The bigger figure in Aaron Judge's shadow
Aaron Judge is the second most important player for the New York Yankees.
Yes, I wrote that correctly, Aaron Judge is the second most important player for the Yankees.
The man who just started in the All-Star Game, won American League Rookie of the Year, was second in MVP voting, led the AL in home runs, runs scored, runs created, and times on base isn’t the most important piece for the Yankees moving forward.
Look at these two players career stat lines through their first season and a bit in the MLB:
The statistics are very similar overall, with each player having a small advantage in certain areas such as “Player B” having a small advantage in home runs, hits, and on-base percentage and “Player A” having a higher average, more RBI, and more runs.
Player B was Aaron Judge.
You know, the guy who you saw plastered all over ESPN last summer with highlights like this:
But ‘Player A’?
That would be Gary “The Kraken” Sanchez.
He can also hit bombs.
Please, I beg you, don’t come at me on Twitter or in the comments section until I make this clarification. Aaron Judge has been the most valuable and best player for the Yankees for most of his tenure there over the last season and handful of 2016, but it is Sanchez who will play a more important role moving forward. This is coming from a guy who watched Aaron Judge hit a batting-practice ball into the jumbotron at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, one of the most impressive feats I’ve ever seen.
This doesn’t mean that Sanchez will overtake Judge (and now Stanton) and become the Yankees best player, it simply means that he is the decisive factor in whether they can be a 90-win team that makes the ALDS versus a 100-win team that competes for a World Series. If he can continue his offensive brilliance while also improving his defence even slightly, Sanchez can help the Yankees get there.
Both sluggers had impressive first full seasons, but it was Judge who received the vast majority of the praise.
Gary Sanchez’s value lies mostly in his offense, something that is usually difficult to find at the catcher position. Despite missing 40 total games, including 30 stemming from a Grade 1 muscle strain in his right bicep, Sanchez posted a .278/.345/.531 stat line with 33 home runs and 90 runs batted in. That was good enough to be tied for second amongst qualified catchers for batting average, while also hitting 15 more home runs and driving in 8 more runs than the next closest player.
Besides the traditional statistics, the advanced metrics also show Sanchez as a top-tier offensive catcher. He led qualified catchers and was top-35 in the league overall with a 130 wRC+ and a .368 wOBA.
These statistics are impressive on their own, but it is not until you put Sanchez’s first season and a half in a historical perspective that you can begin to realise his impact on the Yankees offence.
There are only three catchers in baseball history that hit more home runs in a single season before age 25 than Gary Sanchez did last season: Jonny Bench twice, Mike Piazza, and Rudy York. Piazza and York only bested Sanchez by two home runs, a number he most likely would have eclipsed if he did not miss 40 games throughout the season. Not only can he hit for contact, Sanchez is well on his way to being one of the greatest power hitting catchers of all time.
Through his first 177 MLB games, just over a full season, he has hit 53 home runs, 132 RBI, is batting .283, and has a 7.1 WAR. All of these statistics would be top-three for catchers all time in their first season and some change.
Sanchez has also already proven he is willing to step up his offence when the team needs it. In the second half of the season when Aaron Judge dramatically fell off, Sanchez’s numbers improved.
Sanchez hit seven more home runs, drove in 10 more runs, and had six more doubles in just 40 more at-bats over the second half of the season. He also had a better average and slugging percentage.
Judge basically fell off a cliff in the second half, his batting average dropped over .100, he hit eight less home runs and drove in 18 fewer runs.
Included in this second half is an August in which Judge hit .185….ONE EIGHTY FIVE. He had 17 hits IN THE ENTIRE DAMN MONTH. While he fell off, Sanchez peaked. Sanchez hit 12 home runs over the month of August, good for second in the MLB behind only his now-teammate Giancarlo Stanton.
So not only has Sanchez been an all-time great offensive catcher through his first season and a half, he has also shown the ability to take over and lead the team when Judge falters.
But it isn’t Sanchez’s offense that is the reason he is more important than Judge, it is the position he plays, the defensive importance of the position, and the rarity of game-changing players like Sanchez at said position. Throw in the fact that the Yankees have BASICALLY NO CATCHERS, and you start to get the idea why Sanchez’s value is about far more than his godly hitting numbers.
Let us first take a look at the outfield position and the Yankee’s already strong outfield of Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Judge.
