, just wanted to mention that Tanaka remains a strong fielder. Pitcher fielding is such a small part of the job that it can be overlooked and he’s never been a finalist for a Gold Glove. However, he is very smooth off the mound and has made just one error in his four years in New York.

2018 Outlook

Figured I’d be writing this with Tanaka as a free agent, but as you likely know, he opted into the final three years of the deal. Three years for $67 million seems like less than he would have received on the open market, so it’s a solid deal for the Yankees. One has to wonder if his camp was worried about his medicals, but his elbow has held up just fine the last three years, so hopefully it will continue to do so for a long while.

Based on his entire tenure in pinstripes, it seems like Tanaka’s poor first half of 2017 is an outlier rather than a harbinger of bad seasons to come. The way he returned to form and then dominated in the postseason displayed the Tanaka we expected out of the spring. And if there was any doubt he could pitch in a big game, this October erased those worries completely.

For next year, Tanaka should be back at the front of the rotation alongside Luis Severino … and maybe Shohei Otani. He remains as homer-prone as ever but has learned to pitch effectively even if he gives up a long ball or two.

The two very big reasons the Yankees should pursue Giancarlo Stanton

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

The offseason is not yet two full weeks old, but already the two biggest stories of the winter are clear. The first is Shohei Otani’s impending move to MLB. The Nippon Ham Fighters announced they will indeed post Otani at some point this winter. MLB, MLBPA, and NPB still need to work out some posting agreement details, and once that happens, all 30 clubs will make a pitch to the righty-slash-slugger.

The second biggest story — these are stories 1A and 1B as far as I’m concerned — is the Giancarlo Stanton trade sweepstakes. The Derek Jeter led ownership group wants to cut payroll to get the Marlins back into the black, and the quickest way to do that is by trading the team’s highest paid player. Stanton will make $25M next year and unloading that makes getting the financials in order easier.

Trading Stanton, the probable NL MVP coming who is coming off a 59-homer season, is pretty much the worst possible way for the new ownership group to make a first impression, but they seem dead set on doing it. Already rumors are the flying that the Cardinals, Giants, Phillies, and Red Sox are talking to the Marlins about Stanton. I suspect it’s only a matter of time until other teams (Dodgers? Astros? Rangers? Cubs?) get involved.

The Yankees inquired about Stanton at the trade deadline and my guess is they’ll check in again this offseason, if they haven’t already. The Yankees check in on everyone. Brian Cashman & Co. wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t at least pick up the phone and make the call. Acquiring Stanton may seem like a long shot — there are other more desperate teams in the mix — but there are two very big reasons the Yankees should get involved.

1. Stanton is really good! A just turned 28-year-old who hit .281/.376/.631 (156 wRC+) with 59 home runs and sneaky good defense is a true franchise player and someone who makes every team better. Yes, the Yankees basically already have Stanton 2.0 in Aaron Judge, but there are three outfield spots plus the DH spot. You make room for a guy like Stanton. He’s a balance of power player. He can change an entire division outlook by himself.

The Marlins are seemingly so focused on cutting payroll that it’s entirely possible Stanton will come at a relative discount. His contract is massive — he’s owed $295M from 2018-27 — and because of that, Miami might not receive full price in terms of prospects. I don’t think Stanton will come at zero prospect cost. I expect the Marlins to get some very good young players. Stanton is that damn good and enough teams are involved to drive up the price. The idea of getting Stanton while doing nothing but taking on the contract and giving up some fringe prospects is a pipe dream.

Now, that said, the Marlins did recently hire player development head Gary Denbo away from the Yankees, so he knows the farm system. That could facilitate a trade. Denbo undoubtedly has some personal favorites in the farm system and could push for them when he’s inevitably consulted prior to the trade. That could mean getting Stanton at an easier to swallow cost. Unlikely? Sure. But you never know. It’s worth checking in for this very reason.

2. Drive the price up for the Red Sox. This is the big one. The BoSox are desperate for a power bat — they somehow finished dead last in the AL in home runs in 2017 — and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has never been shy about making a big splash. Why trade for Stanton when you could just sign J.D. Martinez, who Dombrowski knows from their time in Detroit? Well, Stanton’s a more well-rounded player and younger, and in terms of average annual salary, he might be cheaper too.

There are enough teams reportedly interested in Stanton that the Red Sox will have competition for him, but bidding against the Cardinals and Giants is not the same as bidding against the Yankees. The history and intradivision rivalry adds another layer to things. Remember the Jose Contreras bidding war? Mark Teixeira? Things are different when the Yankees and Red Sox are bidding against each other. It’s unlike any other rivalry in baseball.

