Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez


Murti: Gary Sanchez Working Hard To Take Game To Next Level -- At Plate And Behind It

Coaches, Teammates Marvel At His Talent, Determination

Sweeny Murti
March 12, 2018 - 9:35 am

TAMPA, Fla. (WFAN) -- In a star-studded lineup featuring Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton as the potential Mantle & Maris of this group, will people tend to forget just how good Gary Sanchez is?

"People who know baseball won’t,” first baseman Greg Bird said.

Sanchez is already one of the most dangerous hitters in the league, smashing 20 home runs in just 53 games as a rookie in 2016 and then cracking 33 more homers in his first full season. So how much better can the 25-year-old catcher get?

“Gary is about to take off. Not that he already hasn’t, but ... ” said Yankees bench coach Josh Bard, a former big league catcher, trailing off with a little shake of his head.

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“I really believe that Gary, pretty much every time he goes on the field, to me, he’s the most talented player on the field,” Bard said. “You just look at the total package. I personally feel like he has the best swing in baseball.”

Taking his hacks in a batting practice group that includes Bird, Judge and Stanton, Sanchez is one who often leaves tongues hanging out.

"I just say, 'Wow!' like every swing he takes,” Judge said. “Just how efficient his swing is, how he uses his whole body. He’s so accurate with the barrel -- that’s the biggest thing I notice. Not too many balls he hits in BP aren’t squared up.”

Stanton said he's impressed by “the charge he can put in the ball, especially with his leg kick, how he can stay back on off-speed and (fastballs). The more movement you have, the harder it is to be on time.”

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Hitting coach Marcus Thames said batting practice is an exercise in routine for Sanchez.

“He just tries to repeat his move every single pitch, no matter who’s in the group or if somebody’s launching home runs,” Thames said. “He’s trying to make the same move on every single pitch, and that’s what helps him be consistent. He’s driving the ball to right-center, to left-center, and he’s just repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Bird thinks Sanchez reminds him of Miguel Cabrera, a complete hitter with seemingly natural ability. CC Sabathia called Sanchez the best hitter in the Yankees lineup and threw out “a young Manny Ramirez” comparison.

Yet somehow, the Judge and Stanton Show has overshadowed a bit what Sanchez brings to the table.

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“I don’t know why he doesn’t get the same credit as being one of those big power hitters,” Judge said. “He just uses the whole field so well, people just say he’s a good hitter. That’s all you can really say. You can’t put him as a power hitter or a contact hitter. He’s just a great hitter.”

A great hitter, who humbly deflects the praise and points to the shortcomings he is working on.

“I would like to improve not swinging at as many bad pitches,” Sanchez said, through interpreter Marlon Abreu. “Sometimes I get a little too aggressive in certain situations, and I swing at (bad pitches), so I definitely want to improve on those.”

The defensive side is where Sanchez has seen more ups and downs. Blessed with a once-in-a-generation throwing arm, Sanchez has a well-earned reputation for shutting down and gunning down base stealers (39 percent since 2016).

But on Aug. 4 last season in Cleveland, Sanchez drew rare public criticism from then-manager Joe Girardi after allowing a passed ball and two wild pitches in a loss to the Indians. It was the peak of frustration in a year that saw Sanchez lead the league with 16 passed balls, in addition to 53 wild pitches -- all in just 104 games behind the plate.

With a new manager and coaching staff in place, Sanchez has somewhat of a clean slate. Their views on his 2017 season are mainly from afar, but there is a belief there that the April biceps injury that landed Sanchez on the DL for nearly a month was a major factor in why his defense may have lagged behind for much of the summer.

“I think we always underestimate, especially as a young star player, how demanding a position it is on so many levels,” said manager Aaron Boone, son of former All-Star and Gold Glove-winning catcher Bob Boone.

“And then last year, he gets hurt to start the season, so he’s a little bit behind the eight ball and kind of playing catch-up all year from a defensive standpoint.”

“He was playing his way back into shape.” said catching coach Jason Brown, who was the bullpen catcher a year ago. “And when you’re physically tired, that’s when the lapses in concentration show up. That’s for anybody.

“As he got his legs under him more, at the end of the season and in the playoffs, he played his way back into shape and got better.”

Over the winter, Brown and Bard looked at old video of Sanchez going back to 2015 at Triple-A and they determined that whatever problems he was having stemmed from his set position behind the plate.

“We just peeled through video after video, and (we determined) he just needs to get his athleticism back,” Bard said. “He was an elite strike-stealer in Scranton, and then whether it was being dinged up or whatever, he kind of lost a little bit of that.”

