Gary Sanchez doesn’t care about defense, doesn’t want to work at it, doesn’t play hard and, in the harshest evaluations, is lazy.
This year in particular, that has become the dominant part of a mostly unflattering public narrative for the Yankees catcher.
“It definitely doesn’t feel good if they call you that [lazy] because they don’t understand how hard it has been to get to the big leagues and how long the journey has been,” Sanchez said in a recent interview.
Sanchez, set to return Saturday from the disabled list, knows his past has played a role in contributing to that reputation. But it’s also one that, based on conversations with those on the inside, isn’t accurate.
“Nobody sees what’s behind the scenes,” Austin Romine said. “I just saw the guy hit for an hour and a half down there [in the cages] after he did his catching drills for an hour. People don’t see that. We do. That’s why you earn respect amongst your teammates.”
At the time Romine spoke those words, on Aug. 15, he was the starting catcher.
Sanchez aggravated his right groin strain — an injury that already had sidelined him earlier in the season and one that he probably came back from too soon — in a July 23 game against Tampa Bay (more on that game later). He was placed on the disabled list the next day with a groin strain.
Sanchez’s struggles at the plate (he’s hitting .188 with a .699 OPS), combined with Romine’s solid defense and better-than-expected work with the bat, brought on another narrative: Whenever Sanchez returned, the Yankees should play Romine more at catcher and maybe even keep him as the starter.
Romine, with the organization since the Yankees picked him in the second round of the 2007 draft, called that talk “a compliment” but added that it's ill-conceived.
“When Gary comes back,” he said forcefully, “he’s the starter. He’s an All-Star.”
Romine is among Sanchez’s staunchest defenders in a clubhouse full of them.
“He works his [butt] off and he’s gotten better and he cares,” CC Sabathia said. “I like throwing to him … Everybody just always knocks his defense, him blocking balls or whatever else it is, but if you look at it, guys pitch well when they throw to him. So that’s him, too.”
A significant part of that, several pitchers said, are things Sanchez doesn’t get enough credit for, including a plus-arm that scouts have raved about since he was a teenager.
“His game-calling has gotten way, way better than it used to be,” Luis Severino said. “Framing is something he’s gotten better on, gaining strikes. And he’s always had the good arm, throwing guys out, to control the running game. But for me, the main thing is game-calling. He’s very smart in that.”
Severino added: “It’s not always about what the hitter hits. Sometimes the [scouting report] says, ‘He’s a good slider hitter.’ But that day he’s not hitting the slider and [Sanchez] adjusts. That’s the stuff that makes a catcher better.”
The 2017 pitcher splits with Sanchez and Romine were interesting. Masahiro Tanaka, for instance, posted a 5.34 ERA in 21 games with Sanchez and a 3.15 ERA in 10 games with Romine. But Sabathia’s ERA was 2.96 in 20 games with Sanchez compared with 5.79 in five games with Romine (this season it’s 3.82 in seven games with Romine, 2.71 in 12 games with Sanchez).
Severino, not surprisingly, was good with both catchers in 2017 when he finished third in the American League Cy Young voting — a 2.86 ERA in 22 games with Sanchez and a 3.29 ERA in nine games with Romine.
Sonny Gray, famously, had a 4.63 ERA in eight games with Sanchez and a 1.45 ERA in three games with Romine last season, spurring the “personal catcher” debate. Throwing almost exclusively to Romine this season, Gray lost his rotation spot.
“He works a lot,” Severino said of Sanchez, with whom he has a 2.67 ERA this season compared with 3.59 with Romine. “I’ve been with him since I was in Double-A [in 2014] and I see the progress. He worked his [butt] off to get better.”
Crossed up at the Trop
Severino unwittingly co-starred in a scene from July 23 at Tropicana Field that furthered the doesn’t-care narrative.
With two outs in the bottom of the first, Rays rookie Jake Bauers on second and Ji-Man Choi at the plate, Severino threw a 1-and-2 slider. The darting pitch struck near Sanchez’s right foot and bounced away, well up the third-base line in the direction of the coach’s box.
Seeing Sanchez slow to find the ball, and then initially slow to pursue it, Bauers scored from second.
Between innings, Severino and Sanchez were seen having a spirited dugout discussion, and social media instantly lit up with praise for what appeared to be the pitcher scolding the catcher for: a) the cross-up and b) not retrieving the ball sooner.
Turns out the entirety of it was the cross-up.
Severino was convinced that Sanchez had called for a slider and Sanchez was equally convinced that he had put down the sign for a fastball.
Cameras didn’t catch the next interaction between the two. It came shortly after Severino ducked into the video room and saw the replay. The pitcher emerged to essentially acknowledge to Sanchez: “My bad.”
“That was on me, 100 percent,” Severino said last week, instantly recalling the sequence. “He put down a fastball sign and I didn’t see [it], and I threw a slider. I went to see the video and he called a fastball. It was my fault.”
Of course, the way the Yankees’ 7-6 loss ended that night ensured that the first-inning cross-up would become sidebar material. Sanchez hit a bases-loaded grounder to the left side, and after the Rays were unable to get the forceout at second, Sanchez was thrown out at first after not hustling out of the box. That kept the tying run from scoring, and that appropriately became the headline.
The optics of the night, regardless of the fact that Sanchez’s groin wasn’t 100 percent, were bad, and no one pretended otherwise.
“I should have run harder,” Sanchez said at the time.
He had been there before.
