Maybe the biggest testament to Gary Sanchez’s turnaround season came in the sixth Tuesday night, when he struck out, or in the eighth, when he flew out.
It’s not that he failed in a big situation — Aaron Boone pointed out after that even great hitters fail more than they succeed — but it was the sense of anticipation. After languishing last year, the Sanchez of 2019 comes with the expectation of production. After all, that’s what he did in the fourth inning, when he hit his 17th home run, tied for second in first-half home runs by a catcher in franchise history. It was his fifth homer in eight games.
With one out in the fourth, Sanchez obliterated Eric Lauer’s fastball on a solo home run that traveled 436 feet at 113 mph. It was Sanchez’s 10th home run with an exit velocity over 110 mph, the most in baseball, according to statistician Katie Sharp. Six of his 17 homers this season have been over 435 feet, tied for most in the majors.
All that points to a player who’s seeing the ball better and hitting it with authority, which is a far cry from last season, when Sanchez hit a woeful .186 in 89 games — going from bonafide slugger to a footnote amid the Yankees’ other heavy hitters.
It wasn’t so long ago, either, that many questioned if the Yankees would consider trading him, prompting Brian Cashman to say in-season and during the offseason that Sanchez was their catcher now and would be their catcher in the future.
In return, Sanchez is starting to make his general manager look like a very prescient man. He’s compiled a slash line of .265/.338/.647 going into Tuesday.
Add to that, Sanchez’s 17 home runs have come in just 36 games, putting him on track for a 50-plus home run season, if he can stay healthy. Tacking on Tuesday’s homer, that’s a home run in over 12 percent of his at bats this year.
“No. 1 is my health,” Sanchez said of his improvement. “That’s the No. 1 reason, I’m healthy. At the plate, I’ve been working hard at not swinging at bad pitches. I keep saying this but that’s it, keeping things simple at the plate, not swinging at bad pitches.”
Sanchez only had 18 home runs all of last season, and didn’t get to 17 until Sept. 14. He still has his struggles, though. With two runners on and one out in the sixth, Sanchez was badly fooled by reliever Matt Wisler’s 85-mph slider for a swinging strike three, but that came after a strike two was called on a ball badly out of the zone. That changed the entire tenor of the at-bat, Sanchez said.
He squandered another chance in the seventh, when with runners at the corners with two outs, he flied out to left. Going into the game he was hitting .357 in high-leverage situations, though only 7-for-32 with runners in scoring position.
But in all, Sanchez’s peripheral stats point to a player who’s adjusting to a league that adjusted to him. His fly balls are up this year — from 42.9 percent to 58.1 percent, according to FanGraphs. Pivotally, his groundballs are down. In 2018, 42.9 percent of batted balls were grounders, compared to 20.4 going into yesterday. Last year, Sanchez was routinely grounding out on a ball he would generally elevate, one high in the strikezone, right in his wheelbox.
He’s also hitting balls harder than he has in his entire major-league career, a hard-hit rate of 50.5 percent.
“Pitchers, they can execute really good pitches,” he said. “I’m trying to stay away from those pitches and swinging at ones in the zone.”
Maybe it really is as simple as that. And maybe last year really was the temporary speed bump on the way to better things.