When Gary Sanchez arrived at a crossroads, he seized the opportunity to become a Big League catcher
Yankees Magazine |
Gary Sanchez was preparing for Spring Training in 2015 when he had a decision to make.
The then-22-year-old had been considered one of the top 100 prospects in baseball for four straight years, but had fallen off those lists that winter, the result of poor discipline behind the plate. His offensive talent was not in dispute, but his lack of basic catching skills presented a multitude of questions about his future at the position.
Josh Paul, a former Big League catcher who had worked as a Yankees scout and managed in the team's Minor League system, had been named the club's new catching coordinator. He approached Sanchez with some of the organization's catching instructors and presented a crucial question to him.
"We sat down and point-blank asked him, 'Are you ready to do this full time and dedicate yourself to this?'" Paul said. "'Tell us now if you're not, and maybe we'll look in a different direction.'"
Like many other young heavy-hitting catchers, Sanchez's future could have been as a first baseman or a designated hitter. There was strong belief that his bat would translate to the Major League level, but his poor receiving skills left many wondering if he would ever make the necessary progress to catch in the Big Leagues.
Sanchez understood what he had to do. And he wanted to do it.
"When we sat down, we spoke and [Paul] gave me a really good message," Sanchez said through a translator. "In my mind, I needed to focus, because I believed that I could make it here. I needed to do my part, to do anything within my power that would help me get here. I listened to what he said and started working really, really hard."
"He said, 'I want to do this. I'm all in,'" Paul recalled. "We said, 'Let's get to work.' I've never seen a turnaround like this in a player's work ethic. He showed up and literally decided that he wanted to make the most of what he had."
The work he did over the next year and a half has begun to pay enormous dividends for both Sanchez and the team, which may have found its next great catcher to follow in the footsteps of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.
"The strides that he has made behind the plate are unbelievable," said Yankees first base coach Tony Peña, who also doubles as the team's catching instructor. "He can be great in the future. He's only going to stop himself."
Paul was so impressed by the young catcher's response to their conversation that a follow-up was never needed.
"Sometimes, guys need constant prodding, but it was just one talk and he said, 'I'm in,'" said Paul. "It wasn't lip service, and he proved it to us by his actions that he wanted to become a good catcher."
Prior to his sit-down with Paul, Sanchez had worked extensively with Julio Mosquera, a former catcher who played 12 games over three seasons in the Majors before finding his niche in coaching.
"I didn't know a lot about catching a regular game, but [Mosquera] taught me a lot," Sanchez said. "We worked really hard at the beginning of my career."
As the Yankees' catching coordinator for nine seasons, Mosquera had mentored young backstops Austin Romine and Jesus Montero, among others, getting the most out of them. But despite extensive work with Mosquera, Sanchez hadn't made the progress behind the plate that the Yankees had hoped he would during his first five years in the Minors.
"He could throw -- he's been gifted with a great arm -- but he was extremely raw receiving-wise and blocking-wise," said Paul, who worked with Sanchez in extended Spring Training in 2010 before managing him for a few weeks at the Yankees' Short-Season A-Ball affiliate in Staten Island later that year.
"He hadn't made a whole lot of progress during the four years I was in the scouting department other than his bat getting better," Paul added. "He was still struggling to receive -- passed balls, losing strikes, a hard time blocking. The turnaround point for him was in 2015. He seriously committed himself to working at this. It was his turnaround in work ethic that has everybody talking about his defense now."
Sanchez signed with the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2009 at 16, and his immaturity was evident at times. Whether it was his inconsistent work ethic or his inability to grasp catching basics, his future behind the plate was tenuous at best.
Yankees Manager Joe Girardi looks back at his initial impression of Sanchez compared to what he's seeing now and believes the player's development has everything to do with his maturity away from the field.
"People forget how young he is and what a 19-, 20- or 21-year-old kid is like whether they're at home, college or wherever," Girardi said. "He was under a microscope because he was such a top prospect. That's not easy."
