SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – There has been no bigger defender of Gary Sanchez, far and away the most polarizing player among fans, in the Yankees' organization than general manager Brian Cashman.
This season’s rough second half and even rougher playoff performance did nothing to change that.
“I think we have a distinct advantage by having Gary Sanchez as our everyday catcher,” Cashman said this week at the annual general managers' meetings, from which he departed early Thursday morning. “And I know many in the industry feel the same way by their attempts last year, these extremely smart teams, trying to see if they can get their hands on him. They’re not going to ask this year because everybody saw the numbers behind the numbers from last year and they know what he’s capable of. They know he’s a huge difference-maker being able to run him out there behind the plate.”
Sanchez followed an injury-plagued 2018 season, in which he hit .186 with 18 homers and a .697 OPS in 89 games, by hitting .232 with 34 homers and an .841 OPS in 106 games in 2019. There were two injury list stints, though: one early in the season because of a left calf strain and one early in the second half because of a left groin strain.
And, to get this out of the way, Sanchez is entrenched as the team’s No. 1 catcher in 2020.
“Oh, yeah,” Cashman said without hesitation.
There were in 2019, however, the usual questions about Sanchez, particularly on defense. Opposing team talent evaluators salivated, as they always have, about his arm – “it’s a hand-cannon,” one said – and generally gave high marks on his pitch-framing, something Yankees pitchers have praised Sanchez for over the years. But those scouts also spoke of a second-half drop-off of Sanchez’s receiving and pitch-blocking. There was improvement in the numbers in that department overall as Sanchez, who led the majors in passed balls in 2017 with 16 and again in 2018 (with 18), cut that number to seven this season.
How would Cashman describe the 26-year-old’s season?
“Fantastic,” he said.
It was, of course, more complex than that. Sanchez experienced two seasons in one. He burst from the gate in the first half and earned the starter’s job for the American League in the All-Star Game but never got into an offensive rhythm thereafter, hitting .207 with 10 homers and a .785 OPS in the second half.
The postseason was a nightmare as Sanchez went 4-for-31 (.129) with one homer, three RBIs, 16 strikeouts and a .476 OPS in nine games.
“It could be rust, it could be opposing pitchers, it could be all of the above,” Cashman said. “[Small] sample size. But overall he had a fantastic season.”
For all of the criticism Sanchez receives from many fans and media – and it’s important to note that criticism generally does not extend to the clubhouse, where Sanchez’s work ethic is often praised by his teammates, especially by his backup, Austin Romine – Cashman said almost annually teams have tried to pry him away.
But Cashman wasn’t interested last offseason, even after the horrendous 2018, and he certainly is not this offseason.
“Playoff clubs, clubs that you guys would write highly about as really tremendous organizations, would be knocking on our door for Gary Sanchez,” Cashman said. “And the answer is no and I would publicly say it was no last year, as you recall. And I thought his season basically played out as an exclamation point of, we were right on that one. Same answers today as last year, other than the numbers support it even more. We made a good decision to keep him.”