The Passed Balls Are Gone, but Is Gary Sanchez a Better Defender?

The 2018 season was a messy one for Gary Sanchez, with an offensive showing that was among the worst in Yankees history, with not a lot of time for him to get into a good rhythm due to many injuries he suffered throughout the season. The 2018 season was also notable for Sanchez with a late-July controversy about his hustle after he failed to run out a ground ball on a misplay that ended the game. Most notable, however, was the great amount of passed balls and wild pitches that Sanchez allowed. Of all catchers to play at least 600 innings in the field in 2018, Sanchez led the pack with 18 passed balls despite playing only 653 innings at catcher, particularly notable because the top catchers in the league can play 1,000 or more innings at catcher in a single season.

Watching Sanchez in the field this season, that issue has seemed to resolve itself, as Sanchez is better than the league average for catchers this season in passed balls and wild pitches allowed. Seeing this improvement, I developed a theory about Sanchez that I was eager to test as the sample of innings got larger. Basically, I began to wonder if Sanchez has been so focused on improving his pitch blocking that he has begun to sacrifice pitch framing and if this change has made Sanchez an overall better defender than he was in 2018. Now, nobody from the Yankees or Sanchez himself has stated that this is the case, and it is good to see improvement from him in this area, but I wanted to know if these improvements are helping him overall. Passed balls are ugly and fans hate to see them because they are so visible and can directly cost a team runs, but framing is an important part of catching, and the impact of good framing can cancel out most blocking deficiencies.

Sanchez was an above-average framer last season, and despite his bad blocking, he was considered a better overall defender than guys like Brian McCann, Salvador Perez, and Francisco Cervelli by the Baseball Prospectus Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) metric. His -1.4 FRAA in 2018 ranked as not-great-but-not-bad at 85th out 117 catchers, while at the midpoint of the 2019 season, Sanchez and his -7.6 FRAA ranks 87th out of 91 catchers in the same metric. Knowing this, I felt like I could test out my theory.

To do this, I went to FanGraphs and got the relevant catching leaderboards for the 2019 and 2018 seasons. I then looked only at catchers who had a minimum of 600 catcher innings in 2018 as well as a minimum of 250 catcher innings in 2019. From there, I calculated the number of passed balls and wild pitches allowed by each catcher in both years. To add more context to these numbers, I then calculated passed balls + wild pitches as a percentage of each players’ total innings to create a standardized comparison. I then created two tables, including one that shows the catchers with the largest increases in passed ball + wild pitch rate and another that shows the catchers with the largest decreases in framing. First, here is the table showing the five catchers with the most improved blocking stats:

sanchez_update1

And here is the table showing the five biggest decliners in framing:

sanchez_update2

As suspected, Sanchez has made a great improvement in his pitch blocking this season, leading the next-best improver, Omar Narvaez, by almost two percentage points. Looking at the framing table, we see that Sanchez appears here, with the second-biggest decline in framing numbers from 2018 to 2019, and the only one of the top-five with negative framing. Alfaro, Grandal, Flowers, and Maldonado will probably still be positive at the end of the season, thus not costing their teams runs, but not saving more than the previous year. But knowing and seeing that Sanchez has been this poor at framing so far, the effect will probably only get worse by the end of the season.

While this shows how extreme Sanchez has been behind the plate this season, I don’t think that this alone is enough to answer my question about whether this has been an area of focus for Sanchez and the Yankees, and if Sanchez is actually a better defender because of it, or if it is just noise. To get closer to an answer, I decided to investigate Sanchez’s framing numbers for his entire career, as I don’t believe that framing skill can just disappear like this. I went back to Baseball Prospectus for this, as they have framing numbers for Sanchez’s minor league career. I decided to go back to 2014 for his minor league data, and I only looked at Double-A and Triple-A for his minor league blocking and framing numbers. The results are below:

sanchez_update3

Here you can see how much 2019 sticks out. During the time period here, we see that Sanchez has always been a good framer, especially in his first full MLB season in 2017, and it does confirm that in 2019, the only year so far in his big league career where he hasn’t been severely negative for blocking runs, his FRAA and his adjusted FRAA have been the lowest, and it is not even close. We are now in July, so it’s not early anymore and this sharp decline can’t be blamed on early-season weirdness. Sanchez has already been 5.9 fielding runs worse than last year. Compared to his last full season in 2017, Sanchez has been 14.1 runs worse. Even compared to 2016, where he only played 53 MLB games, Sanchez has been 8.1 runs worse than his 2016 season. If his 2019 FRAA were prorated to 1,000 innings, Sanchez would cost the Yankees approximately 17.1 runs, or close to 2 wins over the course of the season (-7.6 FRAA / 444.2 innings * 1000). Do you see the point? Ultimately, what this table shows is that even though Sanchez’s defense might look better this year because of the better pitch blocking, Sanchez has been a worse defender overall, driven primarily by his decrease in framing runs.

There could be more happening behind the scenes, and I will admit that this doesn’t ultimately prove that Sanchez should focus less on blocking and go back to focusing on framing, because we do not publicly know if this is something that the Yankees and Sanchez have been making a point of or not, or if the Yankees are okay with sacrificing framing runs. After all, Sanchez does appear to be more confident this season, with a great improvement in his hitting statistics combined with him no longer having to deal with constant criticism about his poor pitch blocking. This may still be a positive for Sanchez and the Yankees, even if the numbers don’t back it up, because a confident, mashing Sanchez is ultimately better for the team.

What this does do, however, is answer my question on whether Sanchez has been a better all-around defender this season. And based on what we do know, it does show that as bad as the passed balls may look, the thing that is more subtle that we cannot easily see, the pitch framing, is ultimately more important for Sanchez as a defender. So while Sanchez looked bad defensively last season, he actually was not as bad as we think, and if he has been focusing more on blocking to make his defense look better, it has made him a worse framer. After all, part of framing is manipulating how a catcher receives a pitch, and trying hard to do that could cost more pitches to get past that would normally be caught. I believe that if Sanchez was mostly playing defense like he did last year, he would be an overall better defender than he has been so far this season (although still not a great one).

The Yankees are fortunate to have the best hitting catcher in the league thus far in 2019, as Sanchez has a bat that can cancel out a lot of his defensive shortcomings. He currently has produced 2.0 fWAR in only 62 games played, which is good for sixth in baseball among catchers despite the defensive issues and limited plate appearances due to injury. That being said, I don’t think Sanchez’s defense is or should be the biggest concern for the Yankees, but I do believe the framing aspect should be something to keep in mind when evaluating his defense going forward.

We hoped you liked reading The Passed Balls Are Gone, but Is Gary Sanchez a Better Defender? by Matt Wallach!

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ScottyB
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Great article!
As someone who watches the majority of Yankees games, his struggles with WP and PB last year was excruciating. I know that analytics estimates and averages the values of these events across situations (e.g., 1 WP = +X run allowed). He was credited with -4.3 runs in 2018. However, I can count at least 8 instances of his miscues directly resulting in a run for the other team (and there are probably more). His is one instance of the results of his poor defense being worse than the standard metric.