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Third bopper: Sanchez key to Yankees' fate

MLB.com @BryanHoch

TAMPA, Fla. -- Perched near home plate, a fungo bat cradled within his grip, Aaron Boone has spent the past six weeks delighting in the thunder that the Yankees possess. The greatest praise has been heaped upon Gary Sanchez, whom the rookie manager believes could soon be a legitimate MVP candidate.

Over the course of a spring in which each Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton batting-practice session has been watched intensely, Sanchez has been permitted to toil out of the spotlight. Observing that work prompted Boone to revise any preconceived notions about his starting catcher, who will play an integral role to the team's 2018 chances.

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Perched near home plate, a fungo bat cradled within his grip, Aaron Boone has spent the past six weeks delighting in the thunder that the Yankees possess. The greatest praise has been heaped upon Gary Sanchez, whom the rookie manager believes could soon be a legitimate MVP candidate.

Over the course of a spring in which each Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton batting-practice session has been watched intensely, Sanchez has been permitted to toil out of the spotlight. Observing that work prompted Boone to revise any preconceived notions about his starting catcher, who will play an integral role to the team's 2018 chances.

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"I don't think it's a surprise, but any of those potential perceptions in my eyes have been shattered," Boone said. "We'll continue to expect it and challenge him, and he'll challenge us. He's such an important player to our team in so many facets. We've certainly expressed that to him and I think he understands that."

All the Yankees are asking from Sanchez is to hit in the heart of the lineup and handle a diverse pitching staff at age 25, entering what will be his second full season in the big leagues.

That is nothing new for Sanchez, who was an All-Star last year, batting .278/.345/.531 while leading all catchers in runs (79), homers (33), RBIs (90) and slugging percentage (.531) -- stats he compiled despite missing most of April with a strained left biceps.

"I've said numerous times, I love that guy," Sonny Gray said. "Just watching him every day, he's a worker and he's such a likeable, loveable guy. You get the sense that he genuinely cares. From a pitcher's perspective, you couldn't ask for anything else."

Sanchez's bat has appeared ready for prime time since his second Grapefruit League game against the Tigers, when his moonshot off Daniel Norris sailed over the "O" in Steinbrenner's first name atop the left-field scoreboard. In 14 games, Sanchez has hit .300/.349/.650 with four homers and 10 RBIs.

Video: DET@NYY: Sanchez belts a two-run homer to left-center

"I feel good, but I still think there's more work to be done," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "I want to stay away from swinging at bad pitches and make sure that I command the strike zone better when I'm hitting."

Despite gaudy offensive numbers and a rifle arm, Sanchez's workload drew attention for some of the wrong reasons in 2017. His 16 passed balls tied Yasmani Grandal for the big league lead, and the 53 wild pitches that Yanks hurlers uncorked on his watch were second only to Jonathan Lucroy (58).

With Sanchez struggling to block balls, the resulting friction surfaced during an early August series in Cleveland, when former manager Joe Girardi uncharacteristically aired complaints to the media and sat his starting catcher for three consecutive days.

General manager Brian Cashman has speculated that Sanchez's defense may have been affected by added muscle. Since then, Sanchez has taken the high road, repeatedly saying that he believed Girardi and the Yanks' coaches were trying to help him.

"We forget, he's still a young kid," Brett Gardner said. "I don't want to say there's still a lot of room for improvement, because how much better can somebody be? But I remember when I was that age, there was still a lot I was learning about the game and a lot of things I still had to improve on."

Though Sanchez said that he has not lost weight, he worked to regain flexibility this winter, taking on a new conditioning program at the recommendation of the team's training staff. He hopes that could be the necessary ingredient to elevate his defense to the next level.

"I definitely feel better blocking, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to be perfect," Sanchez said. "Passed balls are part of the game and they are going to happen. But you want to be consistent to prevent those from happening. Keep improving, keep working."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com.

New York Yankees, Gary Sanchez