Keep in mind Cashman and the Yankees have a history of feigning interest in a free agent in order to make life complicated for the Red Sox. They did it with Carl Crawford. Doing the same with Stanton is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned, and there are three reasons it could be very effective.

  1. They have the prospects to get Stanton.
  2. They could easily find room for him in the lineup.
  3. They look poised to take over the top of the AL East.

Faking interest in a player to drive up the price for a rival only works if the interest is believable. If the Red Sox wanted J.T. Realmuto and the Yankees showed interest, it would seem kinda weird because they already have a great catcher in Gary Sanchez, you know? Stanton’s a different story. Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t been good in a while, Brett Gardner is getting up there in age, and we still don’t know whether Clint Frazier or Aaron Hicks are actually any good. The Yankees having interest in Giancarlo would be completely plausible.

* * *

As onerous as Stanton’s contract appears, I think it’ll look pretty darn good in about 16 months, after Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign their new deals as free agents. Those two could very well end up making $40M annually. Once that happens, paying $30M a year for Stanton will look mighty good. The Yankees should throw their hat into the Giancarlo ring because he’s really good and a deal could come along that is too good to pass up. And, of course, their interest could make life harder for the Red Sox, and that’s always a plus.

Monday Night Open Thread

Carlos Beltran announced his retirement earlier today. He’s going out on top after winning his first World Series ring with the Astros this year. Awesome. Beltran is a Hall of Famer in my book. He was a true five-tool player at his peak and an impact player at the plate, in the field, and on the bases. Beltran is also an all around great dude who helped countless young players along the way, including Aaron Judge. Congrats on everything, Carlos.

Here’s an open thread for the night. Dolphins vs. Panthers is the Monday Night Football game, plus the Knicks are playing and there’s a whole bunch of college hoops on the docket. Talk about anything here as long as it’s not politics or religion. Get that outta here.

Aaron Judge unanimously named 2017 AL Rookie of the Year

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

In the least surprising news ever, Aaron Judge was named the 2017 American League Rookie of the Year tonight. It was unanimous. Judge received all 30 first place votes. Andrew Benintendi finished second and Trey Mancini finished third. The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site.

“It means everything. It’s quite an honor,” said Judge after the announcement. “It’s an honor and a privilege. I’m just one piece in an organization. The impact my teammates, family, and friends have had on me this year have been huge. I can’t thank them enough.”

Judge is the first Yankee to be named Rookie of the Year since Derek Jeter in 1996, and he’s the ninth Yankee to win the award overall. Judge joins Jeter, Dave Righetti (1981), Thurman Munson (1970), Stan Bahnsen (1968), Tom Tresh (1962), Tony Kubek (1957), Bob Grim (1954), and Gil McDougald (1951). Only the Dodgers have more Rookie of the Year winners than the Yankees.

Overall, Judge authored a .284/.422/.627 (173 wRC+) batting line this season, and he set new rookie records in home runs (52) and walks (127) and, yes, strikeouts (208). His +8.2 fWAR led all players in 2017. Rookies and veterans, position players and pitchers. That’s why Judge is also a finalist for the AL MVP award. That’ll be announced later this week.

I was a big Judge fan throughout his time in the minors, even when others jumped off the bandwagon following his strikeout filled MLB debut last year. Never in a million years did I expect a season like this though. Judge was historically great for a rookie and one of the best players in the game. What a remarkable season. The Rookie of the Year award is very well deserved.

Elsewhere in Rookie of the Year news, Jordan Montgomery finished sixth in the voting and received one second place and one third place vote. Montgomery threw 155.1 innings with a 3.88 ERA (4.07 FIP) this season, and his +2.7 fWAR led all rookie pitchers. Chad Green did not receive any Rookie of the Year votes because he wasn’t rookie eligible. He accrued too much service time last year.

Judge and Montgomery are the first set of Yankees teammates to receive Rookie of the Year votes in the same season since Dellin Betances and Masahiro Tanaka in 2014. Betances finished third in the voting and Tanaka finished fifth. Congrats to both Judge and Montgomery. They had tremendous seasons and are big parts of the future.

