Gary Sanchez Squashing the 'Lazy' Label with 2019 Yankees Superstar Rebirth

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 26, 2019

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 19:   Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees watches the flight of his first inning three run home run against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With respect to certain Marvel and HBO properties, the most shocking plot twist of 2019 might be Gary Sanchez's emergence as the New York Yankees' rock.

Because of an injury epidemic that's claimed Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Luis Severino and others for significant stretches, the Yankees have had a more trying season than their 50-28 record and first-place standing in the American League East indicate.

Out of all the reasons they've not only survived but also thrived, perhaps the biggest is what Sanchez has done next to and from behind home plate.

The 26-year-old catcher—whose own time on the injured list with a calf injury in April was mercifully brief—has belted 23 long balls. He also boasts a .951 OPS that ranks third behind only Mike Trout and Carlos Santana.

Sanchez's defense hasn't been as impressive, particularly with regard to a struggle to frame pitches that Zach Kram of The Ringer covered well June 11. Yet his issues with passed balls and wild pitches have all but evaporated, and he's made some impressive plays (e.g., this one) with his arm.

Sanchez can't take all the credit for keeping the Yankees afloat amid their many injuries. Among his fellow hitters, DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit have done their part too. Out of the team's pitchers, Masahiro Tanaka, Aroldis Chapman and Adam Ottavino have been steadily dominant.

But even if Sanchez isn't the Yankees' Most Valuable Player through the first three months of 2019, he's at least their Most Pleasant Surprise.

Sanchez did not, after all, have a good time in 2018.

After posting a .923 OPS and cranking 53 home runs in 175 games across 2016 and 2017, he played in only 89 contests and hit .186 with a .697 OPS and 18 homers in 2018. He also led Major League Baseball in passed balls for a second straight season.

Sanchez's defensive struggles were merely the latest variation on a familiar theme. He faced frequent criticism of his attitude and energy level as he rose through the minors. And despite calling out Sanchez's need to improve defensively in August 2017, Joe Girardi was reportedly ousted from the manager's chair after that season in part because he wasn't hard enough on his catcher.

The Yankees hired Aaron Boone as Girardi's replacement in hopes that he would get through to Sanchez, yet even he had to resort to public criticism in 2018. Notably, he emphasized in June that Sanchez needed to be more "proactive" with his conditioning.

The general ugliness of Sanchez's 2018 season came to a head in a July 23 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, wherein his lack of hustle on a ground ball resulted in the final out:

That was a last straw for many in the media, as he was ripped for "lollygagging" and generally being "lazy." One scout, meanwhile, went so far as to suggest that the Yankees would be better off with Austin Romine behind the plate come October.

"I just don't know if I can trust Sanchez behind the plate, and I know I can't trust him to run hard," the scout told Randy Miller of NJ.com.

Of course, the hubbub should have died down when it was revealed a day later that Sanchez had aggravated a groin strain in the first inning of that contest. He also didn't keep the Yankees from winning 100 games, and he had defenders within the team's clubhouse.

All the same, Sanchez exited the 2018 season with some dignity to reclaim in 2019. His path toward doing so only got more crooked when he underwent left shoulder surgery in November.

Sanchez nonetheless got a head start on rewriting his reputation. He did much of the hard work on his own by getting into better shape ahead of spring training. He also left Boone impressed when the skipper paid a visit to the Dominican Republic over the winter.

"I do feel like there's been a growth and maturity there that comes out when I'm around him and talk to him now," Boone said, per James Wagner of the New York Times. "There's a real hunger to go out and show the world what a real player he is."

Still, regarding Sanchez's defensive reinvention, the cure is perhaps worse than the disease. Although he's been more athletic behind the plate, the drop-off in his framing is severe enough to place him among baseball's worst overall defensive catchers, according to Baseball Prospectus.

Offensively, however, the new-and-improved Sanchez is more than answering the call.

He's still a slugger first and a hitter second, but it's hard to argue that he should change his ways while his hard-hit rate is through the proverbial roof. The same goes for his rate of "barrels" per plate appearance, which is an MLB-high 16 percent.

Sanchez hasn't fundamentally changed his approach, but he has a better idea of what's good for him when he swings. He's tended to run into extra-base hits when he's gotten his arms extended on pitches out over the plate. Compared to 2018, that's where the bulk of his swings are taking place in 2019:

Images courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

It was plenty obvious between 2016 and 2018—he averaged 107.1 mph and 412 feet on his homers—that Sanchez had extraordinary raw power packed into his 6'2", 230-pound frame.

That power is now completely unleashed, as he's infusing his batted balls with high launch angles and high exit velocities like nobody else:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Sanchez would be a better overall hitter if he drew more walks or made more contact. But as a result of his transformation, he's arguably the best pure power hitter in the American League. 

Sanchez's revival would potentially be little more than a B plot in the Yankees' season if Judge, Stanton and/or Severino were healthy and productive from day one. But since that hasn't been the case, Sanchez has often been in the spotlight, as he's helped carry the Yankees.

Compared to the way he's gotten into the spotlight in the past, it's a welcome change of pace. 

                                 

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant.

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