After completing projections for both Ray’s Top 20 First Baseman and Second Baseman earlier this month, it’s time I circle back to Ray’s original Top 20 of the off season – Catchers. When it was decided that I’d run the projections for these lists, I wanted to start with the positions I felt were "more fun". Nothing against catchers, but most of the numbers won’t wow you in an overall fantasy baseball context. Of course, if you compare catchers to catchers you can see obvious tiers and standout players, but there’s still just something about the position that isn’t all that exciting.
Luckily, much like with Trea Turner in the second base rankings, we have the opportunity to create a projection for a young, up-and-coming, player at the catcher position in Gary Sanchez. The relatively unknown production level of these players make the projection process more challenging, but also provides a platform to break down the projection process for players with limited Major League data.
With 201 at-bats at the big-league level in 2016, Gary Sanchez hit 20 home runs, scored 34 runs, drove in 42, while triple slashing an impressive .299/.376/.657 line. At the AAA level in 2016 Sanchez also contributed 10 long balls, coupled with 39 runs and 50 RBI, while hitting .282/.339/.468 in 71 games.
As we begin the projection process the first data point we must determine is the total number of plate appearances Sanchez will receive next season. RosterResource currently has Sanchez pegged as the Yankee’s number 3 hitter. Off season acquisitions could change this, but I feel it’s safe to project Sanchez as a middle of the order hitter next year. I decided to look at Brian McCann’s plate appearance totals for the last three seasons to get an idea of how Joe Girardi likes to use his primary catcher. During this time frame McCann received 538, 535 & 492 plate appearances, respectively. With Sanchez pegged as the everyday catcher next year and the DH spot more readily available in 2017 as well, a 545-plate appearance projection feels about right at this point in the off season.
Next, we’ll look at the rates in which Gary Sanchez hits doubles and triples, along with how often he’s hit by a pitch and able to deliver a sacrifice fly.
Last season Sanchez hit a double once every 16.75 at-bats at the big-league level. This figure is quite consistent with his minor-league track record as well. Sanchez did not hit a triple during his time in the major leagues last season and has only four triples in his minor-league career. Therefore, we’ll use 17.7 AB/2B and 920 AB/3B for our projection engine.
Moving along, Sanchez was hit by a pitch once every 114.5 plate appearances in the major leagues last year. This too is quite consistent with his minor-league numbers, as his rate figure has floated between 63 and 146 PA/HBP. Oddly enough, Sanchez also had a 114.5 PA/SF (plate appearance per sacrifice fly) in 2016. In the minor-leagues Sanchez also displayed this skill, keeping his PA/SF rate steady. For our 2017 projection, we’ll use rates of 120 PA/HBP & 127 PA/SF.
The next part of the process would be to dive into the underlying metrics that make up our stolen base projection. Gary Sanchez is not a particularly fast player, so this should be quick. Although Sanchez did steal 8 bases in 2016 (7 in AAA, 1 MLB), I wouldn’t count on this being a sizable part of this offensive profile. We will again use Mike Podhorzer’s brilliant new metric SBA/TOB (stolen base attempts per times on base), which calculates the number of times a steal was attempted following a single, double, walks and hit-by-pitches. Using a weighted average, including minor-league data, Sanchez has a rate of 0.058 SBA/TOB over the previous three seasons. With a 0.015 SBA/TOB in the major leagues last season, we must find where we think he’ll fall on that scale going forward. To me, it seems obvious it’ll be much closer to the 0.015 mark and as such we’ll use 0.022 SBA/TOB for 2017. Sanchez has had a success rate of around 74% during that same three-year period. Slightly reducing that figure to an even 70% for our projection feels about right.
Now it’s time to project Sanchez’s BB%, IBB%, K% and BABIP for the 2017 season. With a 10.5 BB% and 0.87 IBB% during his time in the big leagues last season, Sanchez displayed an ability slightly above his minor-league track record. It could have been the fact that 40% of his fly balls were leaving the yard and pitchers decided to pitch around him to get to the rest of the Yankees line up, or perhaps his eye is improving. Either way, a blend of his major-league and minor-league rates should be used here. Using this blended rate gives us a figure of 8.0 BB%, which is essentially the 2016 league average rate. Projecting an intentional base on ball figure is far less exciting, but still important. As it sits now, I could see pitchers deciding to take their chances with another hitter in the Yankees lineup in key situations. Off season transactions could change this, but using Sanchez’s 0.87 IBB% from last season, should do the trick.