2018 Draft: Yankees hold the 23rd overall pick

(Getty)
(Getty)

This is probably something I should’ve covered a few weeks ago, but that pesky postseason run got in the way. Better late than never, I guess. Anyway, the Yankees hold the 23rd overall selection in the 2018 amateur draft. They went 91-71 this season and had the eighth best record in baseball in 2017. The Tigers hold the No. 1 pick and the Giants hold the No. 2 pick because Pablo Sandoval hit a walk-off homer in Game 162. True story.

The Yankees have not picked as low as 23rd overall since back in 2013, when they selected Eric Jagielo with the 26th selection. Jagielo was the first of New York’s three first round picks that year. They selected Aaron Judge (32nd) with the compensation pick for Nick Swisher, and Ian Clarkin (33rd) with the compensation pick for Rafael Soriano. The Yankees held the 16th (James Kaprielian), 18th (Blake Rutherford), and 16th (Clarke Schmidt) overall picks from 2015-17.

Last year slot money for the 23rd overall pick was $2,702,700. Slots are expected to increase again this year, as always. They rose approximately 5% from 2016 to 2017. The college and high school seasons are still months away from starting, so it’s basically impossible to know who the Yankees could target with that 23rd pick. Baseball America did, however, put together a super early 2018 mock draft last month. Here’s the Yankees’ pick:

23. Yankees

The rising Yankees still lack a consistent first baseman, and Triston Casas—MVP of the 18U World Cup—has the power to make Yankee Stadium look small.

PICK: Triston Casas, 1B, American Heritage School, Plantation, Fla.

Hmmm, a non-elite high school first baseman in the first round? Doesn’t sound very exciting. Unless you’re talking Prince Fielder power or Eric Hosmer athleticism and makeup, the history of first round high school first baseman is really ugly.

Anyway, our 2018 Draft Order Tracker page is now live. You can access it at any time via the Resources pulldown menu at the top of the site. It’s pretty bare bones right now because nothing exciting has happened in free agency yet. That’s change soon enough, so make sure you bookmark that page and check back often.

The Catcher of the Future becomes the Catcher of the Present [2017 Season Review]

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

Because he packed a season’s worth of production into two months last year, it can be a little easy to forget the 2017 season was the first full MLB season of Gary Sanchez‘s career. He usurped Brian McCann as the starting catcher late last year and so convinced the Yankees he was ready for full-time catching duty that they traded McCann over the winter. They didn’t keep the veteran safety net.

Sanchez, who is three weeks away from his 25th birthday, left zero doubt he is not only the catcher of the present for the Yankees, but a centerpiece of their new core. He missed a month with a biceps injury early in 2017 and still hit .278/.345/.531 (130 wRC+) with 33 homers in 122 games. Thirty-three different catchers had at least 300 plate appearances this season. Here are Sanchez’s ranks:

  • AVG: .278 (7th)
  • OBP: .345 (9th)
  • SLG: .531 (2nd behind Kurt Suzuki (?!?))
  • wRC+: 130 (1st)
  • HR: 33 (1st)
  • XBH: 53 (1st)
  • fWAR: +4.4 (1st)
  • bWAR: +4.1 (1st)

At worst, Sanchez has established himself as the best power-hitting catcher in baseball. Only seven players have hit more homers than Sanchez since he was called up for good last August 3rd. That’s among all players, not only catchers. Sanchez missed a month and he’s still hit more homers (53) since last August 3rd than guys like Nolan Arenado (52), Edwin Encarnacion (51), and Kris Bryant (51). He beat Giancarlo Stanton in the first round of the Home Run Derby this year (in Miami)! And that bat drop.

gary-sanchez-bat-drop

At best, Sanchez has established himself as one of the two or three best all-around catchers in baseball. Yes, that includes defense. Buster Posey remains the gold standard among two-way catchers. Sanchez is much closer to challenging him for that title that a lot of people seem to realize. By this time next year, the crown could be he is. Let’s review Gary’s first full big league season.

You Can’t Spell Kraken Without Rake

Coming into the season, I was among those who thought Sanchez had no chance to continue last season’s pace, and he didn’t. Gary put up a .299/.376/.657 (171 wRC+) batting line with 20 homers in only 53 games last year. Doing that again seemed impossible. That isn’t to say I thought Sanchez would be bad. I just didn’t expect him to be that good again. And he wasn’t. But he was still great!

