Yankees Magazine on Gary Sanchez: ...Ready for It?
What do you do when people expect the world of you? If you're Gary Sanchez, you get to work.
By Hilary Giorgi
Yankees Magazine |
Gary Sanchez is busy. Not "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" busy -- rather, El Gary is preoccupied with trying to become the star major league catcher into which everyone just expects him to blossom. Over the last year, he has made strides in the right direction, but the climb hasn't always been easy.
In August of 2016, Sanchez found a spot on the Yankees' roster and, very authoritatively, made his presence known. In the waning months of the season, he was all anyone wanted to talk about in the Bronx. With the Yankees essentially out of the playoff picture, all eyes were on the rookie catcher who forced his way into the big club's starting lineup by crushing baseballs at a record pace. Brian McCann, a highly regarded 12-year veteran, was pushed out of his role by the young upstart, but that hardly stopped him from offering glowing praise. This kid was special.
"He's a future All-Star, year in and year out," said McCann, who was dealt to Houston in November. "There's not many guys walking around with his talent. It's gonna be nice to see him grow into that player. … I consider him one of the better, if not best, young catchers since I've been in the big leagues."
Sanchez finished 2016 with a .299 batting average, 20 home runs and 42 RBI. He was the runner up in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting, despite playing just 53 games. Projections for the catcher's future were incredibly high -- maybe a bit too high. When the sky is the limit, there's an awfully long way to fall.
So Sanchez went to work knowing that it would have been impossible to keep up his monster two-month pace throughout an entire 162-game season. More human numbers were to be expected. But nobody predicted that by 2017, the catcher would be playing second fiddle to anyone.
Nevertheless, in the course of a year Sanchez went from the talk of the town, to the greatest hope for the Yankees' future, to a second-banana All-Star, to a catcher with more questions than answers. There were reasons for the hardships. Injuries robbed him of some playing time, the rise of Aaron Judge made everyone else at the All-Star Game an afterthought, and there were other extenuating circumstances, as well. From the outside looking in, Sanchez had become just one small story, relegated to a spot below the fold. But Sanchez himself wasn't worried about being first banana, second fiddle or the #GOAT -- social media shorthand for "Greatest of All Time," which many of his 200,000-plus Instagram followers are quick to tag his photos with.
That's because inside the Yankees' bubble, Sanchez was busy. Between managing a pitching staff, working with coaches to improve his defensive skills and making adjustments at the plate to become a premier offensive threat, Sanchez was building up his reputation a bit more quietly than everyone had anticipated.
There were still questions -- why was he having trouble catching the ball? Could the otherworldly numbers he put up in his debut be for real? Through it all, Sanchez kept working behind the scenes to inch ever forward.
And now … well, he might be ready to take a bigger step back into the spotlight.
Catcher is the hardest position to play on a baseball field. And from his perch near the first-base bag, Greg Bird has a pretty good idea why.
"I always say you live a double life," he says. "You live the life of a pitcher and of a hitter. You have to be there working with the pitchers, and you have to be there working with the position players, too. I just don't think catchers get enough credit, ever, for the amount of work that goes into catching."
Forget about a career or even a season -- the grind of catching a single game in the majors is tremendous. Not only is the catcher responsible for coming up with a game plan for his starting pitcher, but he must also be ready to work with each of the relief pitchers that can come into the game at a moment's notice. So Sanchez must have every pitcher's repertoire memorized. And with the multitalented and ever-changing Yankees pitching staff, he needs a mammoth mental hard drive to store all that data.
"This isn't exactly the easiest pitching staff to catch," says Chad Green. "Out of the bullpen, we've got guys throwing 100 mph; starters throwing 100 mph with good breaking balls. I think for Gary it's just going to take some time, and it's tough, especially with all the guys coming up who he hadn't caught before in the minors. He's learning just like we are."
Suppose Sanchez finally masters his own roster's arms. A catcher is also responsible for knowing every hitter in the opposing lineup -- their strengths, their weaknesses and how they've performed in every possible baseball scenario.
"Up at this level, it's a mental game; it's like a chess game," says Austin Romine. "You're going up against eight or nine different minds that remember everything you just did to them the at-bat before, and you have to remember all of them, too."
Is that all? Hardly. The backstop also keeps an eye on the basepaths. And, oh by the way, he also has to contribute offensively, which, for Sanchez, means being a middle-of-the-order bat expected to drive in runs and pound balls over the fence.
Physically, it's draining. Mentally? Tired doesn't even begin to describe it.
"When you catch a game in the big leagues, after the game you feel tired because you're using your brain so much and it's mentally exhausting," says Tony Peña, who caught in the big leagues for 18 seasons and is now the Yankees' first base coach and catching instructor. "You have to be able to know every situation in the game. And that's one of the reasons why you see so many catchers that become managers after they retire, because we have so much responsibility. We have more than half of the team in our hands."
