TAMPA, Fla. – Gary Sanchez is having the spring training he desperately needed to have – and that the Yankees desperately needed him to have.
The Yankees decided to put most of their catching eggs in the 28-year-old Sanchez’s basket when they signed him to a one-year, $6.25 million contract in the offseason instead of non-tendering him.
It was always unlikely that the Yankees would simply let go of Sanchez for nothing after his subpar 2020 and subsequent postseason benching. But that it was even remotely possible shows how far Sanchez’s stock fell last year, when he hit .147 and struck out in 35.9 percent of his plate appearances.
Thus far, Sanchez has re-established himself as the Yankees’ No. 1 catcher. He is batting .286 with three home runs, four RBIs and a 1.062 OPS.
Sanchez has looked so dangerous at the plate that Aaron Judge recently said, "Gary’s going to have a special year . . . Gary’s a guy who can go out there and win AL MVP."
Sanchez homered in his first two games and three of his first five. He is hitting the baseball with authority, something he failed to do for most of 2020, and no one is talking about Kyle Higashioka taking over the bulk of the catching duties in 2021 anymore.
"I’ve always had really good support from my teammates," Sanchez said on Tuesday through an interpreter. "That’s something that I can never say anything bad about. They’ve always been there for me. Judge and I, we have a really good relationship. I’ll go out there and just give the best I have."
The best he has includes prodigious power and decent defense. Sanchez will never be a Gold Glove winner behind the plate, but his defensive shortcomings seem more egregious when he’s hitting under .150.
That’s why manager Aaron Boone benched Sanchez in the playoffs and started Higashioka in five of the Yankees’ seven postseason games.
Sanchez admitted he pressed last year, but insists he never lost his confidence.
"Maybe you went into a short season and you’re not getting the results that you want -- you start getting anxious," Sanchez said. "At some point, you start wanting to get two hits in one at-bat . . . I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of confidence. Lack of confidence and being anxious are two different things."
Boone said it was "a good question," though, to wonder if Sanchez’s confidence waned in 2020.
"I think even at his lowest, I do think he’s very confident in what he’s capable of doing and his ability," Boone said. "That said, I do think there’s been moments where there has been – at probably at times last year – pressing. You want to make up for some of the struggles you’ve had. And that can even snowball on you a little bit. I’ve certainly been there at the plate where even though you know what you’re capable of, you’re still in a funk to where it still sets in. Part of being a big leaguer and part of being an outstanding player is being able to navigate those because you’re going to get hit in the mouth. You’re going to struggle. The really good ones find a way to navigate out of that."
The Yankees’ catching depth behind Sanchez and Higashioka has taken a hit with the retirement of Erik Kratz and the fractured wrist suffered by non-roster veteran Robinson Chirinos.
On Tuesday, Higashioka was scratched from the lineup because of what Boone said was soreness in his side. Veteran Rob Brantly caught Gerrit Cole in the Yankees’ 7-4 victory over the Tigers in Lakeland.
Brantly, 31, is a .228 hitter in 127 games with four-big league teams. He spent last September at the Yankees’ alternate site after being acquired in a Aug. 28 trade with San Francisco. After going 0-for-3 on Tuesday, he is 2-for-7 -- with the hits being home runs -- in spring training.