Say this about Yolmer Sánchez: I like the way the guy thinks.
Those prognostications about how the Orioles have no chance — literally, no chance — to make the playoffs? Well, Sánchez isn’t going to let them get him down heading into this season.
“As a player, you go out every day, do your best, and try to win every game,” Baltimore’s new second baseman said. “As a player, you have to do your best, believe you can beat everybody.”
That’s one reason to like him. Another is his glove. Sánchez has been a plus defender (according to Baseball-Reference’s defensive WAR metric) in all four seasons in which he’s played over 60 games. His defensive prowess over his young career has already culminated in a Gold Glove award, which he won with the White Sox in 2019.
But how about his bat? Could Sánchez be an asset at the plate for the Orioles this season, and a candidate to raise his offensive performance the way Baltimore infielders in previous seasons have?
There’s certainly precedent — over the last 10 to 15 years, Camden Yards has served as something of a rehabilitation center for infielders who have either seen their bats go quiet or never heat up in the first place. An early example was J.J. Hardy, who arrived in 2011 after declining from All-Star heights in 2007. He hit .229 with 11 home runs in 2009 and then .268 with six home runs in 2010, but rejuvenated perhaps by the smell of Boog’s barbecue, the warm summer nights or — most likely — Camden Yards’ friendly dimensions, he bounced back to hit 30, 22 and 25 home runs in his first three seasons as an Oriole.
There were more cases, particularly in recent seasons. Jonathan Villar had six home runs through 87 games one season after posting a .665 OPS with Milwaukee when he was dealt to Baltimore at the deadline in 2018; he hit eight home runs over the final 54 games after the trade, and in his only full season as an Oriole hit 24 home runs and had a .792 on-base percentage.
Hanser Alberto was a .192 career hitter over 89 games and 182 at-bats when he became an Oriole in 2019; he hit .305 that season over 524 at-bats that season, then batted .283 last year. Jose Iglesias had been trending up from his days as an all-glove, no-bat shortstop with the Red Sox when he came to Baltimore in 2020, having hit .288 with Cincinnati in 2019, but no one was expecting him to turn in the .373 average and .956 OPS he wound up with at year’s end. And, not that the Orioles wanted him in the field, but Renato Nunez had nine home runs in 90 career games before swatting 31 in his first full season in Maryland.
So there’s precedent. Can Sánchez be the latest chapter in the story?
The 28-year-old offers some hope that he will be. Sánchez had a season in 2017 that, while not all that impressive on its own, is encouraging for what he could have in store. He batted .267 with 12 home runs in 141 games, and posted a .732 OPS. He fell to eight home runs and a .242 average and .678 OPS in 155 games the next season, but led the American League with 10 triples.
It would be more promising had Sánchez posted those 2017 numbers last season; instead, his performance at the plate declined from 2017-19. He hasn’t become lost at the plate, however, as his strikeout rate of once every 4.24 at-bats in 2019 was pretty consistent with his rates of once every 4.35 in 2018 and once every 4.36 in 2017.
So the Orioles shouldn’t be worrying too much about Sánchez having a harder time making contact. As for how that contact goes, there’s not much pointing to a breakout. Sánchez’s overall stats dipped even though his BABIP (from .321 in 2017 to .300 in ’18 to .324 in ’19) indicated he wasn’t getting any tougher breaks in the field, and his isolated power went from .147 to .130 to .069 over the three seasons.
His hard-hit percentage was actually higher in 2019 at 28.3 percent than it was in 2018 or that decent 2017 season, when he was at 27.7, but those numbers aren’t worth writing home about. Villar, for comparison’s sake, has been over 34 percent every year he’s been in the league, including that 2017 season when he had his .665 OPS.
That’s not to say Sánchez is hopeless. Iglesias’s hard-hit percentage was 24.2 the year before he arrived in Baltimore, and Hardy’s isolated power in 2010, the year before he donned the orange and black, was .126, or lower than Sánchez’s in 2017 and ’18. Both found their bats as Birds. And Sánchez, with a .751 OPS in Baltimore versus a .655 number in Chicago, has had an easier time at his new home.
There’s nothing to suggest Sánchez is a big season waiting to happen at the plate, but he’s not in an unusual position, either. The Orioles have seen infielders with his track record or worse turn in respectable seasons at the plate. Don’t expect any batting titles, but don’t write him off as the second coming of Rey Ordonez at the plate, either.