Sanchez began 2015 with Double-A Trenton, where Michel Hernandez, another former catcher, was the defensive coach. Hernandez saw an arm that lived up to the hype -- several people in the game believe he may have the best catching arm since Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez in his prime -- but the rest of Sanchez' game clearly needed significant improvement.
The two worked tirelessly to learn the basics, from keeping his large frame low to holding the ball in the strike zone after receiving the pitch. Their workouts consisted of Sanchez catching hundreds of pitches from a pitching machine, something Paul referred to as a "mundane" exercise.
"The credit goes to him for saying, 'I'm going to do this work even though it's boring and repetitive,'" Paul said. "It's way more fun to go hit in the cage for an hour and a half, but he dedicated himself to it. He went from a guy that lost tons of strikes to a guy that now keeps the ball in the strike zone."
Sanchez agreed with Paul's assessment of the drills, which could have become tedious and monotonous. But he knew it was part of the process, and even if the early days were difficult, Sanchez understood it was a necessary evil.
"At the beginning, it was tough," Sanchez said. "But like anything else, it becomes a routine. You get used to it. Once it becomes a routine after the third or fourth day, you know what to expect and you get used to catching hundreds of pitches from the machine."
The progress was noticeable almost immediately. Sanchez found himself sharpening the very skills that had been in question and was encouraged to do more and more each day.
"Once he started really concentrating on it, he loved it," Paul said. "There's nothing more boring than playing first base or playing DH. Catching is the most fun spot on the field, by far. You're involved in every single pitch. Once he started seeing improvements, I think he enjoyed it."
Sanchez was promoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre during the 2015 season, where he continued his work with Jason Brown, the RailRiders' bullpen coach.
While Sanchez's work with Hernandez had focused on the basics of the position, Brown took it to the next level, working with the youngster on blocking balls and other techniques.
"Everything was a grind from the start," Sanchez said. "Every higher level, I learned more and kept on growing as a professional player."
Following a September call-up and a stellar performance in the Arizona Fall League, the Yankees had high hopes for Sanchez in 2016. Many considered him the front-runner to land the job as Brian McCann's backup when Spring Training began, but a tumultuous spring that saw him go 2-for-22 at the plate ultimately sent him back to Triple-A, beaten out for the job by Romine.
"I think he tried too hard when he was there," said Girardi. "He could probably almost taste being a Big Leaguer, and he wanted it so bad, it got in the way of him performing and relaxing. So I think he said, 'OK, I'm going to go work at Triple-A and get better every day, and when I get back up, I'll know what to do.'"
Sanchez and Brown continued their work in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the lessons moving from the physical part of the game to the mental side. In particular, they focused on the art of preparation.
Brown taught his protégé how to study scouting reports and do advance work for each game, formulating a game plan with that day's starting pitcher and the pitching coach.
Whatever Brown did, he delivered the message effectively.
"In 2016, the amount of information that's available to us, what we're able to keep track of, it's a mountain of information," Brown said. "To be able to sift through that, put it into a useful form and keep it simple is a challenge. Gary took to it right away.
"What I was really impressed with was how Gary merged that information with his instincts and intuition. He gets a gut feel when he's calling a game. There's a lot going on. It's not just scouting reports and numbers. It's, 'What is the pitcher on the mound doing that day? What is he doing right now?' Gary does a great job of keeping that in mind."
Sanchez's disappointing spring didn't carry over into the regular season. He represented the Yankees at the All-Star Futures Game and was named the International League's starting catcher for the Triple-A All-Star Game.
Sanchez was hitting .282 with an .807 OPS, 10 home runs and 50 RBI in 71 games for the RailRiders when he got the call he had been waiting for at the beginning of August. He was being promoted to the Majors.
"I'm happy and excited to be here," said Sanchez, who was called up briefly in May. "I want to give all of those coaches I worked with a lot of credit for helping me get here today."
