The New York Yankees and 2x All-Star catcher Gary Sánchez were at a crossroads during the 2020 offseason. Sánchez was coming off the worst year of his career, and back to back down years.
He hit .147 in 49 games played in the Covid shortened 60 game season.
Gerrit Cole lost trust in throwing to Sánchez rather quickly into the season. Back up catcher Kyle Higashioka became Cole’s personal catcher.
Sánchez was benched in the regular season and hardly played in the Yankees’ postseason run.
His defense, which all parties hoped would improve significantly under newly hired catching coach Tanner Swanson, had largely stalled despite some improvements in pitch framing.
By the time the offseason rolled around, many were questioning Sánchez’s future with the team. Even Yankees Genral Manager Brian Cashman had his doubts about the franchise catcher.
“Well, I think it’s certainly a fair question, obviously with the way Gary Sánchez’s season transpired. And then the way it ended with Kyle Higashioka actually starting in the postseason as many games as he did,” Cashman said in October. “I think it’s one of the discussion points we’re going to have to focus on.”
The Yankees had previously not wavered on Sánchez publicly to the extent that Cashman did that afternoon. They signed Sánchez as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, and set their expectations for him sky-high after his stellar 2016 and 2017 seasons. Cashman and manager Aaron Boone had always been quick to shut down questions about Sánchez changing positions or losing playing time during offensive and defensive slumps.
But then 2020 happened and defending Sánchez had become impossible. The offseason was the time to answer some serious questions the team had been putting off for a calendar year.
Should they continue to commit to Sánchez and invest in his success? Should they try to trade him at the lowest point of his career? Should they even tender him a contract for 2021?
In the end the Yankees chose to continue investing in their catcher who had been in their system for a decade. It came after some tough conversations with all parties involved. Ultimately the front office, coaches and Sánchez reached an understanding.
“We can’t guarantee anything, but I know we’ve all done everything necessary to try to make sure that he’s the best player he can possibly be,” Cashman said. “And I’m pretty optimistic that it could play out that way, mainly because it’s always been that way other than last year.”
But that didn’t mean Sánchez was in the clear. The organization wanted to see him make strides this offseason, in Spring Training, and ultimately in the regular season.
Sánchez came into camp in great shape, and played winter ball in the Dominican Republic to help get right. And to his credit, the hard work appears to be paying off.
One of the main offensive focuses for Sánchez this offseason was attacking fastballs, particularly early in the count. Last year he hit .173 with a .444 slugging percentage against fastballs overall, including .222 with a .571 slugging percentage against fastballs in the strike zone. The MLB averages on heaters in the zone were .303 with a .788 slugging percentage. Sanchez was 81 batting average points and 217 slugging percentage points below average.
“There were a couple things me and (hitting coach Marcus Thames) were working on the last three days of spring,” Sanchez said about his work at the plate the last few weeks. “We’re getting good results out of that. For me, I think it’s just keep going and following the routine we’ve creating. Focus on that and keep going forward.”
In the Yankees regular season opener, Sánchez showcased the work he put in this offseason.
On the very first pitch he saw from Blue Jays ace Hyun-Jin Ryu, a fastball, Sánchez drove it over the left field wall for a two run home run.
Later in the game Sánchez showed his defensive ability, gunning down the runner for a caught stealing.
But the main focus was he and Cole being able to gel while calling the game. Last year Cole lost trust in pitching to Sánchez, so it is important they build chemistry.
“I thought we were good,” Cole said after the game. “We made… I had some poor execution on a couple pitches that burned us. We made really good pitches to stop the bleeding in the second. There was a lot of good out there.”
Game two of the season was much the same for the Yankees catcher. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Sánchez homered once again over the left field wall, giving the Yankees the lead.
This time the Yankees didn’t waste Sánchez’s home run, as they won the game 5-3, and head into Sunday looking to take the opening series from the Jays.
“I do feel good with the adjustments I’ve made, and I think they’re gonna be key and they’re gonna make a difference,” Sánchez said at the start of spring training. “I definitely think that this year, stuff is going to be different.”