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Yankees Magazine

Yankees Magazine: No Excuses

Gary Sanchez has plenty of defenders, but don’t expect the Yankees’ catcher to join the chorus
(New York Yankees)
May 15, 2019

It is a game measured in failure and redemption, in inches and percentages, in luck and adjustments. It drowns in numbers and analytics. But baseball is also rife with poetry. So much of the best sportswriting has focused on the boys of summer -- certainly including The Boys of Summer

It is a game measured in failure and redemption, in inches and percentages, in luck and adjustments. It drowns in numbers and analytics. But baseball is also rife with poetry. So much of the best sportswriting has focused on the boys of summer -- certainly including The Boys of Summer -- and the author Paul Dickson is already on his third edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary. The games are played in venues with evocative, loving nicknames -- The House That Ruth Built, The Friendly Confines, The Big A, The K.Even the positions’ names tell a story. There’s the first baseman, who is responsible for guarding first base. There are three outfielders, but we call them by their left, center or right designations. Speaking of which, there’s the ever-prosaic designated hitter, the only player on the field not expected to catch a ball.

And then there’s the catcher, a full-stop blot on the baseball lexicon. He’s not the home plateman. Like the pitcher, whose main job is to …ahem … pitch, the catcher is known by what he does, not by where he works. That, though, is where the road forks. Because what is a catcher? He is a receiver, on brand with the title. But while we’re venturing into football lingo, he’s also a quarterback and a two-way lineman. He’s a defensive coordinator and a team psychologist. At least that’s the macro view. But if you eliminate the subtext, then it’s all in the name. Catcher. That’s what the job calls for, and that’s what it’s called. When it’s working -- when the catcher is seamlessly controlling all facets of the game -- he’s a beloved maestro conducting a world-class orchestra. When it doesn’t, he might as well be a meter maid.

And that’s how it has gone for Gary Sánchez, a generational talent who excels at so much of the job but runs into trouble with some of its most primal tasks. He exploded out of fans’ dreams with 20 home runs in just 53 games in 2016, then enjoyed an All-Star showing the next year. When he’s on, he fills up the box score and the batter’s box like the Brawny Man, but even when his bat goes quiet, Sanchez is the brains behind the plate, a wizard summoning the fire from Aroldis Chapman's wand or coaxing another dancing bit of nonsense from Adam Ottavino’s absurd grip. And Sanchez’s arm? Runner beware.

“Gary has the ability to keep the game simple, slow the game down,” says Jason Brown, the Yankees’ catching coach. “He gets a lot of credit for that when he’s in the batter’s box. But he’s got that same ability behind the plate.”

No matter whom you ask around the Yankees, from players and coaches to executives in the upstairs offices, the answer is more or less the same: We trust our catcher. They are well aware that 26-year-old Sanchez led the Majors with 18 passed balls in 2018 despite catching nearly 105 fewer innings than the No. 2 backstop on that list (Martín Maldonado, 13 passed balls). But those blemishes are just a small part of the story when it comes to Sanchez, whose job is impossible even under never-existent perfect conditions. Amid a wash of supporters and defenders, only one person, it seems, isn’t willing to explain away the black marks, to defer to all that Gary Sanchez does so well.

“The thing is, we play a game, right? And behind that game, there’s a lot of responsibility,” says that one person, Gary Sanchez, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. “And at the end of the day, I’m supposed to catch the ball. I’m a catcher.”

It’s so simple. Except, of course, it’s not. Baseball is too poetic to let Sanchez get away with that.

***

The nadir came in Oakland, in a September 2018 preview of an impending American League Wild Card Game meeting four weeks later. Just a few days back from the disabled list, Sanchez and ace Luis Severino had a night to forget, but for the fact that it was all-too-horribly memorable.

