Sanchez ready to meet high expectations

Sanchez ready to meet high expectations

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Yankees squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's your star?

The projected members of the Yankees' 2017 lineup have combined for thousands upon thousands of Major League games, yet the face of the franchise now belongs to Gary Sanchez, who has electrified the fan base despite playing in only 55 contests to date.

Long touted as a future impact bat, Sanchez took full advantage of the opportunity presented to him over the final eight weeks of the regular season, equaling a dusty record set by Wally Berger of the 1930 Boston Braves by belting 20 home runs in his first 51 games.

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Despite playing in just one game before Aug. 1, Sanchez was quickly elevated to the No. 3 spot in the lineup and his production appeared to be no fluke. In just 229 plate appearances, Sanchez produced an impressive .299/.376/.657 slash line, with 32 of 60 hits going for extra bases.

"It was a good season for me, but that's in the past now," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "We have to focus on the upcoming season, all together as one. Hopefully we will make the playoffs."

Sanchez posted strong hard-hit (41.8 percent, per MLB Statcast™) and walk (10.5 percent) rates, which helped overshadow a 24.9 percent strikeout rate.

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According to MLB Statcast™, he was tied with Pedro Alvarez for the sixth-highest average exit velocity (94.1 mph) in the Majors, trailing Nelson Cruz (95.9), Giancarlo Stanton (95.1), Matt Holliday (94.7), Miguel Cabrera (94.5) and David Ortiz (94.2).

Fans quickly started sporting T-shirts bearing Sanchez's uniform No. 24, and though he was frequently mentioned as a surprise contender for the American League Rookie of the Year Award - finishing second to the Tigers' Michael Fulmer -- Sanchez never seemed to let the swelling expectations go to his head.

"I don't feel any pressure at all," Sanchez said. "I've got to keep doing the same things I've been doing. Just to play baseball is what I know how to do. Hopefully with my teammates, we can put together a good team."

As impressive as Sanchez's power was, the Yankees were equally pleased with his advanced approach at the plate and a mature demeanor behind it, frequently popping up mid at-bat to throw an arm around a hurler and go over their next pitch sequence. He also nailed 12 of 31 potential basestealers (38.7 percent).

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"He has good suggestions, which is rare for a young catcher," CC Sabathia said. "That makes you feel good and confident that he knows what he wants to call."

This year, Sanchez will be counted on as a key piece in the heart of New York's lineup, with veteran Matt Holliday having been signed to a one-year, $13 million deal in part to serve as protection for Sanchez's right-handed stroke.

While the Yankees are not counting on Sanchez to approximate Barry Bonds' 2001 home run pace, as he did for a brief period (a 40 percent home run/fly ball rate is unsustainable), they do believe he is ready to stand tall as one of the game's best.

"We can count on him being one of the top five hitting catchers in the AL at the very least, with a great arm and defense," general manager Brian Cashman said. "He's extremely bright, and one of better intellectual young hitters that our staff has come across."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com 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.