If there's one person who truly understands that and can communicate it to a young catcher starting out, it's Peña. The Dominican Republic native was selected to five All-Star Games, won four Gold Glove Awards, and he caught Roger Clemens during his third Cy Young campaign in 1991. Peña and Sanchez have spent a lot of time together this season busying themselves with the intricacies of the position. While to novice eyes it appears that the position is mastering Sanchez -- the young catcher had the most passed balls in the American League as of Sept. 11 -- Peña knows that it's the other way around, and he preaches patience.
"Everybody wants to see everything at once, but sometimes it takes time," Peña says. "You might not see it now, but that's because it's still just his first full year in the big leagues … I have been very surprised by how well he has handled his first full year. If you go through baseball, for every catcher his first full year is very tough. I remember when I started catching, everybody said I was good, but I became great after three or four years in the big leagues.
"What he's doing right now, wow, he's showing me a lot already, and I'm very, very proud. Obviously we want every player to be perfect, but you have to work to get to that, and it's a process."
Sanchez recognizes the difficulties he's facing, and pinpoints with ease the areas of his game he wants to improve. Then he works on them every single day.
"If you compare catching in the big leagues with catching in the minor leagues, the intensity is definitely not the same," Sanchez says, his words translated by Marlon Abreu, the Yankees' bilingual media relations coordinator. "When you catch up here in the big leagues, the intensity is so much higher. As you catch all the pitchers, you develop the experience and learn about how their pitches move. The one thing I can say is that when you have a pitcher who can throw the ball over 100 mph and he is a little wild that day or that night, it's definitely a little tougher to catch them because there's just less time to react, and that's a huge challenge.
"Like I've said before, I'm not perfect, and I'm going to make mistakes. But the thing about being a catcher is that if you work really hard at it, you can become really good. That's what I'm trying to do here."
For a 7 p.m. game, Sanchez gets to the park by 1:30 p.m. and starts his routine of stretching, defensive drills, video work, cage hitting and meeting with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and the day's starting pitcher to formulate a plan of attack. Then, it's game time, when anything can and does happen. Broadcast to the world, everything El Gary does behind the plate is put under a microscope, especially when things go wrong. Directly in the camera's eye on every pitch, millions of amateur scouts watching on their couches can parse any detail of his catching style. Were he and the pitcher crossed up, the catcher expecting something off-speed as the ball rockets in at 100 mph? Did he jab at the ball instead of putting his body in front of it? Only one thing is clear; Sanchez spent more time chasing balls to the backstop than anyone would have wanted.
And, of course, there were whispers. Questions about laziness arose -- an unfortunately all-too-common charge levied against slumping Latino ballplayers, especially those who struggle to defend themselves in English. Dealing with that noise is another aspect of the game Sanchez works on.
"I hear what people say and from time to time those conversations can seep in, but it's something that I don't really focus on," he says. "My focus is to go out there and play as hard as possible and be the best I can be.
"Catching is not easy. It's a position that demands a lot of you. A little mistake can turn out to be a huge mistake, so you have to be mentally prepared and aware of everything that's going on."
Those mistakes are certainly frustrating in a game, but away from the field, they occupy the catcher's every minute. He works every day to get better, but there is no remedy like game experience, for better or worse.
So the strides Sanchez makes are incremental -- some impossible to see. But Peña and the rest of the guys in the clubhouse who are privy to Sanchez's work ethic are confident in the talent and ability he has behind the plate. The time he puts in to getting better does not go unnoticed.
"We're all confident in him, and I think that's every teammate to a man," says CC Sabathia. "You're always confident in your teammate that they can get the job done and also work on their strengths and improve on the weaknesses. He's been doing that, improving on some of the things in his game so that he can get better every day, and that's all you can ask for as a teammate."
Brett Gardner, meanwhile, rattles off a list of the ways that the young catcher's dedication and drive come through when the spotlight's off. "It's his routine that he falls into behind the scenes. It's how he works with Larry [Rothschild] and how he works with pitchers when preparing for a game, it's developing a game plan for the opposing lineup and really just doing a good job of controlling the pitching staff. We've obviously got a very talented pitching staff, but we've got some guys who have some really good breaking balls and some really live fastballs, and that makes his job back there a lot harder. We've got guys who throw a lot of split-fingers, so he's got to block a lot more balls. As an outfielder coming up, I didn't have to worry about that stuff, but as a catcher you obviously do and I appreciate the job those guys do back there."
"I think everyone knew that once you got to this level there would be a learning curve in how to handle a pitching staff," Green says. "I think he's making strides in the right direction. I think he has an idea of what each pitcher likes to do. … I don't think any of us have a doubt in Gary when the tying run is on third base. I think we all have enough confidence to bounce a breaking ball in there and trust he's going to block it."
Privately, Sanchez works tirelessly to keep the ball in his glove. Publicly, he's been pretty busy depositing pitches into the outfield seats.
