Slugging Sanchez leads Yanks' youth movement

Baby Bombers' breakout among top baseball stories of 2016

Slugging Sanchez leads Yanks' youth movement

NEW YORK -- An early indication that the Yankees might be about to witness something special took place on a remote diamond of their Spring Training complex back in early February, when an assault of batting practice home runs forced observers peeking through a chain-link outfield fence to take cover.

Those thunderous drives were being launched off of Gary Sanchez's bat, making the same impressive noise as they would in August and September, when the power-hitting rookie catcher equaled an 86-year-old record by belting 20 homers in his first 51 Major League games.

"When I came up, what I was thinking about was just getting the opportunity to play," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "They gave me the opportunity, I became the everyday catcher and good things have happened for me. It has been a special time for me because of everything that has happened."

Sanchez quickly became the face of the Yankees' accelerated youth movement, as veterans were phased out in favor of prospects such as Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin, who became the first teammates ever to homer in their first big league plate appearances when they hit back-to-back drives on Aug. 13.

Best of 2016: Back-to-back

With the majority of the fan base seeming to give their blessing toward the fresh look, manager Joe Girardi's club responded by going 32-26 after Aug. 1 and played meaningful games into the season's final week. As difficult as it was to switch course in-season, the Yankees believe they did what was necessary.

"I was like, 'It's time,'" general manager Brian Cashman said. "We need to do certain things that we've never really done. I'm glad ownership signed off on it, and I think that the future is brighter because of it."

One wonders how it might have played out had Sanchez's surge began in March, when he was widely favored to win a backup catcher competition. Sanchez went 2-for-22 (.091) in Grapefruit League play as Austin Romine made the Opening Day roster, with Sanchez returning to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Playing every day proved to be a blessing in disguise for the 23-year-old Sanchez, who posted a .807 OPS at Triple-A. The Yankees called him up for a one-game cameo on May 13, plugging his right-handed bat into the DH spot against Chris Sale, then summoned him back for good on Aug. 3 prior to a Subway Series game at Yankee Stadium.

With Carlos Beltran having been traded to the Rangers, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller dealt and on their way to the World Series and Alex Rodriguez soon to play his final game in pinstripes, the timing could not have been better for Sanchez to begin authoring his unlikely story.

Sanchez's first homer came on Aug. 10 off Junichi Tazawa of the Red Sox, beginning a barrage that would see him belt 20 homers off 17 pitchers, with Cody Martin, David Price and Marco Estrada each serving up a pair. Sanchez became the first player in Major League history to hit 20 or more home runs while playing in fewer than 60 games, and also the first to hit 20 or more homers in a season without having hit one before Aug. 1.

Sanchez's two-run homer

"What Gary is doing, man, I've seen this for years," Judge said. "Gary's been doing this from Double-A, Triple-A and now he's up here to do it [in the Majors]. It's fun to watch and fun to be a part of."

Sanchez's 20 homers in 51 career games tied a record set by Wally Berger of the 1930 Braves, compiling a 1.032 OPS while throwing out 13 of 32 runners attempting to steal (41 percent). The performance on both sides of the ball pushed Sanchez into the starting catcher's job and made opponents quickly take note.

"I think defensively, he has been much more than maybe we had anticipated -- the accuracy to his throws, the arm strength that he has, his blocking ability," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "He's a frontline player."

Brian McCann was among those who recognized that Sanchez represented the Yankees' future behind the plate, with his emergence opening the door for McCann's November trade to the Astros.

"Everyone already knew he belonged; it was just a matter of him getting an opportunity," McCann said. "So for him to go to Triple-A, do the things he did, he's carried on up here and he's going to be catching for a long, long time in this league."

McCann on impression of Sanchez

Sanchez wrapped the year with a .299 average (60-for-201), 12 doubles, 20 home runs and 42 RBIs, finishing second to Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer in balloting for the American League Rookie of the Year.

The hardware would have been a nice souvenir, but what should excite the Yankees even more is to see what Sanchez will be able to accomplish while batting in the heart of the order over a full Major League season.

"The fans have shown me a lot of love here," Sanchez said. "I think that's a result of my play on the field. If I keep playing good, they'll keep cheering. We'll see what happens next year."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.