Yankees banking on embattled backstop Gary Sanchez

ByColey Harvey ESPN logo
Friday, September 28, 2018

BOSTON -- This year has been unlike anything Gary Sanchez has experienced on a baseball field.

It has been physically demanding, mentally draining, humbling and, at times, humiliating.

"This definitely won't be a season that's going to be one of my favorites," the New York Yankees' embattled 25-year-old catcher said through an interpreter earlier this week.

From injuries to poor hitting to disastrous defense, just about anything that could have gone wrong for Sanchez this season has. Along the way, Sanchez has gone from a presumptive franchise cornerstone to being roundly regarded with disdain by a fan base upset he hasn't shown more.

But as impatient as Yankees fans have become with Sanchez's penchant for passed balls and predilection for punchouts this season, the people behind him are showing firm support.

With the postseason less than a week away, the Yankees have expressed a belief in their starting catcher, even as the stakes rise.

"Especially since he's come back from the disabled list [on Sept. 1], the bulk of his defensive work has been really strong, as far as the receiving stuff, the ability to kind of shut down the running game or really slow it down," manager Aaron Boone said. "He's been really good in the game-calling department and the game-planning stuff and really diving into that."

What about Sanchez's bat? Entering the final series of the regular season, he's hitting .182.

"He's just struggled to find his way a little bit offensively, and dug himself a hole," Boone said. "The one thing I keep telling him is it's not too late to dig out."

If Sanchez doesn't dig out during Wednesday night's American League wild-card game, it might be too late. The season for him and his teammates could be over.

Still, general manager Brian Cashman, like Boone, has faith in his young backstop.

"We're doubling down and tripling down on Gary Sanchez because we know the ceiling that is there and the capabilities this player has on both sides of the ball," Cashman said to reporters last Friday. "We have a short timeframe to get a number of players finding their groove. He's one of them."

Sanchez's struggles at the plate seemingly eased earlier this week. A two-hit, four-RBI showcase that included a home run in a Yankees blowout win over the Rays had him feeling markedly better about his offense.

"It always feels good to help the team, especially when you bring in a couple of runs," Sanchez said. "That's what you want to do. I expect me to be more consistent and to keep helping the team."

Ahead of Friday's series opener against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, Sanchez is 3-for-34 across his past 10 games. Including his two-hit performance at Tampa Bay, Sanchez has only three multihit games since he first went on the disabled list in late June. Within that span, Sanchez has 11 games with multiple strikeouts.

Sanchez first hit the DL on June 24 after straining his groin while running down the first-base line at Tropicana Field. He was out for about three weeks, returning just after the All-Star break.

Then, exactly one month after he was first injured, he went back on the DL, aggravating his injury at the Trop. During the game, Sanchez was chided for not hustling after a passed ball allowed speedy Jake Bauers to score all the way from second base.

Sanchez also fielded criticism that night for not running out a ground ball on a game-ending double play. Had he sprinted out of the box, the tying run likely would have scored.

"Whatever I've already done in this season is in the past," Sanchez said this week.

Sanchez's more distant past -- last season and the year before it -- is another story. A fearsome hitter, he crushed 33 home runs and had 90 RBIs while posting a .278 average in 2017. In 2016, playing in just 53 games, Sanchez hit .299 with 20 homers in a head-turning rookie year.

Through 87 games this year, Sanchez has 17 homers to go along with his career-low .182 average and .677 OPS. The Yankees believe that after some early-season bad luck hitting several balls right at defenders or just short of the wall, Sanchez began pressing, which eventually snowballed.

"I feel like he has gone out and chased results a little bit -- I'm going to make a hit, I'm going to make it happen -- instead of just letting the game kind of come to you," Boone said.

Sanchez didn't disagree.

"Whenever you're struggling in the box, sometimes you can get a little too anxious," he said. "So yeah, maybe definitely a possibility. I've had some really good games offensively, and a couple of bad ones following that one."

A former player, Boone finds it easy to defend Sanchez's offensive spiral because he's experienced it himself.

"Look, confidence is powerful in this game, and anytime you struggle, that's something that you've got to be able to battle through. We've all been there," Boone said. "You play this game long enough, this game will get you. It'll humble you.

"So there's an underlying confidence with him because he knows what a special hitter he can be. He's confident because of the work he's put in behind the scenes defensively that allow him to be the kind of defender we think he can be. But because he hasn't gotten great results, that can get you."

Boone believes his beleaguered catcher has moved on from some of his struggles, evidenced in part by that three-run homer Sanchez crushed earlier this week.

"It just seemed like there was a little more comfort up there," Boone said. "Just trust your ability, trust your plan, and it was nice to see."

Although passed balls were an issue for Sanchez long before his two DL stints, the Yankees still see him as a valuable piece to their success.

"He continues to work at it and he needs to continue to be better at it, but I would say the vast majority of the work he's done has been really strong," Boone said. "And some of the wins we've had since he's come back, in some of those games, I feel he's had a major impact on the defensive side of the ball and contributed to those wins.

"The biggest thing is that we've got to continue to work alongside him to make sure he gets more and more consistent because we do feel like the impact is high end when he's right."

Despite playing a little more than half the games on the schedule, Sanchez leads all of baseball with 18 passed balls. That total has risen by four within the past six days alone. Sanchez also has one of the higher wild-pitch counts of all major league catchers, with 44.

Perhaps there are reasons Sanchez has had so many issues with balls in the dirt.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez has received the sixth-highest percentage of sliders among major league catchers this season. Of all the pitches thrown to him, 23.9 percent have been sliders. He also has received the second-highest percentage of sinkers in baseball, outpaced by only Baltimore's Chance Sisco.

Yankees pitchers have thrown their share of "soft pitches" (curveballs, changeups, sliders and splitters) to Sanchez, too. Per ESPN Stats & Information, 46.4 percent of the pitches Sanchez has been thrown have been of the "soft" variety. No other catcher has that high a percentage.

Still, the Yankees know that for Sanchez to avoid being a defensive liability this postseason, he'll have to continue working on his blocking and receiving, much like he did with his bat on an off day at home last week.

"You don't see that very often," Cashman said of Sanchez's off-day batting practice work, "but that shows again his interest level and commitment to try to unlock what he typically does best, which is hit the ball hard."

Boone is hopeful that along with extra work, Sanchez focuses on doing one other thing: freeing his mind.

"That balance of pouring into your craft, working at your craft, having a game plan, but having a little bit of that, just go play -- almost not caring about the results -- that's when you're at your best," Boone said.

Sanchez at his best could be a difference-maker for the Yankees in the playoffs. At his worst. he could be too.