HOF Pudge on keys to Sánchez’s comeback

February 3rd, 2021

The frustration that Gary Sánchez experienced throughout his 2020 season was evident to Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, and the Hall of Famer is offering a few suggestions to help the Yankees catcher make good on his promise to bounce back.

“What the Yankees organization needs to do is just let him play baseball,” Rodriguez said. “He has tremendous ability, defensively and offensively. I know that he’s been struggling in both sides of the game, but I think right now it’s more mental.”

Rodriguez was among the honorees in Tuesday’s 41st annual Thurman Munson Awards, which were held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reviewing Sánchez’s 2020 season in which he batted .147 and lost playing time to backup Kyle Higashioka, Rodriguez believes that he saw a player who needs to rediscover his love of the game.

“This year, he needs to come back to Spring Training ready to play, enjoying the game and enjoying putting that pinstriped uniform on,” Rodriguez said. “Go out there and be with his teammates, go behind the plate and do what he can do. I know he can be a great player behind the plate and also with his hitting.”

General manager Brian Cashman said that the team considered non-tendering Sánchez in December, a move that would have made him a free agent. Cashman said that several members of the front office lobbied to give Sánchez another turn in a starting role, believing that the 28-year-old can reclaim his place as one of the game’s better catchers.

“The fact that he’s still with us is proof of how we felt and how we feel,” Cashman said. “I know he’s looking forward to proving last year was a fluke. We look forward to him justifying our continued commitment to him and his talent level. We’ve invested our time, effort and money into him, for good reason.”

A two-time All-Star who was the fastest player in American League history to reach 100 home runs, Sánchez volunteered to play in the Dominican Winter League, saying that he needed to log additional at-bats. Sánchez has essentially been a league-average player since 2018, batting .200/.296/.453 with a 99 OPS+ over a span that has included 62 homers with 154 RBIs.

“I think we forget that he is still a relatively young player,” said catching coach Tanner Swanson. “He had a lot of success early in his career and I think the expectations are sometimes unreasonably high, but in my opinion, that’s kind of how it should be. I think you want that as a player. I’m still confident that he’s going to be what we hope for. The story isn’t complete. Everybody’s excited about the total package.”

Under Swanson’s tutelage, Sánchez focused on improving his pitch framing last year, incorporating a one-knee-down approach. According to Statcast, Sánchez’s pitch framing improved from the 25th percentile in 2019 to the 37th percentile in '20, but he led all Major League catchers in errors (six) and tied for second in passed balls (five) during the pandemic-shortened season.

“I do think that Gary was getting comfortable and more competent in the new stance as the season progressed,” Swanson said. “Especially down the stretch, the last 10 to 15 games in my opinion he was really good in terms of balls in the dirt. He still had the headscratcher occasional passed ball that nobody likes, but I don’t think those were stance-related. Over a longer season, I’d like to think he would have continued to trend in that direction. His final line would have been a lot more positive than his numbers initially reflected.”

Widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers of all-time, Rodriguez acknowledges that the game has become more reliant on data since his last inning behind the plate in 2011, so he understands why the Yankees are trying the one-knee-down approach with Sánchez.

If Sánchez plans to continue the new catching style, Rodriguez said, he must become more comfortable doing so.

“Because of Gary Sánchez’s size, he’s a big guy, I think he’s getting in a little trouble doing that,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not easy to block with one knee. You have to anticipate the pitches in the dirt first. When you have one knee, it’s kind of hard because breaking pitches always break the opposite way.

“I think he needs to get used to it, he needs to work on it. He had four and a half months this offseason to work on that part of the game. He should be ready by now, he needs to be catching behind the plate. If the New York Yankees let him catch the way that he wanted to catch, I think it’s not a bad idea.”