Amid historically hot start, Gary Sanchez enters Rookie of the Year race
- No hitter has ever had a better start to his career than Gary Sanchez, who has destroyed opposing pitching in his first month in the league. But can his torrid hitting propel him to an AL Rookie of the Year award?
On Monday, Gary Sanchez, the Yankees’ rookie catcher, was named the American League Player of the Week—not especially surprising, given that he went 12-for-23 (.522) with three doubles, five homers, five walks, nine RBIs and seven runs scored in that span. But it was unprecedented, as it came on the heels of the 23-year-old backstop winning that same award the week before, making him the first rookie to earn those honors in consecutive weeks in either league since Player of the Week was established in 1974. Beyond that, Sanchez is the first AL player to win the award in consecutive weeks since Albert Belle did so in July 1998.
Sanchez now stands on the verge of making history in several other ways. Already the first player to hit 11 home runs in his first 23 career games, Sanchez could be the fastest player to reach 12 home runs in his career by hitting just one more in his next four games. With two more home runs in his next five games, he would break former Yankee Kevin Maas’s record of 12 in his first 30 career games.
Sanchez’s hot start isn’t just about his home run prowess, however. He’s producing on all fronts. Entering Tuesday’s action, Sanchez has hit .417/.484/.905 (1.389 OPS) in 95 plate appearances since being recalled from Triple A on Aug. 3. Add in his two-game cup of coffee from last October and his lone appearance earlier this season (an 0-for-4 game on May 13), and Sanchez has hit .389/.455/.844 with a 1.300 OPS through his first 101 major league plate appearances.
Baseball-Reference’s Play Index can’t generate a definitive list, but after two hours of searching, I have been unable to find another player since 1913 (which is as far back as the game-by-game data goes) who had an OPS of 1.300 or higher at or around 100 career plate appearances. In fact, I could find just three other players who even had an OPS of 1.200 or better at that point in their careers. Here’s that list, with Sanchez on top (plate appearance totals vary slightly to include full-game data):
|George Scott||Red Sox||1966||100||1.215|
Davis was an All-Star and the AL Rookie of the Year in 1984 and hit .289/.391/.468 (135 OPS+) in his first seven seasons before his bat went cold at age 30 and never recovered. Scott was a three-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner at first base who played 14 major league seasons, primarily for the Red Sox and Brewers. Brooks, however, has largely been lost to history. A small centerfielder on the 1925 Cubs, he made his major league debut at the end of May and had a blazing-hot June as a 27-year-old rookie, but his final major league game came just a year later. He kicked around the minors for five more seasons before moving on from baseball.
As that list—or the home run precedents set by the likes of Maas or Mike Jacobs—indicates, you can't draw any meaningful conclusions about Sanchez’s future from his hot start. For every Albert Pujols, who put up a 1.171 OPS in his first 102 major league plate appearances in 2001, there’s an Austin Kearns, who put up a 1.182 OPS in his first 103 PA for the Reds in '02. For every Orlando Cepeda, who hit 11 home runs in his first 30 games en route to a Hall of Fame career, there’s a Dave Hostetler, who did the same with the Expos and Rangers in 1981 and '82 but had effectively washed out of baseball by '84.
That doesn't make Sanchez’s hot start any less impressive. Over the course of winning his two Player of the Month awards, he has gone 23 for 44 (.523) with five doubles, nine home runs, nine walks (against just seven strikeouts), 15 RBIs, 11 runs scored and even a stolen base in a mere 12 games.
Could Sanchez's brilliant start make him a factor in the Rookie of the Year voting? It’s certainly possible. In my last Awards Watch column, I had Tigers righthander Michael Fulmer as the ROY favorite, with Astros swingman Chris Devenski and Indians centerfielder Tyler Naquin rounding out the top three. Sanchez would seem to have a good shot at moving ahead of Naquin and Devenski on several of the 30 ballots that will be submitted after the final day of the season. In terms of Wins Above Replacement (which factors in Sanchez’s excellent play behind the plate), Sanchez already ranks in the top three in the AL among first-year players and is a close second to Fulmer by both FanGraphs’ and Baseball Prospectus’ metrics (fWAR and WARP, respectively).
There is more than a month left in the season during which Sanchez’s bat could cool off, and few voters adhere strictly to WAR—nor should they—but that snapshot shows that, objectively speaking, Sanchez is very much a part of the Rookie of the Year race despite having played in just 23 games this season. That, too, is a testament to not only his tremendous performance at the plate but also his excellent play behind it. In addition to all of his hitting, Sanchez has thrown out seven of 12 base stealers (58%). Per Statcast, he also has one of the strongest catching arms in the major leagues, averaging better than 87 mph on his throws to second base—well above of the average range of 77–82 mph, according to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello. Sanchez also grades out as an above-average pitch-framer, per Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, and has received praise for his game calling and receiving from the Yankees’ pitchers, coaches and broadcasters, including former major league catcher John Flaherty.
Those catching skills are more projectable that Sanchez’s hot hitting and should guarantee him a long major league career, health permitting. Whether or not he becomes one of the best all-around catchers in baseball or is merely a capable catch-and-throw guy remains to be seen. Given that Sanchez’s bat had always driven his prospect status, however, there’s good reason to believe that he could have a career comparable to and possibly even better than that of Brian McCann, the highly-paid veteran he has so quickly replaced. Sanchez hit .275/.339/.460 over parts of seven minor league seasons and was holding his own at the plate in full-season ball as a teenager; entering Tuesday’s action, McCann’s career major league line is a very similar .266/.340/.459.
Those expecting Sanchez to be the second coming of Johnny Bench, however, should take some time to trace the offensive trajectories of Yasiel Puig, Jeff Francoeur, Brett Lawrie, Jason Heyward, Carlos Santana and Miguel Sano, just to name a few active players who looked like future Hall of Famers through their first 100 major league plate appearances. What distinguishes truly great hitters is the ability to counteract the inevitable adjustments pitchers and coaching staffs will make against them as they begin to have success. For Sanchez, that process will extend well into the 2017 season, if not beyond. Still, even if he struggles to make those adjustments, it won’t take away from the unprecedented success he has already had in the majors.