Gary Sanchez did it again Sunday, blasting his 16th home run, which flew out of Fenway so quickly you would have missed it if you blinked or checked your Instagram feed for funny pictures of dogs.
The batting line for the New York Yankees' rookie catcher in 41 games and 178 plate appearances would make Joe DiMaggio proud: .327/.393/.698. Actually, DiMaggio never slugged .698, at least not in a full season.
As you may expect, few players have begun their careers with this sort of authority. Sanchez hit his 16th home run in his 158th at-bat, the second fewest ever for 16 home runs:
Wally Berger, 1930, Braves: 148
Gary Sanchez, 2016, Yankees: 158
Mark McGwire, 1987, A’s: 160
Shane Spencer, 1999, Yankees: 161
Spencer, as longtime Yankees fans will remember, burst onto the scene in September of 1998, that magic season, and belted 10 home runs in just 67 at-bats. He was with the Yankees through 2002 although he never became a full-time player. His career trajectory was similar to Kevin Maas, a Yankees rookie in 1990 who hit 13 home runs in his first 110 at-bats (and 16 in 166). Maas finished second in the rookie-of-the-year voting but would have just one more season as a regular before fizzling out.
So that raises the question: Is Sanchez the real deal? One big difference between him and Spencer and Maas -- he’s 23 years old and has always been a highly regarded prospect. Spencer was 26 and Maas 25, older rookies who happened to have the hottest stretches of their careers when they first reached the majors.
Still, Sanchez never hit like this in the minors, and in fact, had just 10 home runs in 284 at-bats at Triple-A. He’s clearly locked in:
Pitchers haven't found a hole yet in Gary Sanchez's plate coverage: pic.twitter.com/4kTUTX9Zu1— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) September 19, 2016
Besides showing the obvious tools of bat speed and strength, Sanchez has shown the ability -- unlike Jesus Montero, another former highly rated Yankees hitting prospect -- to adjust to balls that bend. He’s hitting .333/.381/.718 against fastballs but holding his own with a .277/.373/.523 line against off-speed pitches. His strikeout rate of 24.2 percent is higher than the MLB average of 21.1 percent but not extreme for a power guy, and his walk rate is just a tick above the MLB average. Yes, Sanchez is riding a high .356 BABIP, but the talent, the scouting pedigree and the results we’ve seen all point to a hitter who should have success moving forward.
His star power, however, isn’t necessarily guaranteed. I used the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com to check rookies with between 125 and 250 plate appearances, sorted by highest OPS. Let’s see the top 10, with age in parentheses:
1. Bob Hazle, 1957 Braves: 1.126 (26)
2. Gary Sanchez, 2016 Yankees: 1.091 (23)
3. Willie McCovey, 1959 Giants: 1.085 (21)
4. Luke Scott, 2006 Astros: 1.047 (28)
5. Brian Giles, 1996 Indians: 1.045 (25)
6. Phil Plantier, 1991 Red Sox: 1.034 (22)
7. Randy Ruiz, 2009 Blue Jays: 1.019 (31)
8. Erubiel Durazo, 1999 Diamondbacks: 1.015 (25)
9. Rico Brogna, 1994 Mets: 1.006 (24)
10. Johnny Schulte, 1927 Cardinals: .994 (30)
As with Spencer and Maas, this list includes several older guys who aren’t really comparable to Sanchez. The youngest guy turned into a Hall of Famer, and Giles was an All-Star, but Plantier, who hit .331 with 11 home runs in 148 at-bats at age 22, didn’t develop from his rookie season.
Going a bit lower on the list we get Frank Thomas at No. 14 (excellent!) and Sam Horn at No. 22 (not excellent!). Two recent guys are interesting comps, however:
Brett Lawrie, 2011 Blue Jays: .953 (21)
Khris Davis, 2013 Brewers: .949 (25)
Remember Lawrie’s 43-game stint when he hit .293 and slugged .580? Everyone projected him as a big star after that, but it didn’t happen. He actually had a lower BABIP and lower strikeout rate than Sanchez, but his power didn’t develop, his walk rate fell and injuries didn’t help.
Davis slugged 11 home runs in 136 at-bats for the Brewers with a .279/.353/.596 line -- in a worse season for offense. Now, he was two years older than Sanchez, which is a big deal, but had similar strikeout and walk rates. Davis has hit 40 home runs for the A’s this year, but that has come with a 27.1 percent strikeout rate and .252 average which has limited his OBP to a below-average .307.
All this is to say that there’s no guarantee here. With his strong throwing arm, however, he’s going to stick behind the plate (unlike Montero, who couldn’t catch, either). He has been so good that I think we have to raise the expectations over what his minor league numbers have projected.
Next season, we’ll see how he adjusts. Maybe he’s not a .300 hitter with 40 home runs. But a catcher who can hit .275 with 30 home runs and strong defense is an All-Star player -- and a middle-of-the-lineup bat.