clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Processing Gary Sánchez’s Unfathomable Hot Streak

The Yankees’ rookie catcher plays such good defense that he doesn’t need a big bat to be valuable. At the moment, though, he’s hitting like a Hall of Famer.

Getty Images
Getty Images

On July 24, the Yankees were two games over .500, 7.5 games out of first place in the AL East, and 4.5 games behind the Blue Jays in the race for the second wild card. With their playoff odds below double digits, they did something the Yankees never do: They sold, slashing their slim hopes of competing in 2016 to stockpile prospects for the future. In a sequence of transactions that started on the 25th, they traded the unhittable bullpen duo of Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, dealt their best (and almost their only) hitter in the first half of the season, Carlos Beltrán, and moved starting pitcher Ivan Nova to Pittsburgh. Later, they shed another starter, losing Nathan Eovaldi to Tommy John surgery.

That should have sealed their fate as the first sub-.500 Yankees squad since 1992. But because they’re the Yankees and they lead a charmed life, they’ve played better baseball since then; instead of plummeting in the standings, they’ve maintained the same gaps between them and the teams that added outside talent at the deadline. Today, the Yankees are four games over .500, still 7.5 out in the East and 3.5 out in the wild card. They’re still extremely unlikely to qualify for the playoffs, but they’re clinging to contention much longer than they had any right to, given their roster and their run differential (minus-12). And they owe much of their recent success to a 23-year-old rookie who wasn’t on the active roster when they decided to sell.

That rookie, Gary Sánchez, started at DH on Sunday, getting a break from his usual place behind the plate. In his 22nd start of the season, Sánchez went 2-for-4 with a double, one of only two Yankees with more than one hit as the team fell 5–0 to Baltimore. Good game, right? Go 2-for-4 with a double every day, and you’ll finish with a .500/.500/.750 slash line.

That game dragged his seasonal slugging mark down.

It’s been that kind of month for Sánchez, not that this was a kind of month players had had before him. The long-touted prospect, who made his big league debut by pinch hitting twice at the tail end of last season and then got into one game this May, came up for good on August 3. Since then, he’s been the best player in baseball. Despite spotting the rest of the league two days at the start of the month, he’s amassed more wins above replacement in August than any other player, per FanGraphs:

In his first five games back in the big leagues, Sánchez went 5-for-19 with no homers. In game no. 6, he started seeing the world as lines of scrolling code, tapping into some powerful force that couldn’t be contained. From August 10 through 27, a span of 15 games, Sánchez recorded a 97.5 mph average exit speed and hit 11 home runs, becoming the fastest player ever to 11 career homers (and the first rookie to be named Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks). The occasion calls for a GIF of every historic swing.

Over his most scorching subset of that sample, from his last plate appearance on August 15 (a single to center) through his fourth plate appearance on the 27th, Sánchez made 45 trips to the plate and posted a .541/.622/1.378 slash line — your standard 2.000 OPS. Sure, those are arbitrary end points, and no, there’s nothing inherently special about a span of 45 plate appearances. That said, this was not a normal hot streak. In fact, Sánchez was one of the top-10 hottest hitters over a streak of that length in the past 66-plus seasons.

I searched for streaks that surpassed Sánchez’s with the same tools I used to assess one of Bryce Harper’s hot streaks last season, when Harper had his own unbelievable run. Using a system set up by Baseball Prospectus’s Rob McQuown, I compared Sánchez’s performance over 45 plate appearances to every single-season span of 45 plate appearances since 1950, the first year for which BP stores play-by-play data. Each full-time player produces many strings of 45 plate appearances per season — his first PA through his 45th, his second through his 46th, his third through his 47th, and so on. McQuown’s query combs through every one of them, calculating each player’s performance over every one of his 45-PA periods according to true average, BP’s all-in-one offensive stat. True average adjusts for era, league, and park and permits more accurate comparisons across decades, putting everyone on a batting average-esque scale with a .260 league average.

The result: Sánchez’s streak showed up as the 53rd-best 45-PA performance out of several million such spans. And because many of the 45-PA periods ahead of his were overlapping streaks produced by the same players, the list looks even more exclusive if we remove the duplicate names.

Look at that list. It has two Hall of Famers (Mays and Ripken); a future Hall of Famer (Jones); two PED-tainted players at or near the top of the all-time home runs list (Bonds and Sosa); an underrated all-around stud who had a Hall of Fame peak but retired early (Wynn); a slugger with no defensive value but one of the 50 best bats in history (on a per-PA basis) among retired players (Howard); perhaps the most-hyped prospect in history, and the reigning NL MVP (Harper); and, um, Doug DeCinces. DeCinces’s name lacks the cachet of the others on the list, but it doesn’t dishonor the group: In 1982, the year he qualified for the list, he won a Silver Slugger award, finished third in AL MVP voting, and was, by wins above replacement player, the second-best player in baseball behind Robin Yount.