Through Sept. 10, Sanchez was entrenched in the middle of the Yankees' lineup, batting .280 and trailing only Judge on the team with 30 home runs and 83 RBI. Those numbers become all the more impressive considering that Sanchez lost much of the first month of the 2017 season due to a biceps injury. But in some ways, the injury was a blessing in disguise. With expectations for the catcher into the outer stratosphere, the burning bright spotlight of New York was squarely on Sanchez when the season kicked off. In his first five games before the injury, the young catcher collected three hits and the Yankees won just one game. Questions about the team's struggles were bound to find the back of the guy who was supposed to be leading the so-called "Baby Bombers."
Instead, Sanchez went on the disabled list on April 8, and the Yankees went on an eight-game winning streak. By the time he returned to the lineup on May 5, the team had gone from 1-4 to 17-9. In his first 12 games back in the lineup, Sanchez batted .370 with three home runs and nine RBI. By the end of the month, the Yankees were leading the American League East by two games, and Sanchez was in the middle of a five-game hitting streak. His overall numbers were good, not great, but few people were talking to or about the catcher because the guy just a few lockers down from him in the clubhouse was in the midst of setting the baseball world on fire.
With a lot less fanfare than Judge, Sanchez earned his first All-Star selection. In the Home Run Derby, he eliminated No. 1 seed and 2016 champ Giancarlo Stanton in the first round. Through mid-September, he was leading all catchers in home runs, runs scored and RBI, despite playing fewer games than many of his peers in those categories.
"Offense isn't exactly easy either," Sanchez laughs. "It's definitely not easy to balance both hitting and catching because you want to be good at both. It's really tough to be at 100 percent at both aspects of the game at the same time. Usually you feel better hitting than on defense, or the other way around. You have to find a way to balance it and be more consistent all the time so both of them are equally good at the same time all the time. Putting them together to be at 100 percent all the time, it takes a balance, and it's all about putting in the consistent work."
After most of his pregame catching prep is done, Sanchez works in the cage under the watchful eyes of his hitting coaches. He'll often take early batting practice on the field prior to his regularly scheduled round just a few hours before game time. Sanchez can point to his stat line as evidence of the time he puts in, but when the inevitable slumps hit, queries about his prowess at the plate are as relentless as those about his defense.
Sanchez had another blistering August -- he batted .287, mashed 12 home runs, scored 19 runs and drove in 26 in 28 games -- but it came on the heels of a July in which he struggled. Reporters asked everyone -- Sanchez, his teammates and manager Joe Girardi -- what was going wrong with the catcher.
"There's obviously a lot of outside noise that can affect guys in a negative way, and I think that, as much as possible, we're kind of wired to block all of that out and just focus on what we need to focus on here in the clubhouse," Gardner says. "Once the game starts, once the lights turn on, we try to shift our focus to the field, carrying out our game plan and sticking to our approach. There's obviously a lot of different things pulling guys in a lot of different directions, especially as a young player, especially in the market we're in here in New York, but I think the young guys like Gary are doing a great job of trying to balance all of that so they can keep their focus on the field."
Clearly, Sanchez was able to right the ship offensively. But more importantly, he used his struggles to add to his growing canon of knowledge about how to succeed on the big-league stage.
"The important thing about being a good hitter is that when those bad times come around, you want to stay mentally strong and mentally focused on what you need to do," he says. "Those hard times are going to go by, and you're going to be able to get through it and you'll get out of it. It's important to keep your head high and just never lose trust in yourself."
The words are exceptionally mature, especially considering that Sanchez is still just 24 years old and finishing up his first full season in the major leagues. But to Peña, they represent that which is most impressive about Sanchez.
"It's been a pleasant surprise to see how fast he has grown," the coach says. "He's only 24! All I can say is that I'm happy he's on our side because he's going to be really good. A lot of young catchers, they come to the big leagues and they can't stay. You see so many catchers come up to the big leagues, and then they go back down. He came in with the goal to stay, and that's all you can ask. And we're still waiting for him to keep growing. He's going to keep growing into the game. He will find out what he needs to do to be successful. He will learn every single skill he needs with time. It takes time because you cannot learn the whole game overnight. It's a lot. But he will do it. There is not a question in my mind that he will be one of the best catchers in baseball."
"Best catcher in baseball" is a pretty loaded label. Those who wear it live in such rarefied air that it can be hard to breathe up there, what with all the expectations and demands. It's a long climb. But, man, is the view terrific.
Gary Sanchez isn't there yet -- he hasn't seen it. His ascent has just begun, and if we're being honest, he might never make it all the way to the top. But it won't be for lack of trying.
Every minute, every day, every game, the catcher is focused on getting better, taking small steps, adjusting to the new challenges of the higher elevation. Any good climber will tell you that sometimes you have to go backward before you can move forward -- and we've seen that in the last year through all of Sanchez's ups and downs.
He has limitless potential, and his talent and work ethic suggest that he could actually be the rare guy who lives up to those expectations. Just don't ask him about them.
"I like to focus day by day and not look too far ahead," he says. "That's what I like to do, and that's what keeps me going. The focus is to go out there and play hard, do the best I can and keep winning. That's what I like to do."
Gary Sanchez has no time to speculate about what he might become, or the heights he might reach. He's too busy doing the work to actually get there.
Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.