What impressed me most about Sanchez this year was how, in four of his five healthy months, he was dominant offensively. And I mean dominant. Not pretty good or a tick above average. Gary was a force pretty much all season aside from a July swoon. His month-by-month splits:

  • April: .150/.190/.300 (23 wRC+) in five games before the injury
  • May: .293/.398/.440 (130 wRC+)
  • June: .307/.390/.659 (175 wRC+)
  • July: .231/.273/.396 (69 wRC+)
  • August: .287/.347/.648 (157 wRC+)
  • September: .303/.354/.528 (134 wRC+)

At one point in August, when most catchers are starting to wear down a bit in the dog days of summer, Sanchez swatted nine homers in the span of 12 games, including the second longest home run in baseball in 2017, a 493-foot moonshoot at Comerica Park. He started 117 total games between catcher and DH and only 24 times did he fail to reach base.

High-leverage situations? Sanchez hit .390/.422/.561 (162 wRC+). Men in scoring position? He hit .281/.356/.477 (118 wRC+). Gary’s go-ahead two-run double in Game Four of the ALCS is on the short list of the biggest hits of the season. It certainly felt like the biggest at the time.

The only real knock against Sanchez offensively — well, aside from his total lack of baserunning value, which comes with the territory with catchers — is that he tends to get a little pull happy and expand the zone. There’s nothing wrong with being a pull hitter! Pulling the ball has such a stigma attached to it these days because of the shift. All batters hit the ball the hardest when the pull it. That’s okay.

Sanchez led all qualified hitters in pull rate (51.6%) this season — Carlos Santana (51.4%), Brian Dozier (50.4%), and Rougned Odor (50.3%) were the only other hitters with a pull rate over 50% in 2017 — and when he struggles, it’s almost always because he gets pull happy and starts chasing everything. His swing rate on pitches out of the zone gradually increased as the season progressed, even as pitchers threw him fewer pitches in the zone.

gary-sanchez-plate-discipline

On one hand, that seems bad. Pitchers threw fewer pitches in the zone as the season progressed and Sanchez chased more and more. On the other hand, Sanchez raked in August and September, so maybe it’s not that big a deal? Gary is certainly capable of going the other way. Look at the video of the ALCS Game Four double again. He split the right-center field gap. Sanchez also homered to right field in Game Four of the ALDS.

Again, this was Gary’s first full big league season, the first time he went threw the league multiple times and the first time he had pitchers adjust to him and had to adjust back. His strikeout (22.9%) and walk (7.6%) rates certainly weren’t unwieldy. Sanchez is just a young hitter who has to learn when to stop being so pull happy. There’s nothing wrong with being a pull hitter and I wouldn’t try to change anything. What Gary is doing works, so keep doing it. As he gains experience and figures out how pitchers are attacking him, he’ll be even more dangerous.

Throwing & Framing

We all know Sanchez can hit. He’s a great hitter regardless of position and an elite hitter for a catcher. His defense is quite divisive, however. Everyone agrees he’s a great thrower, right? Right. Sanchez threw out 23 of 60 basestealers this season, or 38%. The league average is 27%. Remember when he threw out Brock Holt with a one-run lead in the ninth inning on August 19th? It was flawless.

Only Tucker Barnhart (44%), Yan Gomes (42%), and Martin Maldonado (39%) threw out basestealers at a higher rate than Sanchez among the 17 catchers with at least 800 innings caught this year. And it’s not only that Sanchez threw out a high percentage of basestealers this year. His arm is so good teams don’t even try running against him. The stolen base attempt leaderboard:

  1. Cardinals: 86 (Yadier Molina)
  2. Indians: 87 (Gomes)
  3. Yankees: 91 (Yo Soy Gary)

And that’s with Sanchez missing a month and Austin Romine‘s miserable throwing arm — Romine threw out only 10% (!) of basestealers in 2017 — filling in as the starter for a month. As long as Gary stays on the field, teams may attempt fewer steals against the Yankees next season than any other team. His arm is that good. Teams don’t even bother testing him much of the time.

There is more to catcher defense than throwing out basestealers, obviously. Sanchez was either comfortably above-average or comfortably below-average at pitch-framing this season, depending who you ask.

Hmmm. I trust Baseball Prospectus more only because I know more about their methodology, though I was surprised to see Sanchez rated so well at pitch-framing. He ranks 19th among all catchers. That isn’t to say I thought Sanchez was a bad framer. Bad framers stick out like a sore thumb. Those dudes are easy to spot. I thought Gary was closer to average based on the eye test, which is what you get when you average out Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner.

Let’s Talk About The Passed Balls

Now let’s get to the elephant in the room. Sanchez’s blocking was so bad at one point this season — Gary allowed five passed balls in a 12-game span in late-July/early-August — that the usually protective Joe Girardi called him out publicly. He never does that. Sanchez allowed a passed ball that let a run score in a loss to the Indians, and afterwards Girardi called him out.

