ANAHEIM, Calif. — Aaron Judge watches Gary Sanchez in the batter’s box and marvels at what he sees.
“He’s able to hit balls that I’m like, ‘the pitcher made a good pitch on that,’ and he still hits it,” Judge, a fairly accomplished hitter himself, said Friday night before the Yankees, looking for their seventh straight victory, took on the Angels.
It happened most recently, Judge said, on the first walk-off hit of Sanchez’s major-league career, the three-run homer off Fernando Rodney with none out in the ninth inning on Thursday afternoon that gave the Yankees a 4-3 victory over the Twins.
“Being a catcher, he knows what the pitcher’s trying to do. His game plan, his approach, he’s able to think with them in certain situations,” Judge said before specifically mentioning the 0-and-1 fastball Sanchez hit out. “The walk-off, that’s 96 running in on your hands, but him knowing what kind of pitcher Rodney is, what his repertoire is, he’s able to beat him to a spot. And it’s just little things like that that make him so great.”
Sanchez didn’t start the season that way, of course. After nine games, he was 2-for-36 and had a .056/.081/.167 slash line, one homer and three RBIs.
And while fiery hot takes filled up social media, no one in the Yankees’ universe was concerned (nor should they have been, as nine games is a minuscule portion of the 162-game schedule). It was, all involved said, just a matter of time.
“He’ll catch up to where he’s supposed to be sooner [rather] than later, I’m sure,” general manager Brian Cashman said April 11, hours before Sanchez began the process of doing just that.
Though lost a bit in the ensuing 10-7 Yankees victory over the Red Sox because of a bench-clearing brawl, Sanchez hit two homers and a double. It was the start of a 12-game stretch heading into Friday in which he had a .313/.377/.729 slash line, five homers and 18 RBIs.
Judge, whose rise through the minors mostly coincided with Sanchez’s, said he’s long admired the catcher’s ability with a bat.
“If you look at all the great hitters, from [Barry] Bonds, [Miguel] Cabrera, even back in the day like Hank Aaron, their barrel is in the zone for so long,” Judge said. “That’s the biggest thing about Gary that I noticed at a young age. Just his load [before swinging], his movements were so fluid and easy. He could just hit any pitch because his barrel is in the zone for so long. That’s what makes him so successful.”
Judge said it’s also what makes Sanchez such a rarity, especially among power hitters.
“He’s not one of those guys where [you say], ‘Oh, he can really hit the fastball, but the off-speed gives him trouble,’ ” Judge said. “Off-speed doesn’t give him trouble because his barrel’s in the zone for so long. Even if he’s fooled, he’s still going to put the barrel of the bat on the ball and drive it into the gap. Even if he got beat by a fastball, I’ve seen him so many times, especially at home, drive a ball to rightfield that he was clearly beat on. He was maybe sitting off -speed or sitting something else, but it’s 95 [mph], he reacts and he’s able to drive it to rightfield.”
When Sanchez does slump, Aaron Boone said it’s often that capability that is the reason.
“The only thing that gets him in trouble sometimes, frankly, is because he can handle so many [different pitches], he gets a little over-aggressive and feels like he can hit everything,” Boone said Friday. “So that’s what we’re always working on him is stay patient, stay patient. Because when you miss in the zone with whatever, he’s deadly because of the bat in the zone for so long.”