Despite Gary Sanchez’s superhuman ability at the plate, the biggest threat to his batting heroics — his Kryptonite, if you will — is what he must do while squatting behind it. That’s been the age-old problem for offensively skilled catchers, from Yogi Berra to Johnny Bench to Mike Piazza to Buster Posey. Staying healthy.
Even outfitted in protective padding from head-to-toe, no defensive player on the field is more vulnerable. The most routine accidents, on any one pitch, might possibly deliver a knockout blow. For a sobering example, look what happened Wednesday night to Sanchez, who homered twice at Tropicana Field but later was smacked on the elbow by Rickie Shaffer’s backswing in the ninth inning. Nothing out of the ordinary, but serious enough for Yankees trainer Steve Donohue to venture over for a quick check.
Fortunately, Sanchez was OK — this time. But the dangerous nature of the position often pushes teams to consider moving their top hitters to another spot, in order to insure that bat stays in the lineup as much as possible. The Giants give Posey occasional breathers at first base, and the Mets, after seeing Travis d’Arnaud knocked around in past years, also entertained the idea of working him out somewhere else.
Obviously, the Yankees like Sanchez right where he is, especially at this stage of his career. He’s only 23, and could have plenty of durable years behind the plate. Plus, having a catcher with his type of run-producing ability is a huge advantage for a lineup, which usually must rely on offense from elsewhere. The challenge then becomes giving him enough rest, but even that is no guarantee. The threats come from everywhere — bats, foul tips, sliding runners — and handling injury is a matter of degrees. It can’t be avoided altogether.
“Of course it’s hard,” said the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, a seven-time All-Star and long considered the gold standard at the position. “You get hit by the ball every game. Every time, it’s a new spot. You got bruises every time. It’s tough. It’s a tough position to do both things, to be successful on defense and to be successful on offense, too.
“I mean, you’re squatting for, how many times, 200 times? And then you come back the next day with a different bruise on your body and then you have to do the same thing, day in and day out. Obviously you can do it. But you’ve got to be mentally tough.”
Molina, 34, has played fewer than 136 games only once since 2008, the season he wound up on the disabled list with a sprained knee. The other DL stint was 2014, when Molina was limited to 110 games due to surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb. Molina certainly doesn’t possess Sanchez’s power, but he’s always been a solid offensive threat, batting over .300 four times and hitting .296 this season. In 2012, Molina smacked a career-high 22 homers, and never really came close to duplicating the feat. As for potentially moving from behind the plate on occasion to preserve his health in later years, Molina has no interest.
“I’m a catcher,” Molina said. “I like to be back there. I like to be in the game. I like to get hit. I need to have those feelings, and you definitely definitely you take pride in that. I see other guys move because their offense is so good. The team want them to be more careful, so they move. But I think, in my own opinion, if they wanted to do that with me, I wouldn’t accept it.”
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has had the difficult task of monitoring Sanchez’s playing time as his team clings to its slim wild-card hopes. How do you sit a player with a 1.150 OPS who hits a home run every 10.1 at-bats? In the AL, the choice is not quite as extreme, as Girardi has the luxury of the DH to fall back on, and Sanchez made 13 of his first 44 starts without having to put on the equipment, a nice break. That’s something the Yankees will look forward to doing in the years ahead as well.
“You want to keep his legs fresh enough so he’s effective as a hitter,” Girardi said. “I think that’s why you see me giving him DH days, to try and keep his bat in the lineup, but to keep him fresh.”
Still, Girardi recognizes the need for a complete day off as well, just to relieve some of that mental stress, too. A young catcher has a lot on his plate. Not only is Sanchez trying to decode how opposing pitchers are attacking him, but he also has to shepherd his own staff through nine innings. The preparation involved in the later often cuts into swings in the cage, so that makes what Sanchez is doing all that much more impressive.
“The defensive side, that’s our main focus, from the time we get up here,” d’Arnaud said. “Pitchers really appreciate it when they know that’s our main focus throughout the day. The offense kind of becomes secondary. But the more at-bats you get, the more repetition you get, the more things slow down offensively. You’re able to just simplify things and be able to have a routine offensively and be more focused on the defense.”
The Mets appear to be at a crossroads with d’Arnaud, whose own offensive prowess — and mainly his power — may have been sapped by injuries over the past few years. He hit 12 home runs over 268 plate appearances in 2015, a season abbreviated to 67 games by a fractured hand and hyperextended elbow. D’Arnaud also has missed time over the years with a herniated disk, a torn knee ligament, a broken foot, a concussion and a bone chip in his throwing elbow. This season, d’Arnaud landed on the DL with a rotator cuff strain that again seems to have affected his plate production.
“There’s always new bruises, new aches and pains,” d’Arnaud said. “When you’re squatting up and down all day, and running all the time, your legs aren’t under you all the time, and that’s the key to hitting, especially to be successful at it. You start with the bottom half first, so that’s probably why it’s so hard. When your legs are tired, you try to add more when you’re hitting with your upper body or total body, so that causes you to lunge for the ball, or overswing even.”
Something has been off this season for d’Arnaud, who delivered his first RBI since Aug. 26 with a run-scoring double on Friday night. As for Sanchez, now arguably the favorite for Rookie of the Year, he’s shown no signs of cooling off before the Yankees close up shop for the winter. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Sanchez is only the third Yankee to hit 19 or more home runs from Aug. 10 until the end of the season, joining Babe Ruth (25 in 1927) and Roger Maris (20 in ’61). His 1.152 OPS (198 PA) also is the highest by a Yankee with at least 175 plate appearances since Mickey Mantle’s 1.177 (over 623 PA) in 1957. Sanchez is a special player, and now the Yankees have to make sure he stays that way — as well as intact — at a hazardous position.
“We have to make sure we don’t wear him down,” Girardi said. “where he’s not productive on the offensive side.”
Easier said than done, when it comes to catchers. But the reward, in Sanchez’s case, can be historic.