Last season Sanchez struck out 24.9% of the time at the major-league level. Sanchez had displayed a consistent ability to keep his strikeout rate around 19% in the minor leagues during the previous handful of seasons. Using the plate discipline numbers from his FanGraphs page, we can see that Sanchez’s swinging strike rate was 3% above the league average rate. With the league average strikeout rate sitting at 21.1% last season, coupled with the information detailed above, as well as some improvement based on the scouting reports that see a solid batting average in Sanchez’s future, we’ll use a 22.5% strike out rate for the 2017 season.
To wrap up this section of our projection, we’ll need to determine the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) for Sanchez’s 2017 projection. With a limited data set at the major-league level, it’s wise to regress towards the league average rate of 0.300 – this also happens to be close to his 3-year major league and minor league combined average. With an ability to make hard contact, but also being rather slow, we’ll use a .305 projected BABIP for the 2017 season.
Lastly, we’ll need to determine the batted ball profile for Sanchez heading into next seasons and take a stab at how many of his fly balls will turn into home runs in 2017. I’ll admit this part will be tricky as we’re dealing with a very small sample that has some conflicting data contained within.
During his time in the majors last year, Sanchez had a ground ball rate of 49% - not what you typically see from a power hitter. Sanchez’s fly ball rate sat at a league average 34.2%. Of course, the story of the off season will be what his true HR/FB rate will be going forward after seeing 40% of his fly balls leave the park in 2016. FORTY PERCENT. To put that into perspective, of qualified hitters, Ryan Braun led the majors last year with a 28.8% HR/FB, while Khris Davis and Nelson Cruz checked in second and third with 26.6% & 26.2%, respectively. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sanchez hits the ball hard. Using his StatCast data from 2016, we can see his average exit velocity of 94.60 MPH is well above the league average velocity of 89.57 MPH. Furthermore, Sanchez generates an impressive amount of velocity with his bat speed, averaging 7.00 MPH generated velocity, as compared to the league average rate of 1.45 MPH. What has me slightly concerned and is also driving the nearly 50% ground ball rate we witness in 2016, is the average launch angle for Sanchez, which was 4.25 degrees, which when compared to the league average angle of 9.97 degrees, has me wondering how big of a change he can make in consistently elevating the ball in 2017. While I expect some improvement in Sanchez’s ability to lift the ball next season, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a gradual change over the course of the next few seasons.
As such, we’ll use a 45% GB, 18.5% LD & 36.5% FB batted ball distribution for this projection. With the sample we’ve been provided, coupled with scouting reports over the years, I believe we’ll see slight growth in the fly ball ability, with slightly more growth in the line drive ability of Sanchez in 2017.
As we discussed earlier, Sanchez has already shown he’s able to generate elite hard contact. Yankee Stadium also continues to be a league leader in home run park factors for both left and right handed hitters. While it would not make sense to regress Sanchez’s HR/FB rate drastically towards the 2016 league average rate of 12.8%, some regression towards the top power hitters in the game is needed. Yes, Sanchez has already displayed an ability to drive the ball with authority equal to some of the best power hitters in the game (minus the loft as mentioned earlier). With this data considered, we’ll use a 23% HR/FB rate in our 2017 projection. Quite the fall from the 40% rate we saw in 2016, however, a 23% HR/FB rate in 2016 among qualified hitters would have still ranked him in the top-10. It’s the best we can do with the limited data available.
As for runs and RBI, we’ll use 2016 runs scored data per game for the Yankees and project out from there. As off season moves are made and the 2017 Yankee’s lineup begins to take shape, this area will be revisited and any changes in projected runs scored by team will be reflected.
We’re now ready to see the final product of our work. My early off season projection for 2017 Gary Sanchez, is as follows:
As always, make sure to leave your comments on the process and final numbers in the comments below. You can also follow me on Twitter for projection updates as the off season continues on. Look for our full 2017 early catcher projections this weekend.