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Take a trip back in baseball time for a moment. It’s October 6, 2018. The setting: Fenway Park, Game 2 of the ALDS between the Yankees and the Red Sox. There are 39,151 Boston fans howling and there’s all the usual sizzle for a bitter rivalry that dates to the old days of flannel uniforms.
That night was one of the most memorable of Gary Sánchez’s career. The Yankee catcher pounded two crucial home runs, blowing open a playoff game in front of the baseball world. He’d endured a difficult season, playing only 86 games and batting just .186, but he still possessed power, a game-wrecking weapon.
Boston ultimately won that series en route to a World Series title, but Game 2 was an electric reminder of what Peak Kraken can be.
Sánchez hit a career-high 34 home runs the next season and the Yankees went to the ALCS, but it’s been hard for the catcher or the club to unlock Peak Kraken since. Now, in an autumn rite as regular as trick-or-treating, the Yankees must decide again whether to go on with Sánchez as their main catcher.
It’s an easy answer for those who decry Sánchez’s defensive lapses behind the plate. Sánchez does not hit as well as he used to, making the defensive woes far less palatable. And maybe it should tell the Yankees all they need to know that their $324 million pitcher, Gerrit Cole, who once talked up his working relationship with Sánchez, prefers throwing to someone else.
Over the past two seasons, Sánchez has started just two of the Yankees’ eight playoff games. Are you still a big-time player if you’re not starting more of those games?
Defensively, Sánchez has had trouble in multiple areas, though he does boast a powerful throwing arm. He’s not great at blocking balls. Or pitch framing. And don’t torture your Yankee fan friends by bringing up his high-profile lapse against the Mets, bonking on that tag play at the plate when Jonathan Villar scored.
As noted, he’s also not the same kind of offensive threat he was earlier in his career. He had a mini-rebound from a forgettable and short 2020 season, hitting 23 homers in 2021. But his slash line was .204/.307/.423 and his .730 OPS only translated to a 99 OPS-plus. In three of the last four seasons, he’s had an OPS-plus below 100, which is league average.
His average exit velocity was the lowest of his career and his expected slugging percentage, which takes into account the quality of contact he was making, was his lowest of any full 162-game season. He did improve his strikeout percentage over 2020, but it was still the second-worst of his career.
If you want to nitpick, his 2021 numbers were buoyed by a huge June in which he slugged eight homers, slashed .289/.372/.663, and had a 1.035 OPS. He batted below .200 in three calendar months and only slugged above .400 in May (.443) and June.
Still, Sánchez can still do what most other catchers in MLB can’t -- deliver home runs. In 2021, he tied for fourth among MLB catchers in homers.
Since the beginning of 2016, no catcher in MLB has hit as many home runs as Sánchez (138), though that’s mostly fueled by his early-career results. Salvador Perez, who hit 48 for the Royals in 2021, is second with 135 and probably would be first if he had not missed all of 2019. J.T. Realmuto, perhaps the best all-around catcher in the game -- whom the Yankees could’ve signed as a free agent before the 2021 season to solve their catching questions -- is fifth with 102 over that span.
The Yankees love employing a catcher who provides offense -- think Jorge Posada, among others -- but maybe they need to weigh whether the rest of their lineup can provide enough so they can focus on a defensive backstop.
Here’s something else they must consider before moving on from Sánchez: Who replaces him? Kyle Higashioka, who is Cole’s personal catcher, is as beloved by some Yankee fans as the backup quarterback of an NFL team with a struggling starter.
The 31-year-old is a better defensive catcher than Sánchez and he hit 10 homers in 211 plate appearances in 2021. But his OPS was nearly 100 points below Sánchez’s and he’s a career .183 hitter in 415 plate appearances.
The Yankees spent draft capital on catcher in recent years, but no one is ready yet. In 2018, they took a catcher in the first round (Anthony Seigler) and one in the second (Josh Breaux). In 2020, they took another catcher, Austin Wells, in the first round.
There aren’t easy answers outside the organization, either, which is why it might make sense for the Yanks to keep Sánchez, who turns 29 in December. Sánchez made $6.35 million this year and MLB Trade Rumors projects he’ll get bumped up to $7.9 million this winter in arbitration. Sánchez will be eligible for free agency after next season.
According to MLB.com, these catchers are free agents: Manny Piña, Yan Gomes, Stephen Vogt, Jeff Mathis, Wilson Ramos, Jose Lobaton, Robinson Chirinos, Kurt Suzuki, Sandy León, and Austin Romine. León and Romine, who are both 33, are the youngest of the group.
Others under club options for next year: Buster Posey, Mike Zunino, Tucker Barnhart, Christian Vázquez, and Roberto Pérez. Perhaps someone shakes loose from that group or there’s a trade to be made.
Whatever happens, it will be an enduring Yankee topic this offseason, one, like shortstop, they must solve.
We asked a pro scout from another organization for his opinion on the idea of keeping Sánchez. He did not hesitate: “They definitely have to go out and get a catcher. Stop playing games. I think it’s inevitable.
“They have tried for two years to hang on to him, thinking his defense will get better and it hasn’t. Now you’re not even getting the bat covering up the defense. I think there has to be a change.”
Could Higashioka be the answer? “I think he’s a backup,” the scout said.
“They’re going to have to explore and see what they can find.”