“He needs to improve. Bottom line,” said Girardi after the game. “I don’t have a problem with his effort, but sometimes he shows his frustrations … He’s late getting down. That’s what I see sometimes, and it’s something we’ve been working on and we continue to work on. He’s capable of doing a better job.”

Not only did Girardi call Sanchez out, he benched him him for a few days, and he did it in such a way that got the message across without hurting the team. Gary sat the day after the passed ball, which was a day game after a night game, meaning he was probably going to sit anyway. The next day was an off-day, then the next day he was the DH. That’s three days away from catching but only one day out of the lineup, a day he was going to sit anyway.

Did the benching work? Only Sanchez can answer that. What we do know is that before the benching, Sanchez allowed 12 passed balls in 59 games, or one every 4.9 games. After the benching, he allowed four passed balls in 40 games, or one every ten games. Big improvement! I thought Gary’s best defensive stretch of the season came during the playoffs, particularly when he blocked the hell out of Masahiro Tanaka‘s splitters in Game Three of the ALDS.

Sanchez led all catchers with 16 passed balls — and he missed a month, remember — and his 53 wild pitches allowed were second most in baseball. I know wild pitches are, by definition, the pitcher’s fault, but an awful lot of passed balls and wild pitches are tough to define. It’s not clear whose fault it is. Surely some of those 53 wild pitches were on Sanchez. Either way, Gary let a lot of pitches get by him this year.

All told this season, 110 different players caught a game in the big leagues. Here is the bottom of the leaderboard of Baseball Prospectus’ catcher blocking metric:

106. Jonathan Lucroy: -2.3 runs
107. Mike Zunino: -2.6 runs
108. Gary Sanchez: -2.6 runs
109. James McCann: -2.8 runs
110. Wilson Ramos: -3.2 runs

Yep, bottom of the league. To be fair, the Yankees do not have the easiest pitching staff to catch. Sanchez (and Romine) had to contend with Tanaka’s splitters in the dirt, Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia throwing nothing straight, David Robertson spiking curveballs, Dellin Betances having no idea where the ball is going most of the time, so on and so forth. According to Statcast, only four teams threw a higher percentage of pitches in the dirt than the Yankees this year.

Now, that said, there were many blockable pitches along the way that Sanchez did not block. And given the nature of blocking pitches in the dirt, it’s so very easy to blame them on Gary being lazy, and I hate that. He gets called lazy because he’s from the Dominican Republic and that garbage stereotype exists in baseball. I hate questioning effort level and the only time I do it is when it is particularly egregious. Andruw Jones jogging after balls in the gap in 2012 is the best recent example I can come up with of a Yankee straight up dogging it.

Sanchez, more than anything, has to improve his blocking technique. He has to better anticipate pitches in the dirt, get down quicker, and get himself square to the ball. Gary can do it! I know he can. He’s already come a very long way defensively in his career. Catching is hard, man. Especially for young catchers. Almost all of them struggle when they first get to the big leagues. Most struggle at the plate. Sanchez has struggled behind it.

And you know what? Even if Sanchez never improves his blocking and is among the league leaders in passed balls year after year after year, under no circumstances should the Yankees move Gary out from behind the plate. He’s a great thrower and at least an adequate framer, and of course his bat is elite for the position. Move him to first base or DH and he’s merely above-average. At catcher, he’s a cornerstone type. Keep him there. Keep him there keep him there keep him there. Keep him there.

2018 Outlook

Sanchez was outstanding this season. Yes, his blocking stunk, and no, he was not as good as he was during his 2016 cameo, but he was excellent overall. On the very short list of the best catchers in baseball, truly. There is no question the Yankees will go into next season with Sanchez as the starting catcher and a middle of the order hitter. He is the team’s best and most important hitter aside from Aaron Judge. I think he is their most indispensable player. The drop off from Sanchez to his replacement is greater than the drop off at any other position, I believe.

And here’s the thing: I think Sanchez is going to get better. I think there’s room for growth in his game, both offensively and defensively, and I think he’ll make those improvements as he gains experience. I expect Gary to become a better hitter once he understands what pitchers are trying to do to him and that getting so pull happy can be a detriment, and I think his blocking will improve too. Even with the blocking issues, Sanchez is a franchise catcher, and as good as he was in 2017, the talent is there for him to be even better. I believe it.