By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
2016 season (Minors): 71 G, 284 AB, .282 BA, 10 HR, 50 RBI, 7 SB, .807 OPS
2016 season (Majors): 53 G, 201 AB, .299 BA, 20 HR, 42 RBI, 1 SB, 1.032 OPS
Entering the 2016 season, the name Gary Sanchez was a familiar one to Yankees fans who followed the team’s farm system, but he was far from a wholesale name. By the end of the year, fans were flocking to Yankee Stadium just to get a glimpse of Sanchez, who invigorated a fan base looking for hope for the future with a historic power display.
In what turned into a rebuilding year in the Bronx, Sanchez was one of a number of Yankee call-ups. Sanchez had long been a top prospect for the team, entering many prospect rankings in 2011 when he was just 18 and beginning his second pro season. An international signing out of the Dominican Republic at 16 years old, Sanchez showed promise right away by clubbing 35 homers as a teenager over two seasons at various Class A levels.
Sanchez’s rise up the ranks was far from meteoric, as his progress remained a bit stagnant when he advanced to Double-A in ‘13 and ‘14. His batting average was low and he was going through some growing pains as a catcher, and many thought his future may just be at designated hitter. Sanchez’s stock fell to the point where he dropped out of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list for the first time entering the ‘15 season. That year things got back on track, as he finally made the jump to Triple-A and finished the year with a .274/.330/.485 line in 92 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
Sanchez had not only found his stride at the plate, but he also greatly improved on his catching abilities. After putting together a strong 71 games at Triple-A to start the year he was called up for good on Aug. 3 following a trade deadline in which the Yankees were “sellers” for the first time in years. Sanchez got off to a modest start before taking off like a rocket while splitting time with Brian McCann at DH and catcher.
Beginning Aug. 10 — when Sanchez clubbed his first Major League home run — Sanchez hit 20 home runs and nine doubles with an incredible .309/.390/.697 line in just 47 games to close out the year. Seemingly everything Sanchez hit during his run last year was hit hard, and he was making adjustments at the plate as pitchers tried different ways of pitching to him. Per Fangraphs, Sanchez’s HR/FB (home run to fly ball rate) was a ridiculous 40% (Ryan Braun led the lead with 28.8%) and his Hard-Hit Rate was 41.8%, which would put him 12th in the league just ahead of Mike Trout and right behind Giancarlo Stanton. Given the incredible plate discipline he showed last year, it’s going to take a lot for pitchers to start fooling Sanchez.
Sanchez isn’t just a one trick pony, either. To go along with his incredible bat, Sanchez has one of the better arms in the league among catchers, throwing out 41 percent of potential base-stealers last season.
What Sanchez did to end last season was historic, and the odds of him keeping up his ridiculous home run pace from last year are slim. But while the threat of a sophomore slump exists for every young player, there’s little reason to believe Sanchez should fall victim to anything other than a slight dip in power production and batting average. ZiPS projections have him hitting 27 homers with a .255 average and an .803 OPS with a 3.4 WAR (second among catchers only to Buster Posey). Steamer projections are even more bullish, with 27 homers, a .268 average, .820 OPS and 4.0 WAR.
When the Yankees traded McCann to Houston in November, they handed over the catching crown to Sanchez. New York has been looking for its catcher of the future since the last few years of Jorge Posada’s career, with prospects falling by the wayside and stopgaps Russell Martin and Brian McCann never truly achieving the heights desired by the organization. It looks as though the Yankees may finally have their man behind the plate in Sanchez.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.