Sonny Gray has been more successful as a Yankees starting pitcher when backup catcher Austin Romine — not Gary Sanchez — has been behind the plate.
Manager Aaron Boone hasn’t committed to using Romine over the slugging Sanchez when Gray pitches, but after struggling earlier in the season, the righthander had his second straight strong start with Romine behind the plate on Saturday. He gave up two runs in six innings in a 5-2 victory over the Indians at Yankee Stadium.
There’s some Boone family history when it comes to pitchers having personal catchers.
Bob Boone, Aaron’s father and a former All-Star catcher, became the odd man out with the Phillies for several seasons in the mid-1970s when Tim McCarver became the exclusive catcher for future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton.
Carlton, a four-time Cy Young Award winner, is fourth in career strikeouts with 4,136. He was 81-46 with McCarver catching with the Phillies, according to mlb.com. From 1976-79, McCarver caught 128 of Carlton’s 140 starts. McCarver, a lifetime .271 hitter, batted .306 with 10 homers and 66 RBIs when catching Carlton.
Carlton went from 27-10 in 1972 to 13-20 in 1973. “My rookie year was in 1973, so guess whose fault that was?’’ said Bob Boone, the Nationals’ vice president of player development. “So I kinda got blamed by Lefty all the time . . . It was still a little bruising to my ego. You’d rather throw to that guy than me, are you kidding? That’s kind of the feeling you get.’’
Boone, 70, took it a bit personally for a while. “I always caught so many games, I just took it as saying that’s fine with me. I’m tired of fighting this thing anyway. I’m going to take that day off. The fact is Timmy and Lefty worked way better together than me and Steve. Lefty would do what Timmy said. Lefty wouldn’t do what Bob said. I sat back and watched. I liked this combo.’’
Carlton, 73, said in a phone interview from Durango, Colorado: “Boonie and I weren’t seeing eye to eye. Tim and me could see eye to eye and how to set up a hitter. Boonie’s a Stanford graduate and I’m a junior college guy, so I think we were outsmarting one another. Boonie and I were having problems communicating. I like to pitch quick, I don’t like to sit there and wait for a sign. Timmy and I always clicked on how we thought about setting up hitters.’’
McCarver, 76, had caught Carlton when both played for the Cardinals. He was his catcher on Sept. 15, 1969 against the Mets when Carlton struck out a then-modern record 19 batters but lost, 4-3, on two two-run homers by Ron Swoboda.
McCarver said the most significant factor with Carlton as a Phillie was emphasizing his slider. “The big thing I did was call for a slider,’’ he said from Sarasota, Florida. “It was that devastating, and for whatever reason, Bob Boone tried to set him up like normal pitchers. With Lefty, it’s off the slider.’’
Carlton said it was a lot more than that. “Timmy was a very good bridge player,’’ he said. “In cards, you have to remember all the sequences. He applied that into his catching skills. He remembered sequences and strengths and weaknesses of hitters.’’
Bob Boone said he has not discussed the Yankees’ catching situation with his son, but he added: “If anybody can do this, it’s Aaron. Aaron’s spectacular at that, that’s why he’s got the job. His relationships. How he communicates with people, not just players. It’s certainly a problem. You’d like somebody to go, ‘We’ve got the best catcher in the world and he’s a great hitter. We’re just going with him.’ One hundred and 62 games is such a grind. A lot of managers have become successful by giving guys calculated days off.’’
In 2018, Gray has a 3.89 ERA in five starts (16 2⁄3 innings) with Romine and a 15.63 ERA in two starts with Sanchez. In 2017, Gray had a 1.45 ERA in three starts with Romine and a 4.63 ERA in eight games with Sanchez.
Romine said of Gray’s numbers with him catching, “I understand the numbers, I get the numbers, [but] Gary’s good with all the guys and Gary works his butt off.’’
Romine said of being Gray’s personal catcher: “My job is to catch when they want me to catch. I don’t really look too far into it. It’s a compliment when someone want you to catch him. It’s the ultimate compliment.
“In the minor leagues, I was catching every day. There was just certain guys that sometimes you click with better. I had guys that I did well with and some guys I could never get on the same page with. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just the way the minds think.’’
In an interview with nj.com this past week, Gray said of Romine: “He just adapts to the game. It flows and there’s great communication. Between innings, there’s constant communication, which for me is extremely beneficial with everything I try to do with the baseball.”
When asked if he could pitch to Sanchez, Gray said on Saturday, “If and when that situation arises, it’ll be just fine.’’
Bob Boone knows how he would handle it, saying, “This is perfect. I’m going to give you [Sanchez] a day, DH, and Romine’s a good player. And helps us win just like you help us win and I want both in the mix and I don’t want Romine to sit every day. And the other reason, I’ve got to keep [Romine] sharp.’’
Sanchez has not made an issue of Gray’s preference. “If that’s best for the team, let it be,” Sanchez told reporters in Houston on Tuesday.
Strangely enough, Red Sox scout Ray Boone — Bob’s father and Aaron’s grandfather — was responsible for signing Kevin Romine, Austin’s father, who also played in the majors.
After his last full season in 1979, McCarver began his award-winning broadcasting career. In 1980, with Boone behind the plate, Carlton went 24-9 for the World Series-winning Phillies.
“The innocence of that time five years earlier had worn off,’’ McCarver said. “Boonie’s a very bright guy. He sat back and he was learning things, too.’’
McCarver said the personal catcher arrangement is “unique. Can you depend on it to work all the time? The answer is no, absolutely not. The thing about it was between Lefty and me is that it had to work immediately. There was so many things that had to fall into place. The biggest thing is he had to win. And I’m not talking about three out of five starts. I’m talking about four out of five. It had to work immediately, otherwise they’d ditch it.’’
When asked if he is more sensitive to the personal catcher situation because it took playing time away from his father, Aaron Boone said: “I don’t think so, honestly. I guess my sensitivity comes to it maybe from just that we have an All-Star catcher that we want to be able to catch any of our guys, especially if you ever got into a postseason situation, so that’s why I don’t want to get, as best we can, pigeon-holed . . . I want everyone to be comfortable with everyone as much as we can. But it’s something that we’ll always monitor, try and do what’s best to help us win that day.’’
Reminded that his dad also was an All-Star, Boone said, “He couldn’t hit like Gary, though.’’