This past Sunday, Gary Sánchez was kept from behind the plate for the second straight day in favor of back-up catcher Austin Romine, even though it was a day game after a night game. It is rare for a catcher to play consecutive days in such a situation, which frequently happens from Saturday to Sunday.
Normally one would think that the sitting catcher might be nursing a minor injury or is just being given an extra day off. Yet it was reported that for Sánchez, this was not the case. Sánchez did DH on Saturday, but he was benched on Sunday due to perceived defensive struggles. This is what Manager Joe Girardi was quoted as saying:
"The start is not the message. The message came from us verbally that, 'Your defense needs to improve. That you need to get better. You need to work at it.' We have stressed how important it is. There are certain situations that some people may not think that something that happens in the game affects the next game. It could if it leads to 10 extra pitches for a reliever."
Sánchez did not contest Girardi’s criticism, only saying that he was “working hard” on it. Yankees GM Brian Cashman was quoted as saying that Sánchez put on a lot of muscle mass over the offseason. He clearly meant well, as Cashman said, but it made crouching behind home plate more difficult. It also had a negative effect on his agility, which makes blocking balls more difficult. That is where he is struggling the most. His 12 passed balls lead the majors.
Last year, after proving he was too good for Triple A, the Yankees called up Sánchez and he had a historic rookie season in only two months. He hit .299/.376/.657 with 20 HR, good for a whopping 171 wRC+ and 2.6 WARP. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Michael Fulmer even though Sánchez played only two months. Naturally regression came, and Sánchez is currently hitting .265/.339/.488 with 17 HR. His 119 wRC+ ranks sixth in the majors among catchers with at least 250 PA.
So here his the thing about catching. It is hard. It is really, really, really hard. That is why there is so much value put into it. That is why Jeff Mathis has been a major league player since 2005 even though he has a slash line of .199/.257/.310 and a career wRC+ that is just a smidgen lower than that of Zack Greinke. That beings said, Sánchez has a track record of being a quality receiver. One would think that with the comments Girardi made that he would have a far worse body of work.
Obviously there is more that goes into catching than just blocking balls. Sánchez has done well in controlling the run game with a career caught stealing rate of 38 percent. He is also a good framer, so if we factor that in using the advanced defensive metric at Baseball Prospectus we get a career 5.2 FRAA.
Yes, Sánchez does need to do a better job blocking balls in the dirt. His -1.1 blocking runs is tied for tenth-worst in baseball, but that number is deceiving. While blocking balls is certainly important, it just is not worth that many runs. Sánchez’s arm and framing skills more than making up for it. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the link above has a couple of notable names ranked by him: Yasmani Grandal and Tyler Flowers. Grandal has caught 708 innings and has a 107 wRC+. Flowers has caught 576 2⁄3 innings and has a 127 wRC+. They are much better at framing than Sánchez, but I am not aware of either of them being benched because because they have cost the team a whole run by not blocking pitches better.
And therein lies the point. It is great that fans and the media are gaining a greater appreciation for the importance of defense, but hitting will always be more important. Great defense can make up for a poor bat, but not to the degree that a great bat can make up for poor defense. As has been show here, Sánchez’s defense needs work, but not nearly to the degree that some might believe. He is likely to finish the season between 3.5 and 4.0 WARP.
Austin Romine, on the other hand, is a career .221/.266/.318 hitter. By career wRC+ he is barely better than Mathis. He is a career sub-replacement level player who adds little value defensively. His only valuable skill is that he can catch. Giving him playing time over Sánchez will cost the Yankees precious wins over the last two months of the season. Their playoff chances look good right now according to FanGraphs, but it is a tight race.
Matt Holliday is on the DL, so the Yankees can give Sánchez extra playing time at DH. Even if he is out for awhile, it does not take away from the fact that Sánchez will not improve his blocking and mental mistakes if he is not catching regularly. As has been demonstrated already, these are mistakes that are dwarfed by the combination of his production in other areas.
It also needs to be stated that Girardi’s comments were unfairly scrutinized by the New York media after Sunday’s game, specifically when it came to questions asked of Sánchez. Luis Severino pitched another great game, the struggling Aaron Judge hit a home run, yet reporters were overly focused on Sánchez’s benching over his defense. Trying to go after a young player in order blow something out of proportion and fabricate a narrative is something that should be below the standards of a reputable journalist.
Girardi shares the blame for this as well. I am not much of a soft factors guy, but in his comments to the media, he put his young catcher in a position to lower his confidence and his morale by making more of Sánchez’s defensive struggles than is really there. A manager of his experience should know better.
Gary Sánchez is a great player. His defense is not going to win any Gold Gloves, but it does not have to with his bat. Any deficiencies in his defense is not going to get better with less repetitions, especially when everybody knows why he is not getting those repetitions. Gary Sánchez needs to continue to be the primary catcher for the Yankees.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.