“It starts with his stance, his setup -- starting in an athletic position,” Brown said. “He’s been working in the weight room and working on his lower-half flexibility, stability, mobility. But starting in a good position whether he’s receiving or blocking or throwing, that foundation is where it starts.”

Why did it get away from him last year? That again might go back to the April injury.

“Anytime you come back from an injury, the pace and the rhythm are not exactly where you want to be,” Sanchez said. “And it takes a little time to get back to where you were before the injury. But that’s part of the game. It’s going to happen, and what you want to do is find the best way to get back to where you want to be.”

And back to that good starting place, the setup, is where Brown and Sanchez wanted to be as they established his offseason and spring programs.

“That’s definitely something we’ve been working on -- being more athletic and flexible,” Sanchez said. “That’s something I worked on in the offseason and here in camp. That’s the focus right now ... in order for me to be more consistent as a catcher.”

“Receiving, he looks comfortable, he looks good,” Brown said. “Getting back again to that stance, being in an athletic position. That’s a huge part of it. Everything you do behind the plate starts from that stance, from that setup. When he’s in a good position and he’s athletic, good things follow.”

Added Boone: "I think right now he’s in a great frame of mind. The program he’s on — the work he’s doing, the quality of his work day in and day out — has been excellent, and I feel like it’s shown up in the games. I think he’s been really good at receiving. I think he’s been great (with balls) in the dirt. I think he’s working hard at developing a rapport with his pitching staff. It’s something we continue to challenge him on. And he’s responding. He’s engaged.”

Sanchez never publicly blamed the injury or Girardi’s actions for anything that went wrong. Bard said that didn’t go unnoticed, calling Sanchez a caring teammate who generates a lot of respect inside the clubhouse.

What’s also understood inside the clubhouse is how insanely hard Sanchez’s job is -- catching maybe the hardest-throwing and nastiest pitching staff in the game.

“You’re talking about a bullpen that is elite stuff-wise as you can get,” Bard said. “It’s just a battle. That’s where we really tried to buy in with him about 'let’s bring the athleticism back.’ Because the more athletic you are, when guys miss spots or whatever, your chances of succeeding are better.”

Brown explains it best.

"Chapman comes into the game and it’s a 100 (mph) plus. Sometimes it cuts. Sometimes it (fades). Sometimes the slider breaks eight inches. Sometimes it’s 2 1/2 feet. It makes him really hard to hit, but at the same time, it makes it a challenge to catch.

“That’s just one example. Betances, Severino, Sonny Gray, Tanaka with his split -- it’s staff full of guys that are hard to hit, hard to catch. ... But that’s the job. It’s a good challenge. But generally speaking, guys that are hard to hit are also hard to catch.”

Sanchez agrees with the assessment, but simply chalks it up as part of his job that he needs to constantly work on to improve.

“They have great pitches, great movement, great velocity,” Sanchez said. “So when you put all that together, yes it’s tough to catch them. But every single inning you catch, you get more experience and you get better. You might see a pitcher like Betances or Chapman throw a certain pitch, and from the outside, you will think it’s impossible to catch it. But the difficulty of catching those pitches becomes easier every single time that you do it. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. And that’s why we work so hard at it.”

And the work, by all accounts, has gone well this spring.

“Love what I’m seeing from him from a work standpoint,” Boone said. “I think he’s in a really good place defensively right now.”

“He takes pride in playing defense,” Brown said. “He’s working hard and out to prove that he can do it.”

Said Judge: “I know he got scrutinized a lot on his defense last year, but he’s a hard worker. I saw him in there every day before every game getting his work in in the cages, and then after doing his work on the catching side he’s got to go in there hit, too? And to be able to produce on both sides, it’s just so remarkable what he does behind the scenes that a lot people don’t get to see.”

“He wants to be a total player,” said Thames. “People from the outside probably don’t see that, but he wants to be a complete player, and he works his butt off at it.”

Sanchez seems bothered by the criticism and setbacks 2017 offered, but it shows more in his work than in his words.

“I see the work ethic, this year especially,” backup catcher Austin Romine said. “He’s working really hard to be a really good catcher. And he’s taking pride in it. I respect that a lot.”

And any talk of what happened last year is fueling that in Sanchez.

“It’s just part of the game to grow as a catcher,” Sanchez said. “The good thing is that was last season. This is a brand new season coming, a great new opportunity right around the corner. And the focus is to improve and be more consistent so I can be a better catcher.”

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