To the shock of many around baseball, “The Kraken” has been tamed so far in 2018. Before hitting the shelf with a groin injury in late June, Gary Sanchez had been in the midst of an extended scuffle at the plate. While often at the forefront of critique for his lackluster defensive showing down the stretch in 2017, Sanchez’s offensive struggles have dumbfounded many in the baseball industry. After a historically dominant multiple-month power surge in his 2016 rookie season, Sanchez backed it up with an outstanding 2017 season, to the tune of a .278/.345/.531 line, and he clobbered 33 HR, despite only playing in 122 games due to injury. Sanchez also carried an elite .253 ISO and 130 wRC+ last season, which makes his struggles in this campaign all the more shocking. 2018 has been a disaster of a season so far for Sánchez; he’s slashing .190/.291/.433, accompanied by a decline in his HR/FB% from his stellar career average of 26.1% to 18.4%. Boasting a disappointing 97 wRC+ and .313 WOBA before the injury, Gary Sanchez has largely spent his season searching for answers.
When addressing a player’s stat-line it’s imperative to look at the big picture: Sánchez’s K% is slightly higher in 2018 (23.8%) than 2017 (22.9%), as one might expect from a large decrease in batting average, but this 3.93 % increase in K% doesn’t explain anything as astronomical as an 88-point Batting Average drop-off. Sanchez’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is unsustainably low, currently sitting at .194, despite has career average of .278. While BABIP is dependent on many variables, such as Exit Velocity, Launch Angle Composition, Hang Time, Type of Hit, Defensive Shifts, etc, much of the short-run variance of the metric can be attributed to chance. While Sanchez’s outputs for many of main variables have veered off par from the past in 2018, none of these changes should account for anything close to a 30.2% lower BABIP than what his career average is. Further evidencing the misfortune that has slandered Sanchez’s numbers is that the backstop is carrying an xwOBA of .368, still well above the MLB average of .317 in this category. Some of the Gary Sanchez extended slump can definitely be attributed to horrific luck. His Average Exit Velocity has undergone an insignificant 0.55% decrease— nothing to be too concerned with. However, I was alarmed by seeing that his Average Launch Angle is up from 13.2 degrees in ‘17 to 15.3 degrees this season, given his previously historic HR/FB rates, so I delved its composition.
The problem isn’t so much that Gary has seen his average Launch Angle rise, it’s that his launch angle has been all over the place in 2018: it deviates in all different directions from what it’s been the past two seasons. His ideal xwOBA seems to be somewhere in the range between 20 degrees and 35 degrees, but Gary has been hitting at launch angles that have produced poor xwOBAs (both lower and higher than his ideal launch angle range). Gary’s 2017 Launch Angle %/xwOBA reveals that he was hovering around this range with a large percentage of his swings (the 8 most frequent ranges of 5 Degrees for Sanchez’s swings also happened to be his 8 best xwOBAs and they connect to form the territory of the launch angles from 0 degrees through 40 degrees. Gary’s been below Launch Angles of 0 Degrees and above 40 degrees much more frequently this year, with his 45 degree mark (Sanchez hasn’t homered in his career on any swing with a Launch Angle in this range) being his most frequent range (8.1%), up from the 3.2% last season and 5.7% the previous year. The portion of Gary’s struggles in his control shouldn’t be attributed to his higher average Launch Angle, they should be directed to his increase in frequency of connecting outside his optimal range, which is the real difference between his stellar offensive track record and current output.
I was curious how Sanchez’s HR/FB% could be so much lower this season than from the rest of his career, so this Launch Angle dilemma immediately caught my attention. Accompanied by his altered Launch Angle composition has been an increase in FB% (from 36.6% in ‘17 to 45.0% this season) and a decrease in LD% (from 21.1% in ‘17 to 14.2%). Gary’s IFFB% is also way up from 10.8% last season to 21.1% so far in this campaign. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, there isn’t explanation for why this has happened to one of the games premier HR hitters, but it’s resulted in a significant drop off in Sanchez’s HR/FB%, and limited his production across the board.
Another factor in Sanchez’s extended ’18 slump may be his aggressiveness at the plate. While his BB% has jumped from 7.6% to 11.7% since last season, he hasn’t brought the same aggressive mindset into his at-bats, in general. Sanchez has been more tentative with ambushing pitches in 2018, as his 1st Pitch Swing Rate is down from 29.2% to 24.9%, and his overall swing rate (both O-Zone Swing% and Zone Swing% have been lower than last season) is down from 47.9% to 43.8%. For a player of his abilities, Gary Sanchez has some ugly offensive numbers to begin 2018, due to a combination of poor luck, an ill-fated change in his Launch Angle composition, and increased selectivity at the plate.
I am a rising sophomore LHP at Macalester College (St. Paul, MN), and an avid baseball fan.