Jed Lowrie was batting with a runner on second and one out, and Sanchez appeared to set up for a slider down and away. Instead, Severino fired 96 inside, and the catcher was soon racing to the backstop as the runner took third. Nine pitches later, after a Khris Davis double put runners on second and third, Sanchez again whiffed on a fastball, this one through the five-hole, and Lowrie slid home with the second run of the inning. The nightmare was far from over. After Matt Olson doubled in Davis to extend the A’s lead to 3-0, Stephen Piscotty swung through a 2-1 change-up that bounced off Sanchez’s glove, handing Olson third base. The very next pitch, a slider, bounced just past the plate; the catcher stabbed at it, but it hopped most of the way to the Oakland dugout. Olson trotted home lightly as A’s broadcaster Glen Kuiper noted what seemed to be obvious: “Right now, Gary Sanchez is having a miserable inning.

“That is the reputation of Sanchez,” Kuiper said. “He’s a below-average catcher.”

The stinging comment about Sanchez’s reputation wasn’t entirely unfair. It’s just that these things are complicated, subject to narrative decisions and the occasional lying eyes. Brown says that of Sanchez’s 18 passed balls last year (noting, as only a true ally would, that critics fail to mention the thousands of balls he did catch), six were straight cross-ups, cases when the catcher and pitcher miscommunicated. What Brown didn’t mention, but what seems relevant, was that 2018 was the first year that MLB limited mound visits, which could have contributed to the confusion. In the case of the Oakland game, it was Sanchez’s first time catching Severino since returning from a groin injury, and in the interim, Severino and Austin Romine had been using different signals. But after the game, Sanchez took full ownership of the public horror show. “I had a chance to stop all of them,” he said after the 8-2 loss in which his own two-run homer provided the Yankees’ runs. “I just didn’t do it.”

One game, no matter how gruesome, might not have become a back-page headache, but it wasn’t the first time Sanchez and Severino had trouble syncing. On July 23, in Sanchez’s third game back from his first groin-related injured list visit of 2018, the catcher appeared to laze after a cross-up-induced passed ball in the first inning, allowing Tampa Bay’s Jake Bauers to score all the way from second. In the dugout after the inning, the batterymates had a heated conversation that the TV cameras caught. It was a bad look, but almost an afterthought by night’s end. With the bases loaded and the Yankees trailing by a run with two outs in the ninth, Sanchez smashed a grounder to the left side of second base. Off the bat, it looked like a simple fielder’s choice, but Aaron Hicks managed to beat the awkward, shift-challenged throw to second. Sanchez had been jogging to first, but once Hicks dove in safely, he tried to pick up the pace. It was too late, though; the throw from second still beat him easily. “That’s just inexcusable right there,” said John Flaherty on the YES Network broadcast as the Rays players glad-handed one another on the mound. “That cannot happen.”

“I hit the ball well,” Sanchez told reporters after the game. “I should have run harder.” And as for the passed ball? “That’s another instance where, if I did a better job being quicker getting to the ball, maybe we have a chance to get him out at home, and that’s my fault.”

To the masses, the apparent lack of hustle, the balls skidding past his glove, the maybe-too-calm clubhouse demeanor in the aftermath of one misplay or another -- it all pointed to the same conclusion. Gary Sanchez is lazy. He doesn’t care. He isn’t willing to give the effort. Fans wanted Sanchez to morph into Paul O’Neill, destroying dugout equipment, but instead the catcher stood stoically after games, still and even-tempered as Abreu translated some version of, “I missed it. I should have caught it.” Even Aaron Boone, a notably positive manager who seeks out chances to take bullets for his players, seemed to be approaching the end of his rope. “He should be able to get after it,” Boone said after the Tampa Bay game, answering a question about whether the catcher was still recovering from his groin injury. “He’s here and back and should be fine getting after things.”

The next day, though, came news, more feared than expected. Sanchez had aggravated his groin. Would it prove redemptive for the catcher after an inauspicious day? Hardly. Mike Francesa trashed Sanchez on his radio show, suggesting that any talk of an injury in the aftermath was just a cover story. When the news broke that the catcher was indeed being returned to the injured list, the radio host was still questioning it; if Sanchez were really injured, Francesa suggested, he would have said something after the game. As for the catcher, himself, the message barely diverged from his comments the night before: “An injury is never an excuse,” Sanchez said. “If I’m on the field, I’m good to play. I should have done a better job.”