The three of them posted a 16.9 combined WAR last season which led the league for an outfield group. Most would not consider Gardner and Hicks to be game changing center fielders, but the sabermetrics show they both add value to an outfield.
If you’re reading this you without a doubt know that the Yankees added Giancarlo Stanton during the offseason, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player.
This means two things for the team:
First, if you replace Aaron Hicks (the lowest WAR of the three) with Stanton and look at last year’s statistics, the Yankees outfield would have a WAR of 20.6. That would not only be higher than 19 MLB team’s WAR from last season, but would tie them for the highest WAR of all time with the 1917 Detroit Tigers, exactly 100 years later. That outfield featured a name you may have heard of, Ty fucking Cobb. He was joined by another Hall of Famer, Harry Heilmann. This shows just how historically dominant the 2018 Yankee’s outfield was during the 2017 season and while there may be a downtick, it is still set up to be a dominant outfield for years to come.
Second, it gives the Yankees even more flexibility at a position where they already had a gold mine of talent. They were able to trade away two of their OF prospects last season, Blake Rutherford and Dustin Fowler, because of the success of Judge and the potential for Clint Frazier to move into the outfield. Adding Stanton provides them with additional options at a position where they were already strong. If there is an injury anywhere in the outfield there are multiple players who the torch can be passed to. The same cannot be said for the catcher position.
The Yankees backup catcher in 2018 will likely be Austin Romine, who posted a -0.6 WAR last season according to FanGraphs.com. That was tied for third worst in the entire MLB. He also hit .218. It’s clear that if Sanchez were to go down for any sort of extended period of time again, the Yankees do not have a reliable back up ready to come in and play.
Although they have a deep minor league system, catcher is one of the positions the Yankees are thinnest at. The only catcher who is on their MLB top 30 prospects list is Donny Sands, a third baseman who the Yankees have converted to catcher. Sands has been shaky at best behind the plate, he allowed 22 passed balls, over 100 stolen bases, and threw out just 23.3% of runners in 76 games last year. So not only do the Yankees not have a legitimate backup catcher, they also lack any sort of minor league prospects at the position, making Sanchez all the more critical to their success.
Catcher is the most important defensive position on the field, adding immediate importance to Sanchez over Judge while they’re on defence. And while Judge is neither an outstanding or terrible fielder, outfield defence is just easier to find than strong defensive catchers.
It’s easy to say that Sanchez is not a good defensive catcher because of his league-high 16 passed balls last season, but it is clear much of that was caused by added muscle from the offseason. Brian Cashman told reporters in August of 2017 that Sanchez: “added eight to 12 pounds of muscle and his body fat stayed the same. And went on to admit he didn’t “think (Sanchez) has the flexibility.” Flexibility is something that Sanchez can easily improve, and further analysis of his advanced defensive numbers show us Gary isn’t a big liability on that side of the ball by any means.
Sanchez allowed the most passed balls in the majors last season with 16, but an in-depth look at catching statistics from Baseball Prospectus show that his blocking was nowhere near as much of an issue as passed balls alone show.
Blocking Runs is a statistic that shows how many runs a catcher creates or loses for his team based on blocking chances, passed balls, etc. Gary Sanchez had -2.6 blocking runs in 2017, by comparison Caleb Joseph led the major-leagues with 3.1 blocking runs. That’s a difference of 5.7 runs. There was an even smaller gap between Sanchez and Salvador Perez, the league-leading blocker, in 2016 when they were separated by 4.2 runs. This means that in the past two years, if Gary Sanchez was the best blocking catcher in the majors, he would only earn the Yankees four to six more runs PER SEASON.
He can clearly block the ball, he will just need to improve his flexibility and consistency for the upcoming season.
Sanchez also has a strong arm that has helped his make up for his sub-par blocking in the past. Gary threw out 38% of runners last season, good enough for fourth in the league amongst catchers who played more than 100 games.
It’s pretty clear through a deeper look at the numbers that Sanchez is no slouch on the defensive end either.
So while the Yankees best player may be the 6-foot-7, 280-pound behemoth that is Aaron Judge, keep your eyes on Sanchez to be the team’s catalyst. If he can be, the Yankees will contend for their 28th championship, and a new ‘Bronx Bomber’ dynasty will be born.