The Yankees are anticipating Gary Sanchez to be back on the MLB roster this weekend, and with his arrival comes big expectations.
One of the Yankees' preeminent sluggers, Sanchez leads the team in home runs this season and will be relied on to carry the team's wounded lineup, which has lost over 50 home runs with injuries to Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion and Aaron Hicks. Even Gleyber Torres, the only Yankee from the Opening Day lineup not to spend time on the injured list, is day-to-day with a core injury.
Thus, Sanchez will have a lot on his plate as soon as he returns. DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius need all the protection they can get, and although they've been hot lately, I'm sure Aaron Boone is looking forward to not having to slot Gio Urshela, Cameron Maybin and Mike Tauchman in the middle of the lineup.
However, Sanchez hasn't been playing like a true cleanup hitter for awhile. In fact, his offense had become downright unplayable before he went on the injured list with a groin strain. Since June 23, he has just 10 hits, one home run, a triple slash of .118/.194/.176 and a putrid -2 wRC+. That's not Gary Sanchez.
There are a couple of key reasons behind Sanchez's slump. The most obvious differences are a major decline in his exit velocity and launch angle coupled with a significantly higher chase rate. Sanchez's best attribute as a hitter is that he hits the ball hard. Among players with at least 120 batted-ball events, Sanchez has the 22nd-highest exit velocity (91.9 mph) and has the second-highest rate of "barrels" per plate appearance (12.5 percent) in the league.
However, those numbers dramatically declined during Sanchez's slump. Sanchez's exit velocity in July was below 90 mph, which is just the sixth time that has happened in Sanchez's 17 Major League months. He also only "barreled up" 5.1 percent of the balls he hit in July, easily the lowest total of his career. For whatever reason, Sanchez clearly did not hit the ball hard during his skid.
Why is that? For one, Sanchez's plate discipline declined over that stretch. Perhaps getting a bit too aggressive at the plate, Sanchez's swing percentage climbed to 47 percent in July, a figure he's only eclipsed four times. Interestingly, two of those months were also periods where his exit velocity dropped to the 80s. For reference, Sanchez's career swing percentage is 45.5 percent.
Sanchez's chase rate also skyrocketed to 37.1 percent during July. Only once before has Sanchez's monthly chase rate been higher (July 2017, another month noted as a Sanchez slump). To put this number in context, Sanchez's career chase rate is 31.9 percent.
Sanchez's waning plate discipline likely stems from his recent struggles against the fastball. Historically, Sanchez has been a fastball masher - 60 of his 95 career home runs have come off heaters. However, he's been behind on the fastball these last two months. Sanchez has just two dingers on fastballs since June, compared to 14 before that. He's also whiffing more on the heat, not a good sign for such a good fastball hitter.
It's imperative for the Yankees that Sanchez figures it out. He's not toast by any means - he just needs to start hitting the fastball again like he has for his entire career. Once that happens, his plate discipline should improve and Sanchez will be back to being the Yankees' top power hitter. A rebound for Sanchez down the stretch could be the x-factor for a Yankees lineup short on healthy sluggers.