NEW YORK -- Like millions of students around the world who had their school years interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Gary Sánchez experimented with distance learning after Spring Training was halted. Rather than mathematics or science, the Yankees catcher was studying the art of pitch framing.
After returning to the Dominican Republic in late March, Sánchez continued to follow a program outlined to him by new catching coach Tanner Swanson, frequently sharing videos of sessions and conferring over the Internet to gauge his progress in the Bombers' crash course on stealing strikes.
"I definitely feel the improvement," Sánchez said through a translator on Wednesday. "I want to say that I definitely have gotten better, especially with pitches low in the zone. At the same time, we still have a lot of work to be done ahead of us. But that's why we're here, to keep improving."
Last season, the Yankees believed that Sánchez struggled to convince umpires that borderline strikes should be called, a deficiency that prompted Swanson's hiring. Under Swanson's advisement, Sánchez is learning to catch, throw and block with his right knee anchored to the ground, whether runners are on base or not.
According to Statcast, Sánchez generated a minus-4 rating in framing runs saved last year (49th overall) and had a 47 percent called strike ratio on borderline pitches, which was slightly below league average. Swanson said that he and Sánchez spoke weekly during the shutdown.
"He has a training facility back home that that he utilizes, so he would send me video and I'd provide feedback," Swanson said. "Occasionally we'd jump on a Zoom call together and discuss certain variations of some of the positions and moves he was working through. Overall, the downtime was really positive, because it allowed Gary to explore some of the positions and figure out how he could adapt them to his own style."
The Yankees' third catching coach in the last four years, Swanson was plucked from the Twins' organization, where he spent the past two seasons overseeing their Minor League catchers. The knee-down style was an experiment that yielded success at the Major League level for Mitch Garver -- a player who boasted a similar offensive profile to Sánchez, with accompanying defensive criticisms.
"He draws some unfair ire at times," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Sánchez. "I feel like the strides he's made, what we see behind the scenes and what has showed up on the field doesn't get accounted for all the time in the press or in the media. He's gotten a lot better on the defensive side, and there's still so much room for him to continue to grow. I feel like that season is in there offensively for him to where he's an MVP candidate."
After Swanson was hired in November, he explained to Sánchez that the Yankees wanted him to be in a better position to receive pitches, while not losing the progress he has made in blocking balls. Over the 2017-18 seasons, Sánchez led the Majors with 34 passed balls, but former catching instructor Jason Brown helped reduce that to seven in 742 2/3 innings last year.
As Swanson spoke, Sánchez nodded, embracing the opportunity to try a new style.
"I think it's probably just getting used to something new, something that you've never done before and finding the way to find your comfort zone in a new stance of receiving," Sánchez said. "It's a matter of just making the adjustments, keep working and eventually getting to where you feel really comfortable."
A better test will come in exhibition games and during the regular season, but Swanson said that the Yankees' data from Spring Training and Summer Camp shows that Sánchez has improved his receiving metrics without experiencing a drop-off in his blocking.
"I think that speaks to his desire to grow and get better, and his ability to be a little bit vulnerable," Swanson said. "I've been really pleased and impressed with the willingness to implement some of the things we've asked him to do."