TAMPA, Fla. — From non-tender candidate to American League MVP? That would be quite a comeback story for Gary Sanchez. And at least one of his Yankees teammates has enough faith in the catcher, especially after watching his progress the past few weeks, to believe it’s within the realm of possibility.
"Gary is going to have a special year this year," Aaron Judge said Sunday. "The changes I’ve seen him make, the improvements on both sides of the baseball. Gary’s a guy that can go out there and win the AL MVP. He’s that dynamic. He’s that important of a player to this team."
Sanchez didn’t bring the same thunder Sunday in the Yankees’ 4-0 victory over the Phillies as he did with that booming home run over the 40-foot-high batter’s eye in centerfield last Monday. But he had an uneventful afternoon behind the plate — not a bad thing when a catcher keeps the focus on the solid pitching performance. And he also slapped a single to rightfield during the second inning two batters before Brett Gardner’s grand slam.
As spectacular as Monday’s blast was, Judge was nearly as impressed by Sanchez’s ability to shorten up and ground Zack Wheeler’s low fastball to right. Everyone knows about Sanchez’s power, but this offseason was all about the stuff he doesn’t do so well. His strides in that department, with the help of catching coordinator Tanner Swanson, are what have the Yankees talking.
Swanson was hired before the 2020 season as a sort of "catching whisperer." His mission was to upgrade Sanchez’s deteriorating defense, particularly the growing number of passed balls. But with so much to absorb — including a new $324 million pitcher to learn in Gerrit Cole — Sanchez wound up drowning in all that data.
It also didn’t help that spring training was shut down in mid-March, followed by a nearly-four-month layoff and an abbreviated July summer camp. What already figured to be a challenging year for Sanchez became even more difficult, and once it went downhill, he never could slow that negative momentum.
In looking back, Swanson thinks Sanchez just had trouble cramming for the test. While he was receptive to Swanson’s teachings about setting up behind the plate, Sanchez didn’t have enough time to feel acclimated, even for the small sample size of a 60-game season.
This year, Sanchez has been at the Tampa complex since January, and the extended lead-in to spring training already is showing dividends. Rather than feeling the pressure of trying to catch up, Sanchez seems more relaxed with the freedom to just play instead of being tangled up in the lessons.
"He’s really invested himself into what we’re doing, has refined his process and is putting a lot of quality work in," Swanson said. "I think we’re seeing that transferred to the game. I think overall it’s just a much more confident version of the Gary Sanchez we saw in 2020. I think he’s in a really good place and his process is really sound. So I’ve been really pleased."
From his benching during last October’s playoffs to the public criticism from Brian Cashman, Sanchez’s descent within Yankees Universe has been steep. Hitting .147 with a .618 OPS will do that, not to mention his unraveling defense. Sanchez has led MLB (or been tied for the top spot) in passed balls the past four seasons.
Playing the game is hard enough with a clear head, and for Sanchez, who always seemed to be scrambling mentally, it became impossible. He’s had the chance to catch his breath again, and the results are showing.
"I never questioned his belief or his buy-in," Swanson said. "I just don’t think he ever got really comfortable to the place where we could really expand. When we broke camp last year, and really when we got disrupted with the pandemic and had to come back, we had kind of a foundation laid but weren’t able to really expand much beyond that. So I think this year, and with the work he’s done this offseason, we’ve really been able to kind of open up the playbook."
Swanson now has a renewed optimism about that transformation. The byproduct is a return of the old Sanchez, the All-Star version, standing beside the plate, ready to do damage to the opposition rather than his own team. With two home runs in 11 plate appearances, Sanchez is convincing the Yankees that’s happening.
"From Day 1, the first day of the offseason, I think he was already trying to make changes," Judge said. "It was pretty amazing to see the improvements he made in just a short amount of time.
"His want and need to get better is something that’s always impressed me. He’s a hard worker. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the amount of work and hours he puts in at his craft, so it’s exciting to see the success he’s had so far in spring training."
Just imagine if that carries over to the games that count.