TAMPA, Fla. — Aaron Boone had seen it from the broadcast booth and on television, but until Sunday afternoon, he had not seen it at such close range:
Gary Sanchez showing off his right arm, which scouts have raved about almost as much as his hitting over the years.
“Pretty impressive,” Boone said, shaking his head.
The situation: None out in the first inning against the Rays, Mallex Smith on first after singling off Chad Green, Kevin Kiermaier at the plate.
Green gave Smith, who had 16 stolen bases in 21 attempts in 81 games last year, a cursory look and came to the plate. Smith took off and Sanchez delivered a low strike to shortstop Tyler Wade, who barely had to move his glove before tagging Smith out on a bang-bang play.
Even in acknowledging “I always think he has a chance” to throw out a runner because of his arm, Boone didn’t necessarily think it would be the case in that situation.
“I thought Smith had a really good jump and we weren’t overly quick to the plate,” he said. “That’s one of those where you kind of elbow each other over there [in the dugout] and go, ‘Did you just see that?’ . . . The one thing we didn’t get on the bench was his pop time.”
A catcher’s pop time is the amount of time elapsed from the moment a pitch hits the catcher’s glove until it reaches the glove of the middle infielder. Anything under 2.0 seconds is generally considered superb. Opposing team talent evaluators in the seats at Steinbrenner Field on Sunday had it at 1.9.
One referenced the 20-80 grading scale used by scouts, with 20-30 considered well below average and 70-80 considered exceptional. “Swing the bat the way he does with a 70-80 arm?” the rival scout said in giving an overall evaluation of Sanchez’s defense compared with other catchers. “There aren’t many of ’em. I’ll take him.”
Just like his bat (33 homers in 122 games last season even though he missed about a month with a biceps injury), Sanchez’s arm has never been considered an issue. His overall defense, however, is another story.
Sanchez led the American League with 16 passed balls last season. The Yankees also ranked third-worst in the AL in wild pitches with 83, a statistic scouts often say is a reflection of the catcher’s defensive abilities.
Irritated with Sanchez’s defense and trying to send a message, former manager Joe Girardi didn’t start him behind the plate for three straight games in early August.
In his first 64 games at catcher through Aug. 4, before the hiatus, Sanchez allowed 12 passed balls in 553 2⁄3 innings and threw out 10 of 36 would-be base-stealers (27.8 percent). After returning, in 40 games, Sanchez allowed four passed balls in 327 1⁄3 innings and threw out nine of 20 (45 percent).
There clearly was some improvement, and Sanchez spent much of the offseason continuing to work on that side of the ball. He has been working with catching coach Jason Brown in spring training, and Boone liked what he saw Sunday.
“Sanchy had a great day back there,” Boone said before adding: “I love what I’m seeing from him from a work standpoint and then going in a game and leading and I think he’s receiving really well. He was blocking great all day. I don’t know how many balls in the dirt — six, seven, eight, probably. And a few of them with runner on third base. I think he’s in a really good place defensively right now.”