Yankees fans are rightfully excited about catcher Gary Sanchez, the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year runner-up, but to expect the same level of offensive production in 2017 might be asking too much.
What the Yankees need is a consistent force at and behind the plate. The Yankees require a potent bat in the middle of the batting order and a catcher who can control his pitching staff. Sanchez is that player, but as recently as the beginning of the 2015 season, the club was not certain he was.
Sanchez, then 22 years old, was undeniably talented with the bat, but his defensive game lagged. Worse, Sanchez gave some the impression that he was not mentally all-in. His on field performance in 2015, while splitting time between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A, was quite good and maybe more importantly there was evidence of maturation. Sanchez's turnaround was enough to place him at the top of the discussion concerning the backup job in 2016.
Unfortunately for Sanchez, he had a terrible spring training at the plate and he started 2016 at Triple-A. By the time the Yankees decided to sell off assets at the trade deadline, the club determined that Sanchez had done enough to prove himself and promoted him. What followed was something unseen in the game.
Sanchez was named the starting catcher within days of his call-up and he gave no reason for the team to pull back on the reigns. In fact, the question became, why didn't the Yanks call him up sooner?
He became the quickest player - not just catcher - to hit 20 home runs in their career (51 games). Sanchez finished the season hitting .299 with a .376 on-base percentage and a .657 slugging percentage with 12 doubles, 20 home runs, 42 RBIs, 171 wRC+ in 229 plate appearances (53 games).
Sanchez's rampage at the plate wasn't necessarily a fluke, but the likelihood of sustaining such a performance over a full season is minimal. The Yankees will be elated to get similar production to what Sanchez was providing at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes before his call-up because even that would surpass Brian McCann's performance level (.748 OPS, 103 wRC+) last season.
Sanchez left Triple-A with a slash line of .282/.339/.468 with 21 doubles, 10 home runs, 50 RBIs, 131 wRC+ in 313 plate appearances (71 games) and displayed a cannon for an arm, throwing out 40 percent of the potential base stealers. The offensive stats are very nice, but pale in comparison to the otherworldly numbers he put up in New York. However, Sanchez did not lose a beat behind the plate, throwing out 41 percent of would be base stealers.
Besides the difficulty of replicating the record-setting production level, one would have to think that teams will focus all of their efforts on containing Sanchez in 2017. Considering the Yankees' suspect offense, it would not be difficult to utilize that strategy. The Yankees hope Matt Holliday can provide the protection Sanchez needs hitting behind him, but there are no assurances that will be the case. The attention Sanchez generated with his power display in 2016 combined with the questions surrounding the potency of the Yankees offense, will likely impede his ability to come close to the video game numbers he recorded last season.
This is not to say that Sanchez will be a bust, but it is essential to be realistic based on his minor league production. Sanchez never hit more than 20 home runs in a season and he owns a minor league career OPS of .799. I am comfortable suggesting Sanchez can hit in the .270 to .280 range with a .340 on-base percentage and slug around the .480 mark (which is 20 points higher than his minor league career level). Sanchez can absolutely surpass these figures, but to expect it could result in disappointment. In my view, the Yankees would be extremely pleased with a 24-year-old, second-year catcher, popping 25 home runs and driving in 80 runs with those rate stats.
Beyond the offense, I believe Sanchez's defensive game will continue to grow and shine. Sanchez took complete control of the pitching staff upon his call-up, and despite working with pitchers he did not have an awful lot of experience catching, he seemed to gel quite well with them. Sanchez will deal with fewer growing pains because of his knowledge of the staff from last season. It also seems that Sanchez takes as much pride in his work behind the plate as he does when in the batter's box.
Fans should be excited about Sanchez. Believing Sanchez can be the best hitter on this Yankees squad is a fair sentiment. Fans should also understand that extrapolating his explosive efforts from his rookie campaign to 2017's expectations would not be fair to the Yankees' backstop.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.