Gary Sanchez
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

New York Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez finished the last two years on the downswing and his future could depend on a successful 2020 campaign.

Gary Sánchez is an exciting player.

Not since Jorge Posada have the New York Yankees employed a catcher who can hit so well. On top of that, Sánchez maintains a strong throwing arm behind the plate.

And yet, fans haven’t had the chance to see Sánchez reach his full potential. Since debuting with 20 home runs in just 53 games in 2016, each and every one of the Kraken’s seasons has featured some sort of setback.

He hit .278 with 33 homers and 90 RBIs in 2017, but only played in 122 games and struggled with passed balls. In 2018, two different calf injuries limited him to 89 games, as he hit just .186 on the year.

Last season was kinder to Sánchez, but not by much. The injuries and struggles continued, but we’ll discuss that more in a little bit.

The upcoming campaign offers the 27-year-old his potential last chance at a clean slate. Sánchez has a whole lot to prove in 2020, and his future might depend on it.

Reborn in 2019

Now, in fairness to Sánchez, his 2019 season was leagues better than the year prior. He upped his home run total from 18 to a career-high 34. After leading the majors with a combined 34 passed balls in 2017 and 2018, he had just seven last year.

But Sánchez ran into his usual problems. Calf and groin injuries limited him to just 106 games. After hitting .245 with 24 homers and 57 RBIs in the first half of the year, Sánchez slumped to a .207 mark after the All-Star Break despite ten home runs and 20 RBIs.

Sánchez also continued to struggle with strikeouts. His strikeout rate (K%), per Fangraphs, jumped to 28% from 25.1% in 2018. For further context, Sánchez’s K% also increased in 2018, up from 22.9% in 2017.

Sánchez also saw his walk rate (BB%) dip from 12.3% in 2018 to a paltry 9%.

To add insult to injury, Sánchez also vanished in the playoffs. He hit just .129 in nine games with a homer and three RBIs.

Sánchez may be the Kraken in name, but his tendencies to slump and strike out too much make him look more like a simple shrimp.

2020 and beyond

Now, let’s talk about Sánchez and his potential future. He and the Yankees avoided arbitration by agreeing on a $5 million salary for the 2020 season.

On top of that, it’s clear Sánchez is serious about having a strong year. Per Buster Olney of ESPN, he’s in the “best-shape-of-his-life club.”

Sánchez has also worked on a new receiving stance with Tanner Swanson, the Yankees’ new catching instructor. The reason for this is that while he improved his overall defense last year, it was at the expense of framing pitches low in the strike zone.

But what Sánchez must really improve, above staying healthy, is his hitting. This starts with using the whole field. He’s pulled 51.4% of his career batted balls, which includes pulling the ball 49.8% of the time last year. In 2019, only 20.7% of his batted balls went to the opposite field and only 17.3% have for his career.

Considering Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field — plus my mentioning of how it could help Sánchez improve — using the entire field should be one of his priorities entering 2020.

Money talks

Above all else, Sánchez must realize he’s playing for his future this year. His $5-million salary is surely worth it thanks to his powerful bat, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider the Yankees’ core. Star outfielder Aaron Judge, who’s earning $8.5 million in 2020, will soon be due a lucrative extension. The same goes for 23-year-old shortstop Gleyber Torres, who slugged a career-high 38 homers last year in his second season.

The Yankees also need to make decisions on impending free agents James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka. Moreover, general manager Brian Cashman gave star pitcher Gerrit Cole a $324 million contract in free agency.

Gerrit Cole, Cole Train T-Shirt

There’s also Giancarlo Stanton to consider, who can opt-out of the final seven years of his $325 million deal. It’s certainly possible, but it’s unlikely he’ll leave $208 million on the table, especially with his injury history.

Needless to say, there isn’t enough money to go around for everyone, and Sánchez has to work the hardest to prove he deserves a cut.

Otherwise, fans should probably start paying attention to two-way prospect Anthony Seigler.

Final thoughts

All in all, Sánchez’s 2020 season rides almost entirely on two things: health and hitting. On top of staying out of the trainer’s room, he needs to take a significant step forward at the plate.

This means cutting down on the strikeouts, upping the walks, and not just pulling the ball by default. He must use the whole field and prove that he’s more than just a home run threat.

If Sánchez can improve these aspects of his game, the debate is settled. He will be a Kraken who strikes fear into the Pirates of the Caribbean, Penzance, and Dark Water. It’s really just a matter of committing to a plan for the season and sticking with it.

How that plan comes to fruition is ultimately up to Sánchez himself.

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.