***

Sanchez isn’t a perfect player, and he obviously has no problem admitting it. Yet despite his struggles in 2018, when he batted just .186 while fighting off injuries left and right, he does wield an elite bat. And it’s not just a matter of his offense covering for defensive liabilities. No one is suggesting that he’s Ivan Rodríguez or Yadier Molina, but he’s also not some beer leaguer in sweatpants behind the plate.

“Defensively, what really stands out is the way he throws,” Brown says. “His intuition in calling a game, working with pitchers, it’s something that he has always had a good feel for. He has a good ability to blend the information and data that’s available with what the pitcher is doing on the mound that day.”

It’s a moving target, to be sure. Sanchez showed up to Tampa this spring looking much lighter after an offseason spent working on flexibility and mobility by catching balls from close range at high speeds. The weight loss and the speed work should pay dividends as Sanchez toils through a long season from his crouch behind the plate. “With anybody, it starts in the position you’re getting in,” Brown says. “Your stance, your set-up. Getting in an athletic stance to begin with and maintaining that, so you have the ability to shift and adjust, being relaxed with that left (glove) arm and hand, that’s something that is key in making quick adjustments.”

Expecting the unexpected -- and the unusual -- is crucial if you have designs on managing the 2019 Yankees’ pitching staff. All the way down the line, from Chapman to Ottavino to Dellin Betances to Zack Britton to Chad Green, to say nothing of starters Severino, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees catchers handle some of the game’s best pitchers throwing the filthiest stuff imaginable. “Britton’s sinker, Chappy’s fastball, Ottavino’s sinker and slider combo, Dellin’s breaking ball -- those are some of the best pitches in the game, and he’s having to catch all of them,” Green says. “Just playing catch with some of these guys, it’s hard enough, and you know what they’re throwing, and there’s nobody up there swinging. It’s tough. There’s no shot I could do it or would want to do it.”

Britton’s moneymaker is a sinker that dives hard and late, and when he came to the Yankees, he knew about the situation he was stepping into. “Obviously, I had heard about the defensive stuff with Gary,” Britton says. “It was hard not to.” But the left-hander quickly noticed that Sanchez had no trouble handling his electric stuff, and the catcher certainly wasn’t shying away from calling for the unkindest filth. “I never even thought about, ‘Oh, I’m throwing to Gary, I’ve got to do this or that,’” Britton continues. “I thought he was good! And now this year, he’s even better.” Paxton, meanwhile, has been impressed in the short time he and Sanchez have been working together, particularly by the way the catcher works him around different locations in the strike zone.

“Plainly, there’s nothing that he can’t handle,” Brown says. “He’s an above-average receiver. Gaining strikes around the zone, his blocking is greatly improved, the way he throws and controls the running game -- he completely shuts running games down! We keep talking about these passed balls, but there’s a lot of things that are positive. Really, mostly all of it is positive. But that doesn’t get talked about as much.”

That’s half true. Survey the Yankees’ clubhouse, and it actually gets spoken about plenty. Sanchez is young, he’s improving, the job is hard, he does the less-visible things incredibly well, he gets to the ballpark first every day and rehabs and studies the pitchers he’ll be catching, as well as the batters they’ll face and the pitchers he’ll be batting against himself. And yet, even as we nod in the direction of understanding the physical rigors of life behind the plate, Sanchez still manages to throw curveballs.

***

Yet not the less would I throughout

Still act according to the voice

Of my own wish; and feel past doubt

That my submissiveness was choice:

Not seeking in the school of pride

For ‘precepts over dignified,’

Denial and restraint I prize

No farther than they breed a second

Will more wise.

