It is not necessary to bleed pinstripe blue to argue that Gary Sanchez of the Yankees, after his first full season in the major leagues, is poised to become the undisputed best catcher in baseball. He hit more home runs (33) and drove in more runs (90) than any other catcher in baseball last season despite missing a month, and his .876 on-base-plus-slugging percentage was the best for anyone at the position in the American League.
His average “pop time” to second — the time between the ball hitting the catcher’s glove and hitting the infielder’s glove — was 1.93 seconds, the best in the American League.
But the Yankees — and Sanchez — believe he can become even better this season by mastering a catcher’s most rudimentary task: catching the ball.
No other catcher had as much trouble corralling a baseball last season as Sanchez. His 16 passed balls tied him for the most in M.L.B. with Yasmani Grandal of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who played 118 more innings. Yankees pitchers were charged with 53 wild pitches with Sanchez behind the plate — the second most of any catcher. His four catcher’s interference penalties — when he hindered the batter — were tied for the most.
Sanchez’s shortcoming catching balls was accentuated at a most inopportune moment — the ninth inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, when a throw from shortstop Didi Gregorius bounced off Sanchez’s glove, allowing Jose Altuve to slide home with the winning run.
“I want to get better,” Sanchez said recently, speaking through an interpreter. “It’s important for me. That’s the reason I work so hard — I want to be a well-rounded baseball player.”
Sanchez, 25, made receiving and blocking baseballs the focus of his off-season workouts in his native Dominican Republic. And the Yankees have poured considerable resources into helping assure that Sanchez is not only working harder, but also working smarter this season.
Data from the analytics department and sports science staff have been used to tailor a new workout regimen that the Yankees hope will improve the flexibility in his hips, lower back and quadriceps, allowing Sanchez, who is 6 feet 2 inches and 230 pounds, to move better behind the plate.
“Everything we do as catchers starts from that stance, that setup, whether it’s the receiving, the blocking, the throwing,” said Jason Brown, the Yankees’ new catching coach. “That’s the foundation. It’s more natural for smaller guys. For Gary, it’s something that he’s been working on.”
Though Sanchez earned criticism last season — and a brief benching — for lacking discipline and concentration at times, there is a more forgiving view now.
One of the first things the Yankees mention about Sanchez’s work behind the plate is how difficult it is catching balls from the team’s pitchers. Aroldis Chapman and Luis Severino each throw fastballs that exceed 100 miles per hour. Jordan Montgomery and Dellin Betances regularly bury curveballs in the dirt. Masahiro Tanaka owns one of baseball’s most devastating split-fingered fastballs, and Sonny Gray’s array of pitches dip and dart in different directions.
General Manager Brian Cashman cited two other factors as well. He also said Sanchez was uncomfortable with the pregame workout routine that last year’s catching coach, Tony Pena, and manager, Joe Girardi, had implemented.
In the second half of the season, Sanchez returned to the pregame regimen he had used in the minor leagues.
While Sanchez’s pitch-framing skills were not bottom of the barrel — he was credited with saving 4.6 runs over the course of the season, ranking 21st in the majors — he was less able to steal strikes for Yankees pitchers than his backup, Austin Romine, who saved 6.5 runs in far less playing time.
“Any time we start losing our lower half, we’re creating movement, and the umpire sees the movement and it can work against us,” said J.D. Closser, the Yankees’ catching coordinator.
Sanchez is also working on becoming a more engaged presence behind the plate. It is not just his quiet nature that he is trying to shake, but a reputation: Sanchez was twice suspended by the Yankees in the minor leagues — once for refusing to warm up a pitcher — and his body language has occasionally suggested a lack of hustle.
“It’s definitely important to communicate energy to your pitchers,” Sanchez said. “I’ve told many of my coaches, ‘If there are times when you see me a little slow, let me know so I can pick up the pace and so I can communicate positive body language to the pitchers.’”
Thus far, Sanchez seems to have made a favourable impression.
“Any of those potential perceptions, in my eyes, have been shattered,” Aaron Boone, the new Yankees manager, said recently.
Soon, with the Yankees’ season opener less than a week away, Sanchez will have the opportunity to alter others’ assessments, and ensure that the title of best catcher in baseball does not come with a catch.