Jesus Montero is still just 26 years old, and he’s having a pretty decent season at the plate. He’s batting over .300, and he has his OBP close to .350 and his slugging percentage close to .450. All things considered, that’s not a bad campaign. But for the fact that Montero has spent the summer in Triple-A, and he’s split his time between first base and DH. He’s mostly been the DH.
It’s hard to believe now that Montero spent three consecutive years within the Baseball America prospect top-10. Though the pop remains in his bat, there’s pretty much nothing else to speak of, and Montero has stood as a cautionary tale to those who’ve been high on Gary Sanchez. Not only did they rise through the same system — Montero and Sanchez have had similar roles and similar strengths, with similar criticisms and similar questions. They even made similar first impressions. At least for the time being, Montero is there to keep Sanchez fans grounded.
Yet Gary Sanchez is no Jesus Montero. I get that the parallels are many. But the profiles are dramatically different. Sanchez is looking like he can hit. Even more importantly, Sanchez is looking like he can catch.
If there’s one thing Montero’s always had, it’s easy power. When he lines a pitch up, he can put a charge into it. In that way, Sanchez is very similar. Sanchez also has upper-level raw strength, and it’s been impossible to miss his eight big-league home runs. Acknowledging that his sample is small, I’ve gathered from Baseball Savant that Sanchez ranks in the 97th percentile in average exit velocity on batted balls in the air. He doesn’t end up with too many mis-hits. Here’s just one of his impressive early dingers:
So Sanchez can maim a baseball. This isn’t necessarily new information, but now he’s started to do it in the majors. If I had to offer some criticisms, I’d say first that Sanchez hasn’t generated a lot of consistent loft. His flatter swing plane could cause him to fall short of his power ceiling. Montero has also struggled with that issue, not that it’s permanent, and also not that it’s terrible. Teams and hitters are happy with line drives. Good contact is good contact.
In addition, Sanchez seems like a pull guy. At least, he’s not an opposite-field guy. Here’s a 2016 spray chart from MLB Farm, blending Sanchez’s time in the majors and the minors:
Sanchez does a lot of hitting off his front foot, and when his hips get turning, he doesn’t make it easy for himself to punch a ball to right. Here is an opposite-field double off Jered Weaver, but you can tell the ball didn’t go quite where Sanchez wanted it to:
Sanchez, I’m sure, is going to run into some adjustment problems, unless he discovers right field. The way he shifts his momentum forward causes him to commit pretty early, and that can have an effect on his discipline. Sanchez probably won’t walk a ton, at least for a while. He’ll have some ugly strikeouts and rolled-over grounders. Peak Sanchez should look more polished, and that’ll take some progression. The current swing has vulnerabilities.
But of course there are vulnerabilities — Sanchez is a 23-year-old rookie catcher. You wouldn’t expect that he’d have everything figured out. He’s probably still playing on adrenaline, and at the end of the day, this is a powerful hitter with roughly average bat-to-ball skills. There’s a lot about Sanchez’s offensive game to like, whether he ends up someone with a wRC+ of 100 or 125. The key for Sanchez is that his own bar is lower, and it’s lower because he’s an actual backstop. This is the huge, huge difference between him and Montero. As a catcher, Montero was faking it. Sanchez is the real deal.
Maybe he wasn’t always; maybe there used to be some work-ethic or maturity concerns. I can’t speak to those. But statistics are blind, and they make it look like Sanchez took a legitimate leap forward in 2015. Over at Baseball Prospectus, they have pitch-framing information for both the major and the minor leagues. The information for the minors is worse, simply because the supporting data is more limited, but there is real signal there. Let me now show you how Sanchez has ranked as a receiver:
- 2015, Double-A: 82nd percentile
- 2015, Triple-A: 83rd
- 2016, Triple-A: 88th
- 2016, Majors: 85th
You could argue that each individual sample is limited, but together they paint a compelling picture — at each stop, Sanchez has ranked in the upper fifth. He’s so far carried that into the majors, so he has to be doing something right. Just observationally, he’s pretty quiet:
And while he can get handcuffed, he still keeps himself fairly steady, and this can improve with better familiarity with the pitching staff.
I wouldn’t say that Sanchez is an elite receiver, but at the very least, he’s average, where Montero was a nightmare. Pitchers aren’t going to mind throwing to Sanchez. He isn’t going to cost them strike after strike. And then there’s the matter of Sanchez’s throwing arm. This is kind of a mixed bag — we know that Sanchez has a good arm, but we also know that the running game is mostly on the pitchers. So, Sanchez, to some extent, will be only as good at controlling the running game as his pitching staff. Yet Sanchez was successful in the minors. With the Yankees, he’s already thrown out five of seven would-be base-stealers. Brian McCann is at 14 out of 61. Austin Romine is at three out of 23. Sanchez has shown off an accurate cannon, which is the most terrifying kind of cannon:
Not shown: Sanchez has also thrown out Mike Trout, even though the throw itself bounced. You don’t want a throw to bounce, but the pitcher was kind of in the way, and it says something that Trout was out anyhow. Sanchez throws well, and — just as importantly — he’s quick to his feet. In baseball parlance, there’s nothing wrong with his pop time. Jesus Montero caught 13 runners out of 94.
I understand why Montero’s name comes up. I even understand that Sanchez might end up a Montero sort of hitter. It’s not impossible. The approaches are similar. Montero was never short on power. Yet Sanchez ought to be better than that, because Sanchez has demonstrated he’s a harder worker. And in large part because of that effort, Sanchez has turned himself into a legitimate defensive catcher. That’s something Montero could never do, and as a big-league career goes, that’s a total game-changer. When you can’t catch, you have to hit. When you can catch, offense is a luxury. Sanchez catches. For now, Sanchez also hits. Slumps will come, and we’ll see how they’re conquered, but Gary Sanchez is very much on his own track, and it promises to lead to a striking destination.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.