At the start of the 2020 season, there was no doubt about who was the starter for the New York Yankees. That ended up with one of the most polarizing players wearing a Yankees uniform in recent times. Everyone – fans, the Yankees, the man himself – wonder: what’s next for Gary Sanchez?
Since his debut in 2016, Sanchez seemed poised to rewrite the record books with each stroke, becoming one of the fastest players in MLB history to hit most of his career home run totals. Sanchez is one of only four catchers in MLB history with several 30-homer seasons leading up to his 27-year season, and his 115 career HRs are ranked third by a player in 421 career games.
But this extraordinary power in the catcher position has its price. Sanchez’s defense has gone from being inconsistent to being liability. His defensive problems, especially his inability to reliably block parking spaces in the dirt, are well documented. Sanchez ’52 career balls are the most for any major league catcher over the past five seasons. That said, Sanchez’s performance on the plate consistently outweighed his defensive mistakes, as evidenced by the third-highest weighted runs plus (wRC) created among all backstops since 2016.
Then came 2020. Sanchez, once one of the most feared bats in baseball, struck . 147 /. 253 /. 365 over 49 games during the season shortened by pandemics with 60 games, in which only 10 home runs and 24 runs were played. For comparison he had hit . 232 with 34 HRs and 77 RBIs in 106 games in 2019.
Speaking to ESPN from his home in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez spoke about learning a new catch style during his miserable 2020 season; Kyle Higashioka emerges as the personal catcher of ace Gerrit Cole; sit on a bench during the regular season and for most of the postseason; and the trade rumors that come with it being the favorite target of angry Yankees fans.
I can’t speak for the team, but I am ready to be an everyday catcher. At the moment I’m 27 and I don’t see myself as a catcher one day a week or two days a week. I don’t see my career that way yet. I know that I can play both sides of the ball and help the team every day.
It was something that had never happened to me in my career, whether with the minors or the majors. When they sat me on the bench during the regular season, I was told that I would catch a day and have a day off, or catch two days and then have a day off to rest and work on things.
Then the playoffs came and you get excited and have all the adrenaline pumping. I already felt like I was in better shape and I felt so excited to contribute to the team to finally do something I didn’t do in the regular season. Feeling like I couldn’t help was very difficult. I have always supported my team. But the reality is, they never told me why I was sitting on a bench. I didn’t know why I wasn’t playing.
In the regular season when they sat me down they said they would give me two or three days to put myself back together: « Work on what you need to work, rest a little and work on the areas where you fail. « When the playoffs came when they sat me on the bench for the first time, I understood that I couldn’t catch the pitcher who started pitching that day, which started during the regular season. I used to say to myself, « I’m not going to play this particular game, but after today I will play. « . « That’s how things started and I understood.
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I played the second game in Cleveland and I played well. Then we went to San Diego, to the bubble. I didn’t play in the first game because I didn’t get [Gerrit] Cole. After almost a week without a game, my second game didn’t go well for me. Actually, none of us did well in this game. After that I thought I would play the next day because it had been a very bad game for everyone. I hit three times but felt like I was making good cuts, good swings. I felt so much better. But I didn’t play. And I said to myself, « What happened here? » But my job is to support my team. But from then on nobody said anything to me. They just told me, « Stand by. «
What crossed my mind was that I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why I wasn’t playing, whether it was my defense or because I didn’t score. I thought of that. This is where you force things more than you should and then you make mistakes. I would have liked someone to tell me, « This is what happens – this and that, » and as a man you have to understand and accept that. Your focus is on the need to improve this and that. But nobody explained to me why.
I asked about [Manager Aaron] Boone and had a respectful and very positive conversation. I explained to him that I thought I deserved an explanation for what happened. We had a good conversation, talked about it and settled things. After talking to Boone, everything is fine. Our communication has been very good and very honest since all of this happened. I’ve been in contact with Boone, with [catcher] Tanner [Swanson], with management. But we always had good communication. So I was confused when we didn’t communicate with each other in the playoffs.
I’ve worked in many different ways. I always work on something during spring training. always. I’m always working on something that needs improvement. That year the right knee was lowered, which would make it easier for me to frame low pitches in the zone. So I got better in the lower zone, but got worse in other zones. I improved the goal that I was supposed to improve this year, but I got worse on other pitches near the zone, the ones that weren’t low. So it worked in one aspect but not in others.
I’ve had a lot of underage fishing instructors like everyone else, but I think it’s important to be consistent in getting into the big leagues. I worked a little with Brownie [former Yankees coach Jason Brown] in Triple-A, and we continued to work together after I got into the big leagues. I think I have improved in many ways and I felt good about my catch. With the changes in coaching, I started working on this new way of keeping my right knee down. I felt very comfortable because we worked so much on it. But then I got better at one goal we set ourselves and worse at other areas.
I understand the team is trying to help me and I like that. I just know that they want to improve me. But this off-season I have to focus on getting back to that shape from last year and mixing in whatever I improved by lowering my right knee. I need to combine that with a return to my 2019 form. In 2019, I reduced the number of balls handed over and improved a lot. This year has been a year of experimentation, not just with the right knee; We did a lot of other things and I worked very hard. Some things worked and some didn’t.
It was a big change. I had never caught my right knee down before. I never threw on the second base with my right knee down. But I will continue to work with the organization to find out what worked and what didn’t so I can figure out how to be the best version of myself behind the plate.