--From Ode to Duty,

William Wordsworth

***

Brian Cashman dropped the news on reporters at the General Managers Meetings just weeks after the 2018 season ended: Sanchez had undergone debridement surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder to remove dead tissue that had been consistently causing him pain. The injury wasn’t exactly a secret -- since late in the 2017 campaign, Sanchez had received cortisone shots on three separate occasions. But while the groin injuries had forced the catcher from the lineup, he felt duty-bound to wave off the left-shoulder issues. “It was kind of a discomfort level on top, which kind of made my shoulder feel tired, heavy,” Sanchez explains somewhat uncomfortably, after months spent steadfastly insisting that he was fine. “That was the sensation in general. During the game, I was able to do everything fine. It was just after the game, after the adrenaline of the game, you would notice that it felt a little different.”

It’s tempting to view injuries to non-throwing arms with a sense of relief. Jordan Montgomery’s Tommy John surgery, for example, was way different from the same procedure that Gleyber Torres endured on his left, non-throwing arm. But catcher isn’t an ordinary position. Imagine you’re squatting behind the plate, and move your catching arm side to side, up and down. Jerk it back and forth quickly; these balls are coming in hot. Now imagine doing that with a busted shoulder. “It affects everything, receiving-wise,” Brown says. Now think about the cross-ups. Think about the fast-twitch force required to adjust to 100 mph when you’ve called for something around 85.

“You’re working with 60 feet and 100 miles per hour,” Romine says. “Reaction time is pretty thin.” Beyond that, though, the cross-ups are far more common than fans realize. Brown acknowledged the six miscommunications that ended up being called passed balls last season, but Romine points out that there are way more cross-ups that no one really notices because the catcher successfully adjusts. When each critical save is causing a shooting pain, though, maybe you’re cheating a bit. Perhaps you’re going to have that much more trouble adjusting to a fastball inside when you’re waiting for a slider down and away. “It can’t be fun,” Romine says. “I thank the Lord I’ve never had to deal with that. Catching with a shoulder injury would probably be very, very tough, especially with how hard guys throw and how much movement there is.”

“It’s just one of those things that as a catcher, you just battle through,” Sanchez says.

It would be easy for Sanchez to stand up there and state the obvious: My shoulder is busted, and I’m doing everything I can to stay out on the field. I’m struggling, but we’re suffering through a brutal stretch of injuries, and the team needs my bat, so I’m doing the best I can. It’s even fair to wonder if he might choose to do that if he were answering questions in his native language. No one would really blame him. It’s just not the way he works. Not the way he thinks.

“The fact of the matter is, we call it The Show,” Sanchez says. “Our fans, they come here to watch us play, and they come here for the show. And I can say, in my experience, if I go to an event -- it could be a concert, it could be a basketball game -- I don’t go there to see them practice. I have no idea what they do to get ready for that. I just show up for the performance. And like fans, I judge them on what they do on the field. But yes, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes. There’s a routine that is done every day, many, many, many hours before the first pitch of the game. Some fans don’t know that or don’t see that, and that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it should be.”

It’s almost poetic, the All-Star catcher’s incessant need to push back in opposition to himself, to adhere to some vision of duty that goes well beyond the norm. “With a player that’s as talented as Gary is,” Boone says, “when you go through some bumps, and you go through some adversity as a young player in this game, it’s not the end of the world. It’s a chance for growth. And I really feel like he’s grown so much having gone through what he did last year.” There’s no doubting that Sanchez’s 2018 season was a mess. But whether it was standing firm in the face of four out-of-character (and plainly unlucky) throwing errors in this season’s first week, or conversely enjoying the fruits of a three-homer game in Baltimore, or eventually having to talk about the team’s decision to shut him down, hopefully briefly, with a calf strain he insisted he could play through, the catcher’s mood barely seemed to shift. He knows what he can do. He doesn’t have to pretend otherwise or explain away failure.

There’s a notable confidence in brashly explaining away one’s struggles, in belief amid uncertainty, but so is there a profound virtue in knowing oneself well enough to steadfastly shun excuse or mitigation. Sanchez is most comfortable there, a latter-day Henry David Thoreau in catcher’s gear: Our circumstances answer to our expectations and the demand of our natures.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep at yankees.com/publications.