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Gary Sanchez is playing old school defense, but is the new school letting him down?


CHICAGO – Everyone celebrated Gary Sånchez’s three-run homer that night. In the top of the ninth at Camden Yards, with the Yankees tied with lowly Orioles, Sånchez blasted a line drive into the left field seats. A monster three-run homer, the Yankees rally to win. Sånchez got the championship belt, handed out to the game’s MVP in team’s postgame, clubhouse celebration.

But Sånchez’s biggest play May 20 was hardly noticed half an inning earlier.

With the Orioles’ Jonathan Villar on third base, Zack Britton struggling with his sinker, shoved a wild one into the dirt. Sånchez got behind it, Villar stayed put at third, Britton took a deep breath and got the Yankees out of the inning.

“He saved me there. I had no control, nothing on that, he blocked that ball and saved the run,” Britton said after that game. “All the stuff about Gary not being a good defensive catcher, the passed balls and all that, it’s way overblown. Way too overblown.”

As is often the case with catchers in the era of analytics, the perception of Sånchez is not always the whole story. The data-driven men running the game now quantify catchers’overall impact on the defense and games. It’s a better glimpse than an ugly play or two, though it too is vulnerable to human error and influenced by a player’s reputation.

“Back in the day, it was talked about, who was a good receiver, who was a good framer, by the pitchers and the standard was if it made the pitcher look good,” former big league catcher and current Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We got enough technology now, it doesn’t matter what the guy looks like, if he’s getting more strikes than the other guy, that’s what you want.”

Cash said that and the evolution of power pitchers flirting with 100-miles an hour and muscular bullpens that throw hard and crazy breaking balls makes being a big league catcher harder these days.

“The demands are greater, the pressure is greater, the pitchers are harder to catch,” Cash said. “And you have all these new ways to measure up.” Of course, Sanchez has more than “measured up,” this season in the fans eyes.

The calls to trade the catcher because of his major-league leading 18 passed balls last season have long faded into cheers for the 20 home runs he has hit already this season. But the criticism still stings and lingers whenever there is a question about his play.

Sanchez is easily dinged for an error or a wild pitch by an official scorer because of that reputation without the benefit of a review.

“Sometimes when you are given a certain reputation, it’s hard to shake it off," Sånchez said through the Yankees’ interpreter Marlon Abreu. “Even when you are doing good things out there they don’t notice. The moment you do one bad thing out there, the moment you make a mistake, rightfully so because we are human at the end, we are bound to make mistakes. Yeah, when you have a reputation, you make a mistake it kind of catches fire. The other things you do on the field go unnoticed. So yeah, it’s a little frustrating.”

Sanchez has heard the complaints about his catching, especially last season. Defensively, if you pay attention, Sånchez’s work this winter on blocking balls is showing.

He is tied for 12th in the majors with four passed balls this season, one fewer than the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto, and catchers known for their defense like Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldanado.

The Yankees are watching and are not surprised by this turn.

Sanchez talks down Happ during a meeting at the mound. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/AP)

“I felt like he was improving on that throughout last year. It’s something he works really hard at behind the scenes. A very big focus. Something that we want to continue to see him improve on,” Yankee manager Aaron Boone said of Sånchez’s improved ability to block pitches. “There is no question, from a blocking standpoint is something that he’s been better at." But if you look at Sånchez’s defense strictly through numbers, he is having a worse year than last season.

While his passed balls have improved remarkably, Sånchez’s framing numbers are down this year. Last season, Sånchez Framing Runs Above average rate was 2.7 and his Defensive Runs Saved was 6, according to FanGraphs. This year? Sånchez’s FRA is -5.7 and his DRS is -2.

While this has assigned a number to what a catcher does most in a game -- receive the ball -- is it really a fair representation? For Sånchez there are some glaring errors.

On June 5, Sånchez received his daily report analyzing his defense from the night before. This one showed he failed to catch a strike on a 0-1 pitch to Randal Grichuk in bottom of the fifth inning, a minus in his called strikes above average number.

But if you look at the video that went viral of that pitch, you will see Sånchez set up inside for that one, but Masahiro Tanaka missed. The pitch was still right over the plate -- down the middle -- and should have been a strike, or a plus for Sånchez. Home plate umpire Angel Hernandez, however, called it a ball. That goes against Sånchez’s framing number.

Sanchez also is tied for the lead in errors this season with nine. That number includes the throwing error immediately charged to him in the Yankees’ May 11th loss to the Rays. With the game tied in the bottom of the sixth and Guillermo Heredia taking off for second, Sanchez made a great throw to second. DJ LeMahieu just missed it, according to several scouts who reviewed it. Probably because of Sånchez’s reputation, he was quickly awarded the error.

“I’ve gone through situations where maybe a passed ball wasn’t supposed to be awarded and I ended up with it,” Sånchez said with a shrug. “It’s fine. So, sometimes reputation can help other people make a decision instead of the actual play itself.”

And unlike the reports the Yankees’ analytics department churns out daily on pitchers or hitters performances, they cannot measure a huge part of Sånchez’s game.

Thursday night, J.A. Happ lost the strike zone in the fourth inning of the Yankees’ eventual loss to the White Sox. Having worked with Sånchez for almost a year now, Happ has talked about his trust in Sanchez a lot this year. After two straight walks, with two outs, Sånchez trudged out to the mound to settle the veteran lefty. He got Happ through the next at-bat, they got Jose Rondon to pop up to second and got out of the inning.

“That might be the most invaluable part of his game,” Happ said. “That trust that we have in each other, working together. Not just knowing that he is going to block pitches or receive the ball well, it’s the trust that you have in your catcher.

“I don’t think they can ever really put a number on that.”