Sanchez stepped up to the plate 178 times in 2020 and got just 23 hits for a batting average of .147. Among the 18,273 batters with at least 150 plate appearances since 1969, that figure ranks 18,259th. His rate of hits per plate appearance was 13%, a touch behind Mike Trout‘s rate of extra-base hits in his career. Thanks to the walks (18 and a 10.1% rate) and homers (10), Sanchez’s 69 wRC+ is merely awful instead of historically bad, but it’s still a gruesome line.
Well, a theory of some rival evaluators is that Sanchez’s confidence is all but shot, with his failures at the plate compounding it. Others note his increasing inability to cope with sliders, a pitch that seems to mystify him and accounts for a lot of his career-high 13.8% swing-and-miss rate in 2020, the worst of his career. At least some evaluators think that Sanchez has a hard time separating his offense from his defense, so that when he makes a mistake behind the plate, that tends to carry over to his hitting, and vice versa. And like many other young players, he seems to struggle to make in-game adjustments.
Some of the mental claims are somewhat dubious. Sanchez was a pretty bad catcher making plenty of mistakes back when he was hitting really well. As for in-game adjustments, he has generally hit the best in the fourth through sixth innings in his career, and since the start of 2019, his numbers in the first three innings match up with the last three innings, while the average player sees a 10-point drop.
The swing-and-miss issues on sliders are pretty indisputable, but they also aren’t new. Sanchez whiffed on 18% of sliders last year, which was right in line with his career averages. The problem for him is that he used to be able to run into a few of them: Last season he posted an .083 ISO on sliders, making him completely ineffective on the pitch. Further compounding things was a more than 50% increase on whiffs against four-seam fastballs: Sanchez went from a 10.7% swing-and-miss rate on four-seamers entering the season to 17% of those fastballs in 2020. That was also the second straight year in which Sanchez saw a big increase in four-seamer whiffs. He’s been swinging through fastballs at roughly the same rate as sliders, and neither number is good.
But wait, it gets worse. I noted Sanchez’s inability to hit the slider for power when he did make contact, and his general inability to get a hit when a ball is put in play ruins his chances of getting on base. Jeff Zimmerman looked at Sanchez’s poor BABIP and found the shift was killing his batting average despite his hard contact. While his high barrel rate makes it seem as though he should hit for a higher average, 10 of his 16 barrels last year were homers; his .281 xwOBA on balls in play is 30 points below league average.
Add that all up, and you get an offensive performance that hit new lows this past season and has been trending downwards for quite some time. Over the last three years, Sanchez has a .200/.296/.453 slash line with a 98 wRC+ in roughly 1,000 plate appearances. Since the middle of June 2019, he’s batting .168/.272/.379 with a 74 wRC+ in close to 400 plate appearances. Some of the blame could go to varying injuries over time, but catching takes a toll on the body, so we can’t exactly wish those away in the future.
While a dip this big in production didn’t seem possible a few years ago, there were always concerns about how Sanchez would profile. In Dave Cameron’s Trade Value Rankings back in 2017, he ranked 12th (which should provide some idea of his star production at the time), but:
That said, there are enough red flags to keep him out of the top tier for now. He’s one of the most extreme pull hitters in baseball, and you’ll note that the guys he’s hanging out with aren’t running BABIPs over .300. Toss in the pop-up problem and a below-average contact rate, and it’s easy to see Sanchez running a .240 batting average one of these years.
As predicted, the extreme pull rate, the popups, and the contact rate combined to make Sanchez a replacement-level player last season.
So what now? If Sanchez could field his position well, the Yankees could justify waiting for the bat to come around. There may be some hope there: He worked on a new catching stance in spring training, and in a very small sample, his framing was pretty close to average, and he still did a solid job with baserunners. If that holds and he is merely a little below-average behind the plate and at least average with the bat, then Sanchez is an average to slightly above-average player. If his catching regresses and the bat is average, then he’s a below-average player and a decent backup. And if he doesn’t get the bat back up to average, he’s the third catcher/26th man on the roster who can pinch-hit and rarely starts.
Unfortunately, the upside is more limited than it has been, too. If Sanchez’s bat really comes back, it might be best to let him make only occasional starts at catcher and take most of his turns at designated hitter –something that isn’t possible if he is just an average hitter. It’s hard to see a reasonable path back to more than anything than a three-win player, and the projections put Sanchez in the one- to two-win range that shouldn’t make him a starter on a contending club.
That leaves the Yankees with a difficult choice. They can hold on to Sanchez and see if he regain the ability to be a star hitter, but that likely entails bringing in another catcher to be the regular starter, as neither he nor Kyle Higashioka can be counted on for full-time (or really half-time) duty. The Yankees are supposedly “open” to trading him, but who is going to give up decent players and pay Sanchez his $5 million salary when he isn’t really projected as a starter-level player? There are a bunch of teams who would likely be willing to take a chance on him — the Rockies, Rangers, Marlins, and Tigers come to mind immediately — but they’re probably unwilling to give up any promising or useful players in exchange. The Yankees could just non-tender Sanchez and move on, but that’s a move that could backfire if he hits well, though signing J.T. Realmuto would likely make any regrets moot.
The Yankees and Sanchez, then, are likely stuck with each other for another season. He’ll get some opportunity to recapture his form, and the Yankees will pay him his relatively modest salary. They can’t trade him for nothing, and they shouldn’t let him go for free. But they also shouldn’t head into 2021 with Sanchez and Higashioka as the starting tandem at catcher. It makes Sanchez something of a potential bonus for the Yankees, and given their history together, it might actually benefit them both to give them one more season to get him back on track.