Sanchez' bat looked good during his first full week and a half as an everyday player. He hit .313 (10-for-32) with one home run and four RBI in eight games as he posted a respectable .833 OPS.
More importantly, he was working seamlessly with the Yankees' starting pitchers, getting on the same page with the more experienced Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda as easily as he did with rookies Chad Green and Luis Cessa, two pitchers he had caught at Triple-A.
"The biggest surprise was the way he's taken charge and called games," said Peña, who caught 1,950 games over 18 Major League seasons. "He's keeping everything in mind from the game plan while he's out there. He's not missing anything from the reports, and he's following every single thing."
"It's kind of like a package," Sanchez said. "Now you have a full package, where all the pointers, all the good advice and the tools I was given, I use it all to call games here in the Big Leagues."
Having watched Sanchez develop over the course of several Major League Spring Training camps, Girardi was thrilled to see the progress the prospect had made during the previous 18 months. As impactful as his bat figures to be, Girardi -- himself a 15-year Big League catcher -- believes that the primary job at the position is what a catcher does behind the plate, not standing at it.
"The ability was there, and we saw that," Girardi said. "We'd see glimpses of it. It's just consistent play; he understands what he needs to do and what adjustments he needs to make. The reps have made him a consistent player, where his throws are consistent, he blocks consistently, he frames consistently. He's become quite a force back there."
With his defense no longer in question, Sanchez looked relaxed during his first few weeks following his Aug. 3 call-up. He hit his second homer on Aug. 14, starting a power surge that saw him slug seven longballs in an eight-game span, becoming the first player in the franchise's illustrious history to go deep eight times in the first 19 games of his career.
"I think this kid has a ton of talent," Girardi said. "I think the sky is the limit."
Girardi put Sanchez in the No. 8 slot when he joined the team in August, but Sanchez soon powered his way up the lineup card. He served as the Yankees' cleanup hitter on Aug. 17 and found himself in the No. 3 hole the following game, thrust into spots typically reserved for a team's best hitters.
"It's almost like it's easier for him here," said teammate Mark Teixeira. "He's more focused, he's got more energy, and he's hitting balls farther. You don't see that very much; you don't see guys come up here and make the game look easy in the Big Leagues in your first couple weeks. He's doing that, and it's impressive. You just marvel at what he's doing right now."
Things won't always be so easy for the talented Sanchez, who will undoubtedly endure his share of slumps like every other player in the Majors. Rookies often have trouble during their second time through the league -- the dreaded sophomore slump -- so Girardi is eager to see how Sanchez handles himself once opponents have better scouting reports on both his thunderous bat and his abilities behind the plate.
"What you're going to have to watch is, as teams make adjustments to him, how he adjusts to them," Girardi said. "As teams also make adjustments to some of our young pitchers, how does he adjust to them? It's offensively and defensively. From a physical standpoint, he's very impressive, so now it's going to become the mental part."
Having graduated from his schooling with Paul, Mosquera, Hernandez and Brown, Sanchez is now working under the tutelage of Peña. As a five-time All-Star, Peña knows what it takes to succeed at this level. From what he has seen to this point, he believes Sanchez has what it takes to be a productive player and potential All-Star.
"He has grown up so much and has a great state of mind right now," Peña said. "He's willing to learn everything; he wants to work. He comes to me and says, 'I want you to teach me everything you know about catching in the Big Leagues.' He doesn't want to just be another catcher. He wants to be great."
Even after his impressive August, Sanchez remains a humble rookie looking to get better every day. No matter how many runners he throws out or home runs he hits, he knows there's so much more he can do to take his game to the next level -- and the level beyond that.
"I've learned a lot, but I feel like there's a lot more that I can learn," Sanchez said. "Every day, you come to the park, you learn something new. As a catcher, you want to keep building."
This article appears in the September issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.