Gary Sanchez Shows Some Punch

In a game that will be remembered more for a bench-clearing seventh-inning brawl between the beasts of the AL East — we’ll get to that, you blood-lusting rubberneckers — Gary Sanchez scored some points with a few swings of the bat himself on Wednesday night against the Red Sox. While the early struggles of reigning NL MVP and Bronx newcomer Giancarlo Stanton have gotten more attention, it was the Yankees’ 25-year-old catcher who owned the dubious title not just as the team’s coldest hitter, but as the majors’ single worst batting title-qualified player in terms of both wRC+ and WAR. Whether it was the intimate confines of Fenway Park, the struggles of the Red Sox pitching staff, or the inevitability of positive regression, by the fourth inning of the Yankees’ 10-7 victory, Gary got his groove back, at least for one night. Sanchez clubbed two homers and added a double, driving in four runs and more than doubling his season totals in hits, homers, and RBI.

Sanchez, who last year led all major-league catchers with 33 homers and a 130 wRC+ while batting .278/.345/.531, began the 2018 season in a 2-for-36 skid. Through Tuesday, his positive contributions at the plate could be counted on Mordecai Brown’s pitching hand: an RBI double off the Blue Jays’ John Axford on Opening Day, a two-run homer off the Rays’ Blake Snell on April 4, and a hit-by-pitch against the Orioles’ Darren O’Day on April 5. He went 0-for-17 between the first two hits, and 0-for-15 between the latter one and Wednesday’s game. Since he hadn’t drawn a single walk, that hit-by-pitch juiced his batting line all the way to .056/.081/.167. That’s a -42 wRC+, which is something closer to an ASCII approximation of a smashed fly than it is a comprehensible comparison to league average. He entered Wednesday as one of eight qualifiers with a negative wRC+

The Upside Down
Gary Sanchez Yankees 37 .056 .081 .167 -42
Logan Morrison Twins 30 .074 .167 .111 -22
Jose Iglesias Tigers 33 .069 .182 .103 -15
Jason Kipnis Indians 46 .098 .196 .122 -9
Kevin Kiermaier Rays 35 .094 .171 .156 -7
Byron Buxton Twins 35 .171 .171 .200 -7
Lewis Brinson Marlins 51 .149 .200 .149 -6
Randal Grichuk Blue Jays 39 .086 .154 .200 -6
All stats through April 10.

Sanchez had some good company in this particularly decrepit Small Sample Theater: a guy who hit even more homers last year (Morrison), two of the game’s best defensive center fielders (Kiermaier and Buxton, who is apparently constitutionally incapable of hitting major-league pitching before May 1), a top prospect (Brinson), and so on.

None of those other guys homered twice on Wednesday, though. Sanchez, facing a model of David Price that would soon depart with a possible hand injury, hit a first-pitch 89 mph cutter for a towering home run over the Green Monster. Both the YES Network cameras and J.D. Martinez lost track of the ball, but it was a no-doubter, with an exit velocity of 109 mph. In the third inning, Sanchez scorched a double down the left-field line (exit velo 97 mph) off reliever Bobby Poyner, and in the fourth, he hit a 412-foot two-run shot to left center off Heath Hembree (exit velo 108 mph). He grounded out in his other two plate appearances.

Obviously, at this stage of the season, the sample sizes are small for every player. In Sanchez’s case, they’re even smaller: after starting six of the first eight games behind the plate (while pinch-hitting and DH-ing in the other two), he left the Yankees’ April 6 game against the Orioles in the 14th inning due to a cramp in his right calf, understandable given the epic length of that contest. He missed the team’s next two games, benefited from an off day in the schedule, and then DH’d on Tuesday. Perhaps the breather helped him towards Wednesday’s breakout.

Where you might expect a player in such a deep slump to be striking out more frequently, that hasn’t been the case with Sanchez. His 16.2% K rate through Tuesday was down from 22.9% last year. His swing rates, both in and outside the zone, had barely budged, and both his 9.2% swinging-strike rate and 43.3% first-pitch-strike rate were actually well below last year’s marks. Those drops may well be transitory, as some of his batted-ball figures — including a 3.3% line-drive rate and 31.3% infield-fly rate — certainly are. (His five pop ups to date have already matched his total in 229 PA as a rookie in 2016; he hit 14 in 526 PA last year.) His .229 xwOBA was miles behind last year’s .388, because while he had hit nine balls in excess of 100 mph — as many as Aaron Judge, and one fewer than Stanton — six of those produced ground balls, a total that was tied for 11th in the majors, three fewer than the leader, Nomar Mazara. Weep for the killed worms.

It remains to be seen whether one night was just a blip on the sonar of a much deeper slump or the beginning of Sanchez’s true talent coming to the surface, but at least his shiny new 40 wRC+ (.122.143/.390 line) is something we can understand without embarking upon an explanation of the square root of -1, though how a hitter can go 42 plate appearances without hitting a single single remains a mystery. As with Paul Goldschmidt, who homered for the second time in two days just hours after this was published, the further we get into the season, the more likely it is that the sluggers whose scuffles catch our eyes will revert to form.

Speaking of scuffling, it would be remiss of me not to provide a few clips of the big brawl for your viewing pleas — education, I mean. Education, because you need to be conversant in such affairs around the water cooler. The bad blood began in the third inning, when Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin spiked Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt on an aggressive slide into second base. Views on the propriety of the slide differed, of course, and for the Red Sox, the current absence of Dustin Pedroia due to knee surgery only amplified the reminder of last year’s Manny Machado-related mess.

The image below, taken from the video below that, suggests that while Austin’s slide was directed towards the bag, his left foot was indeed straying from the mission in a way that might lead to hurt feelings and more. The two players had a testy exchange after the play, and both benches cleared.

Here’s the full video, including Joe Kelly’s 98 mph heater to Austin’s back, which was reminiscent of Kelly’s 2013 NLCS-turning drilling of the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez (now his teammate, of course):

Austin, though emphatic with his slamming of the bat, was slow out of the box, but Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez’s pop time was even slower. (Statcast figures were not available at press time.) Kelly was ready to rumble.

The pitcher got in a couple of good shots at Austin’s back and neck as the primary combatants fell to the ground, but in the ensuing scrum, Austin landed some blows, too, helped by headlock from 6-foot-7 man-mountain Judge, who from the primary angle above appeared to be a peacemaker instead of an accomplice. Upon further review, nope.

Afterwards, Kelly called the plunking “a pitch that got away,” adding, “It’s not like I have Greg Maddux command.”

Austin’s command wasn’t so hot either. Here he’s wide of Kelly’s strike zone, landing a blow on the noggin of Boston third base coach Carlos Febles:

CC Sabathia, disabled list and all, wanted a front row seat to the action.

In the end, Kelly, Austin, Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin and reliever Tommy Kahnle were all ejected. No doubt Joe Torre will be busy lightening some wallets soon.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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6 years ago

What fixed Gary? Seeing David Price! (6-12 5 Hr)