There are no flukes on this leaderboard. To make it at all puts a player in rarefied air. To make it as a catcher is incredible. And to make it as a rookie catcher, in one’s first extended exposure to big league pitching — after posting a respectable but far from eye-popping .807 OPS in Triple-A the same season — is almost unfathomable.

Sánchez, who landed a $3 million bonus as an amateur in 2009, needed that unreasonably strong start to quiet the complaints caused by unreasonably strong expectations. Baseball America has ranked the game’s top-100 prospects for 27 consecutive springs; in that period, Sánchez is one of only 20 players to appear on the list at least five times. (Another age-16 signee from the Dominican Republic, Miguel Sano — who signed the same year as Sánchez — is the only player to appear six times.) Career outcomes for the previous five-timers range from future Hall of Famer/historic-hot-streak-haver Chipper Jones on the high end, to injury-prone pitcher Adam Miller (who never made the majors) on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Sánchez stands out further in that he actually dropped off the list once in the midst of that stretch, falling out of the top 100 after a 2014 season marked by missed time and subpar performance. Only pitcher John Patterson, who had Tommy John surgery between his fourth and fifth appearances on the list, had previously appeared at least five times without all the appearances coming in consecutive years. Because Sánchez reached the national stage so young and repeatedly topped a thin system, his development seemed to take forever. In some cases, prospect fatigue is a real cause for concern, but Sánchez is still a baby by the standards of a position that tends toward late bloomers. For now, his hitting has silenced the whispers, although it might make them even louder if he doesn’t have a satisfactory sophomore follow-up.

This was the sort of hot streak that makes words like “unsustainable” sound silly. Really, the guy who put up a 2.000 OPS over 45 plate appearances is bound to slow down? Obviously, Sánchez will stop simmering soon; maybe his 1-for-4 performance in Kansas City on Monday night, with one measly single, signaled the coming cooldown. At present, Sánchez has a pull-oriented approach that could leave him vulnerable to experienced pitchers in his subsequent tours of the league, and his swing probably isn’t as tailored to fence-clearing as his early work would suggest. Despite the company he’s keeping in that hot-hitter top 10, FanGraphs’s projections peg him as an above-average batter for the rest of the season, but not an outstanding one.

Of course, Sánchez is young enough to improve upon those projections. Even if he settles in as the worst of the hitters to have a line on that leaderboard, though, he’s an adept enough defender to be very valuable. As former major league catcher and current Yankees catching coordinator Josh Paul told me and Michael Baumann on the latest episode of The Ringer MLB Show, Sánchez rededicated himself to defense last season, negating previous reports about problems with discipline. His work produced a player who looks very little like frequent early-career comp Jesús Montero.

Sánchez has the best arm strength of any big league catcher. Although big league base stealers have tested him only 12 times (seven of them have regretted it), he already appears poised to dominate the Statcast leaderboard for fastest throws the way Aroldis Chapman and Giancarlo Stanton dominate the leaderboards for hardest-thrown pitches and hardest-hit balls, respectively. Better yet, he’s a strong receiver: Baseball Prospectus credits his framing with 13 runs saved this season across Triple-A and the majors, and his minor league numbers from 2014 and 2015 tell similar stories. Sánchez’s bat might be special, but it won’t have to be as long as his defensive skills stay intact.

Four of the nine players above Sánchez in the hot-streak inner circle won a Rookie of the Year Award, but Sánchez will probably play too little to win in 2016 and too much to be eligible in 2017. Still, circumstances are conspiring to give him an outside shot. Some years, one league happens to get the bulk of the rookie talent; some years, the other league does. This is an NL-dominant season: According to data from FanGraphs, NL rookies have produced 44.8 WAR, compared to 25.6 for the AL crop. While the NL has a shoo-in Rookie of the Year candidate in Corey Seager (who’s also among the most deserving MVP picks), the AL lacks a standout close to Seager’s class. By FanGraphs WAR, Sánchez is one-tenth of a win behind Tigers starter Michael Fulmer for the AL rookie WAR lead; Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player gives Fulmer an edge of roughly half a win. Even if Sánchez ends the season with the superior WAR(P), Fulmer’s large lead in playing time is likely to convince voters. Nonetheless, a second-place finish would be quite an accomplishment for a player who was almost unseen before August.

At the very least, Sánchez’s success is a proof of concept for Yankees fans unused to the process of selling. Prior to Sánchez, the Yankees hadn’t had a hitter 23 or younger produce 2.0 WAR or more since Robinson Canó and Melky Cabrera did it a decade ago. Without the Beltrán trade, Brian McCann wouldn’t be a DH. And if McCann weren’t a DH, Sánchez couldn’t be catching at the major league level. The Yankees couldn’t have expected their youth movement to pay off so spectacularly, so soon, but by letting other teams take their veterans, they may have made the most memorable midseason pickup of all.