Gary Sanchez
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez had an awful 2018 season, but could be back with a vengeance this year.

Gary Sanchez is already a somewhat polarizing player on the New York Yankees and the 2018 season is a big reason why.

The young catcher missed two months with a nagging groin injury and generally underachieved. His hitting took a step back, his defense behind the plate was as expected, and the boo-birds showed up more often than not.

Sanchez’s season was so bad, it was even speculated he could be moved in a trade. Jon Heyman of Fancred reported back in November the Yankees were interested in Marlins backstop J.T. Realmuto. Nothing ever came of these talks, but one thing is certain. Gary Sanchez needs to have a strong 2019 season, and how.

The good news is, after looking at the numbers, the man we call “El Gary” should get back to normal this season.

A history of streakiness

Oh, how well we remember Gary Sanchez joining the everyday lineup. The Dominican backstop debuted via two random at-bats in 2015 but wasn’t a regular until late the following year. Sanchez then made a spot start in May 2016, and then joined the lineup for good on Aug. 3.

Next came a hot streak most only see in video games. At season’s end, Sanchez posted an excellent line of .299/.376/.657 and hit an astonishing 20 homers with 42 RBI. The man only played in 53 games, and still finished second behind Michael Fulmer in American League Rookie of the Year voting!

Fans, naturally, were excited. We had our true successor to Jorge Posada. We had a catcher whose pure hitting ability was lauded by all. He even had a fun nickname and when the 2017 campaign rolled around, every fan was thinking the same thing:

Unfortunately, Sanchez stumbled out of the 2017 starting gate. He batted just .150 with a homer and pair of RBI through his first five games before missing a month with a strained bicep. He came back to hit .300 with 12 home runs and 37 RBI across May and June, and then things turned ugly in July.

Sanchez hit just .231 that month with three homers and 12 RBI. It was also now apparent his defense behind the plate was an issue. His 16 passed balls led the majors that year and his defense was rumored to cause a rift between him and then-skipper Joe Girardi. However, he was back to his old self the next month and hit .294 the rest of the year, including 12 homers in August. He finished the year batting .278 with 33 longballs and 90 RBI, and 2018 was expected to be an equally successful year.

A forgetful season

How wrong we all were. Across the board, Sanchez had a 2018 to forget. On top of losing two months to injury, he batted an awful .186 despite 18 home runs and 53 RBI. No matter what adjustments he made, no matter where he was in the lineup, Gary Sanchez just couldn’t get it right.

Just as the Kraken had been released in years prior, he was barely present last year. Sanchez’s defense also didn’t improve as he committed an MLB-leading 18 passed balls, two up from 2017. Naturally, as Opening Day 2019 draws closer, there are some lingering concerns.

What happened?

The good news is after looking at the metrics, there is little reason to believe Gary Sanchez will struggle again in 2019. Let’s start with his batting line, .186/.291/.406. That’s not good. At all. Throw in the home run and RBI totals, and it looks like Sanchez is just a pure power hitter. If he’s not going yard, he’s making an out. There’s no in-between.

Except, Sanchez’s BABIP was only .197 and his hard contact was 35.5 percent. That’s just below his career rate of 37.4 percent and down from 2017’s mark of 36.9 percent, but even still. That indicates bad luck played a big role in Sanchez’s work as a hitter.

Now, let’s take a look at just how Sanchez was making contact with the ball. His pull rate, per Fangraphs, was virtually unchanged, and he actually hit to the opposite field more often than in 2017. 18.2 percent of his batted balls went to right field in 2018 compared to just 15.2 percent the year before.

But what stands out most is Sanchez’s line drive (LD%) and fly ball rates (FB%). His LD% dropped to 14.3 percent from 21.1 percent in 2017, while his FB% jumped to 42.9 percent from 36.6 percent. To this writer, in particular, that sounds like he was trying too hard to hit home runs instead of just focusing on being a great overall hitter. Thankfully, that’s easily fixable with minor adjustments.

What to expect in 2019

Throw all those numbers together, and the problem seems easy enough to diagnose. Gary Sanchez’s underachieving 2018 season came from a combination of plain bad luck and trying too hard to hit for power. He went after the long ball the way Jason Biggs did a prom date in American Pie.

And that’s understandable, especially since he has two dangerous home run hitters in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton as teammates. However, he must also prove in 2019 that last year was a fluke. He needs to show last year was Let It Be and he can regularly give Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-level production.

Oh, and let’s not forget Sanchez had left shoulder surgery back in November. That almost definitely played a role in his struggles. As to his defense, yes, the passed balls are a problem but not indicative of his overall skill as a defender. He actually has a career DRS of 10, posting a career-high mark of six last year. Passed balls aside, he’s a great catcher with an even greater arm, as he has thrown out 36 percent of base-stealers for his career.

Final thoughts

All in all, it makes sense why Yankees fans would be skittish about Gary Sanchez’s upcoming season, but all signs do point to a rebound. So long as he stops thinking too much about his at-bats, his 2019 should be excellent.

The man is good, pure and simple. Once he realizes that, everything else will be gravy.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.