Sports

Gary Sánchez Is Raking, And Right On Time

Gary Sánchez was a huge prospect at 16, scuffling in Double-A at 22, and is hitting like a star in the bigs at 23. He's not late. This is just how it works.

by Rian Watt
Sep 8 2016, 1:40pm

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

On the first day of scout school, they tell you that development isn't linear. By the second day of scout school, if you're like most scouts, you've forgotten the lesson already. And it will stay forgotten, mostly, until someone like Gary Sánchez comes along to remind you of it.

Two years ago, Baseball Prospectus asked of a struggling Sánchez still mired in Double-A, whether "all the time in the world" would be enough for him to meet his enormous potential. Today, Sánchez is hitting .348/.423/.713 for a New York Yankees squad in the thick of the playoff race. Development isn't linear, and Gary Sánchez has arrived.

The first thing they talk about is his body. At age 16, one major-league scout reported, the Dominican-born Sánchez already had the strength of a grown man, especially in his massive chest and upper arms. He's filled out since then, and at 6'2", 230 pounds is in the Big Boy Club by any definition. But it's that upper-half strength that still gives him exceptional pop to right-center field (opposite field, for him) and that will—in the eyes of every observer I spoke to—help him live in the 20-25 homer range at the big-league level. For a catcher, that's an All-Star.

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The problem, insofar as there is any problem to speak of with a 23-year-old catcher hitting the way Sánchez is hitting, is twofold. First of all, it wasn't clear, until quite recently, that Sánchez would be able to remain at catcher long-term. His arm was always elite—two separate observers put it at 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and that's saying something—which definitely helps. But he'd run into significant difficulty in polishing—or, in some cases, developing at all—the finer points of the position. The skills just weren't there.

That's changed. Sánchez still isn't anything approximating a Gold Glove backstop—see Willson Contreras's development path for an example of a prospect who has turned things around a little bit more behind the plate—but he's left lingering concerns about his maturity and work ethic firmly behind him, and now seems committed to keeping himself in the physical and mental shape he'll need to maintain in order to maximize his value for the Yankees and become the player scouts projected back when he was just a collection of potential and tools. Maybe there was a lightbulb moment, as sometimes happens. Maybe Sanchez is just not 22 any more. Development isn't linear, remember?

Sanchez has shown better-than-expected skills behind the plate. Photo by Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The other question about Sánchez going forward is the bat. Not the power, which by this point is a matter of public record, but the streakiness and bat-to-ball skills. As recently as last year, Sánchez was known as a guy who'd adjust his stance and approach from plate appearance to plate appearance, or even swing to swing. That, like his catching, was sometimes ascribed to youthful immaturity: Sánchez didn't seem to want to put in the work required to develop a consistent approach at the plate, and as a result would wing it against pro pitching far too often. For someone like, say, Jason Heyward—an astute student of the game and incredible athlete also known for regular swing tinkering—that can work, because it's informed by conscious choices. Sánchez just didn't seem to have a plan.

Well, he has a plan now. His walk rate—just under 11 percent, through Wednesday's action—is higher than it's been in all but one year of his career to date, and his strikeout rate is at or below where it's been throughout the minors. Those might well change, and likely not for the better, as the league adjusts and stops giving Sánchez quite so many breaking pitches down and out of the zone; he's managed to lay off those, so far, so they probably won't keep coming much longer. Still, it's a very good sign for the Yankees that Sánchez has succeeded to this point in his Major League career on the back of his approach and not purely on talent. The talent's always been there. The approach has not, and it's what will carry him going forward.

In other words, he is not the Colorado Rockies' rookie shortstop Trevor Story. Story was never particularly well thought of in the minors, despite his power and reasonable performance, because he had one major, obvious flaw—a stunningly high strikeout rate—that was expected to hold him back. His tremendous start in the majors—which was highlighted beyond its due because it came at the very beginning of the season—was more about a man playing at the outer extremity of his true talent level than any kind of sustainable improvement; he hit 21 home runs in the first half of the season, and six in the second before an injury on July 30th landed him on the DL. His talent is impossible to miss, but it also isn't enough to keep him afloat when the approach is inconsistent.

That's unlikely to be Sánchez's fate. Like Jesus Montero before him, he's one of those guys who was a prospect for so damn long that it was tempting to write him off as yesterday's news before he even had a chance to prove himself. Some scouts and prospect-watchers did just that. Sánchez will not maintain the ludicrous batting average he's putting up right now—very few players in the game's history have even come close—but he could easily settle in as an average bat with significantly above-average power, and play competent enough defense behind the plate that the Yankees will be able to keep him back there for quite some time. Success has been a long time coming for Sánchez, but he's here now. Of course it didn't happen one linear step forward at a time. It never does.

Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the fact that Trevor Story had been injured in the second half of the 2016 season.