TAMPA – Do you trust Gary Sanchez in 2021? This is a judgment-free question, not an indictment and certainly not a suggestion that he lost his skills in 2020 and that any flickers of success should be dismissed as an illusion. But consider the third narrative, Sanchez’s honest to goodness comeback, which the Yankees believe is already underway. Or as the company’s internal memo reads: the worst is over for El Gary.
That was the upshot of Sanchez’s tour de force performance in the Yankees’ 5-4 win over the Tigers on Monday. The troubled catcher checked multiple boxes, starting with a) working in sync with Gerrit Cole (who didn’t have a particularly good day; write it off to rust); b) blocking three pitches in the dirt in the first inning alone and c) launching a breathtaking 450-foot home run over the center field wall in the third inning
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The blast belonged in the same DNA category with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton – as in, not entirely human. No one could recall a home run in GMS Field’s 25-year history that cleared both the wall and the 40-foot batter’s eye backdrop. That’s not power, that’s Avenger power, which brings the discussion back to its origin.
What should the Yankees make of the “new” Sanchez? He looks quicker and proactive receiving the ball, evidently without sacrificing his ability to square up fastballs. Manager Aaron Boone cautioned, “I try not to get caught up in results this time of year” – he’s right, Opening Day is still a month away – but that doesn’t mean the manager hasn’t noticed the more subtle hints of Sanchez’s rebound.
Like working out a walk in his first at-bat after falling behind in the count.
Like looking perfectly balanced crouching with the right knee down, a defensive stance that Sanchez rebelled against last summer.
Like patiently working the count again in the third inning until Gregory Soto was forced to yield. The left-hander delivered a middle of the plate fastball that turned to vapor the moment Sanchez connected. It was a loaded reminder of the threat Sanchez used to pose.
Jameson Taillon recalled facing a 19-year-old Sanchez in the minors in 2012, surrendering a line drive that Taillon feared would hit him in the head. He ducked. An instant later the ball was clearing the wall in center. Through the combination of power and bat-speed, Sanchez’s swing had generated so much backspin the ball never stopped climbing. Taillon, now Sanchez’s teammate, shook his head and said, “I knew Gary was going to be something special (even) back then.”
But El Gary fell on hard times in the second half of 2019. By the summer of 2020 he was arguably the worst player in the majors and was no longer allowed to catch Cole. With a .147 average, including 64 strikeouts in 156 at-bats, Sanchez’s bat speed had vanished. So, too, did his confidence.
Boone said, “at the core, deep down … I think Gary knows how good of a hitter he can be.” But restoring Sanchez’s prowess meant rebuilding his self-esteem. The solution wasn’t a matter of getting stronger or thicker. Sanchez already had muscles layered on muscles. Actually, he’d gone too far in that direction. Sanchez wasn’t just slow, he’d become embarrassingly unathletic for a 27-year-old.
Give Sanchez credit for an outside-the-box makeover. As NJ Advance Media’s Brendan Kuty detailed, the catcher worked to loosen his hips and trunk. Forget squats and lunges, Sanchez’s agility was reclaimed on a gymnastics balance beam. He rotated his torso over and over until his lower back was once again yogic in its pliancy.
Did it work? If appearances mean anything, the answer is a resounding yes. Sanchez looks leaner and younger than just six months ago. And there’s a decidedly upbeat tenor in his interviews. As Sanchez explained to reporters, “it’s definitely too early, but I definitely felt good today. The hard work has been worth it. I hope to keep improving in the games.”
That’s what the Yankees were hoping to hear. Remember, this is the same Sanchez who was “devastated” at losing his assignment as Cole’s catcher last October. So said a member of the front office, which debated well into November whether it’d be best to cut the ties this offseason.
The Yankees ultimately gave Sanchez one last reprieve, but there’s still there’s four weeks of data to collect. That’s especially true about his working relationship with Cole. Even though the ace says he’s fine pairing up with Sanchez, the numbers say otherwise. Last year Cole posted a 3.91 ERA with Sanchez behind the plate, but shaved it to 1.79 with Kyle Higashioka.
Coincidence or not, the Sanchez-Cole tandem struggled again on Monday. The Tigers scored three runs in the first inning, forcing Cole to throw 29 pitches. The right-hander never came out for the second inning; his preset pitch-count had already been used up.
Still, if there was a problem, either with Cole’s performance or a lack of synchronicity with Sanchez, there was no suggestion of it in the post-game Zoom interview.
“I thought we worked well together,” Cole said of Sanchez. “I was confident throwing anything we needed to, and he made some god blocks in the dirt.”
As for the ugly pitching line, Cole shrugged and said. “I’d like to improve next time, but the shape of the pitches and the velocity … it was a pretty good start from that standpoint.”
Fair enough: Cole’s report card isn’t the one that matters in March. From here until Opening Day, all eyes will be on Sanchez as he takes those baby steps to winning back the trust – Cole’s, the Yankees’ and, while he’s at it, yours and mine.
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Bob Klapisch is a freelance columnist who covers the Yankees and Major League Baseball for NJ Advance Media.