Growing up in the minors
Sanchez was signed by the Yankees for $3 million at the age of 16 out of the Dominican Republic in 2009 and began a steady rise in the organization. It was a rise that displayed the catcher's obvious talent, but it featured two events that helped shape the current narrative.
Sanchez was suspended twice in the minors; once in 2011 with Class A Charleston for insubordination and again in 2014 with Trenton for an undisclosed reason that then-Trenton manager Tony Franklin said at the time was a “disciplinary action” but was believed to be related to general comportment.
General manager Brian Cashman called all of it part of Sanchez’s “learning curve.”
A switch seemed to flip on in 2015 for the catcher, who had just become a father, an event the organization and the player believed had a maturing effect.
Sanchez started 2015 with Double-A Trenton. Aided by Josh Paul, then the Yankees’ catching coordinator and now the Angels’ bench coach, and other staff in the minors, he eventually earned a promotion to Triple-A and onto the club’s radar as a big-league option.
“He worked and transformed himself defensively to put himself in position,” Cashman said. “He worked extremely hard at it … He bought into the concept of being great in Double-A [in 2015].”
Jason Brown, the Yankees’ big-league catching coach, first worked with Sanchez in 2015 at Trenton in his role as a minor-league instructor.
“He takes pride in it, he works at it,” Brown said. “He understands that’s a huge part of his job.”
Of course, seldom was Sanchez’s defense mentioned in late 2016 when he was recalled Aug. 3 and began a historic tear. He finished with 20 homers in 53 games, including 19 in a 37-game stretch.
Last season, Sanchez’s first full year in the big leagues, he hit .278 with an .876 OPS, 33 homers and 90 RBIs in 122 games. But he also led the league in passed balls with 16.
It increasingly became an issue with former manager Joe Girardi, who publicly criticized Sanchez’s defense and chose not to use him behind the plate for two games in early August in Cleveland. While many questioned Girardi’s actions, the notion that he “lost” Sanchez the rest of the season simply isn’t based in facts. After returning to the lineup, Sanchez hit 16 homers and produced a .954 OPS to close out the regular season. He was better defensively, too, charged with four passed balls the rest of the regular season. He had none in a 13-game postseason that ended in Game 7 of the ALCS.
“It motivated him,” one confidant of Sanchez’s said of Girardi’s tough-love approach. “He liked and respected Joe.”
It was motivation that Sanchez took into the offseason as the 6-2, 230-pound catcher showed up for spring training in 2018 noticeably leaner and with more muscle. And he’s already planning to alter his offseason training this year — less emphasis on the weights, for example — in order to increase flexibility.
“If anyone questions the way he works, they should take a trip to the Dominican Republic and see if they can get through some of the workouts he does,” said Dellin Betances, who, like Sanchez, spends part of the offseason training there.
Still, the defensive struggles continued into this season for Sanchez, who had 10 passed balls when he went on the disabled list July 24.
“You never stop learning,” Sanchez said of his defense. “Every day is a learning moment, so every opportunity you have, you use that to get better and build on what you’ve learned.”
Laid-back, not lazy
Brown, like others in the clubhouse, described Sanchez as a player often among the first to the ballpark — it is not unusual for Sanchez to arrive for a 7 p.m. game by 1 or earlier to watch video, go over scouting reports, etc. — and whose laid-back demeanor might contribute as much as anything to the way he’s perceived.
“He’s mellow in the way he moves around, he’s not frantic or anything like that, and especially if you’re going through some struggles, it can give off that impression,” Aaron Boone said. “Which I would say is complete B.S.”
Sanchez used the same word, “mellow,” in describing himself and what can come off as a lack of fire.
“It’s a grind, and in order to compete every day, you have to do the best you can to prepare your body and prepare your mind, so that’s probably something that they don’t understand,” said Sanchez, who, some forget, initially hurt his groin June 24 in St. Petersburg while trying to beat out a double-play ball in the 10th inning of a loss to the Rays. “They see me having that consistent personality and they might misunderstand that as laziness. Which it’s not. It’s just a way for me to cope and control the many things that are happening around the game and my position.”
Then there’s the pitching staff itself.
As one talent evaluator put it: “He is catching what might be the nastiest staff in the big leagues.”
There’s David Robertson's Houdini act that features an assortment of diving breaking pitches, Betances’ knee-buckling curveball, Aroldis Chapman’s 100-plus-mph heater that might sink one pitch and cut another, and the sinker belonging to lefthander Zach Britton, whom Romine described as “a guy that throws a 98-mph bowling ball that goes straight down.”
And that’s just a sampling from the bullpen, not taking into account Tanaka’s splitter and slider, the late movement on Severino’s fastball and slider, and the array of action accompanying most of Gray’s pitches.
“It’s got to be one of the hardest staffs in the league to catch because it is so versatile and has so many different types of styles,” Sabathia said.
The bottom line, Romine said, is that Sanchez still is very much a work in progress. He is 25, with not yet two full seasons under his belt. Patience is needed.
“Everyone wants instant gratification,” Romine said. “Well, it took me nine years to get to where I am as a defensive catcher. There was a time in high-A where I wouldn’t call a curveball because I thought it would bounce and I didn’t know what to do with that. So there’s a learning curve. I respect his work ethic because I know how hard it was when I was struggling to be a good defensive catcher and I know how much work has to be put into it and I see him doing it … It would be one thing if he didn’t do anything or work hard or didn’t go look at video, but he is. He’s in there every day. He wants to get better and you can see it. And I respect that.”