Maybe. I think it could have been a lack of practice. Tanner and I talked a lot and I don’t think we’ve had the opportunity or the time to really work on it this season. He has a lot of good ideas and we never got the opportunity to work on them enough. We didn’t have enough time. And it was a difficult season. We didn’t have the necessary repetitions during spring training. We had to deal with a lot of unpleasant things. And I don’t make excuses. But I think you can’t judge someone by 40 games.
We have had very positive conversations about how to get back to my 2019 form. I know he can help me improve. He told me he was open to helping me with anything I talked to him about while still improving on his right knee. We’ve kept in touch and I know he will be there to help me out when it’s my turn to work on the defense this off-season. Everyone knows how difficult our jugs are, but I’ve gotten used to them. I’m not going to tell you that framing someone like [Aroldis] Chapman or [Zack] Britton with these sinkers is easy. It is not easy. But it’s my job to do my best.
To what extent have the challenges of this pandemic-shortened season affected your preparation and performance on the field?
I’ve continued to train and train since MLB canceled spring training and postponed the season. I’ve always worked hard, but I never knew when we’d be back to play. I just worked and worked . . . and maybe I’ve overworked my body. I trained every day without knowing which day everything would restart. And when it happened it was very quick and we only had a few days to get back to New York. And it was a little tricky because there were a lot of things we weren’t used to. It was a very difficult season.
There’s a certain vitriol on social media among Yankees fans and even media members that you’re a « lazy » gamer. What do you think?
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I just don’t understand. I always work hard. Yankees fans are great but very demanding at the same time. If you hit well the fans love you, they will do whatever it takes for you. But if you are not doing well, then it starts . . . and you know. They will yell at you. Sometimes it can be difficult not to be encouraged a little. But these are Yankees fans, and the only thing that matters is the results. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the high expectations. I can be booed one day if I have a bad game and the next day I am the hero of the game. But I think sometimes people don’t understand that baseball is a game where you will fail much more times than you will succeed. I just don’t understand this criticism. The results weren’t there; this is true. But there was never a shortage of work.
I have nothing to say about that. You have to show who you are with actions. When 2021 is here and I do my job, that will speak for itself. The only thing that matters to me is winning a championship. What I have to do is improve, keep working.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge me just for the 2020 season. The Yankees are a mystery; I am a piece. I’m part of that team and I take great pride in wearing pinstripes every day. I am ready to play every day. And I have no control over what people say and what will happen to me in the future. I don’t control any of it. I only control what I can control. Right now I’m a player for the New York Yankees and this is my team. I can’t think of people saying this and that or that. That can’t be my focus.
The last time I caught Cole, we gave up a few runs, a few home runs. I didn’t catch him after that. At first I thought I had days off. The next time it came to Cole’s turn I had a day or two of rest and it ended up being not in the line up to catch him. And at that moment I said to myself, « I won’t be able to catch him anymore. « But nobody said or explained anything to me. I’m someone who doesn’t want to cause problems so I just let go of it. I stayed calm because when Cole chooses someone, he knows what he’s doing. But like I said, I think they could have explained things to me and said, « Look, that’s what’s going on. « And as a man, I would have understood.
I want to catch every single one of our jugs. All of them. If I catch just one pitcher, I’ll only play one day. I want to play every day.
It just wasn’t me. The 2020 thing, it wasn’t me. It’s been a bad year. And it wasn’t a year; It’s been 60 days. Manny Ramirez once told me that players like us will have their season in two months. But I won’t make excuses. It’s time to move on and focus on the next year.
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And now I have to listen to all the negative comments, everything everyone has to say about me, because the truth is, I played badly on the plate. So I have to take everything someone says. Let them say what they want; I earn it. That will make me better and stronger.
What does Gary Sanchez have to do to become one of the most dangerous players in baseball again and not the one who was successful 40% of the time in 2020?
It’s about focusing on 2021. All numbers start from zero. I went through something similar in 2018: I was injured all year and there was so much criticism.  I came in, proved myself and had one of the best years of my career.
Who do you talk to about hitting? Who will help you the most?
I talk to Marcus [Thames] and our coaches a lot. You help me a lot. But someone who wasn’t there this year was [impact coach] Danilo [Valiente]. Danilo couldn’t be with us this year because of COVID-19.
Danilo has known me for a long time and we worked a lot together in the cage and talked a lot. He’s always in the cage so I would go there and talk to him and he would help me make adjustments while playing the game. I missed that this year. During the game, Marcus and our coaches have to focus on the actual game, on every batsman, not just me. But Danilo is always in the cage doing a gentle throw or throwing BP or setting the machine up for anyone who needs to make adjustments. And I missed that. I always sat with him and talked and he reminded me of things Marcus said and said things that really opened my eyes.
Did you feel that you haven’t had enough time this year to make these adjustments?
Well, I thought I had enough time to make my adjustments, but unfortunately, maybe I didn’t have enough time because I couldn’t. I saw the ball better on the track. I didn’t have that many swings and mistakes. I made a lot more contact. I already felt safer, felt better in every way. Sometimes you just lose everything. If you are in a bad crisis everything will go wrong and you will not be able to make adjustments. You lose everything on your plate. However, towards the end of the season, I felt I could help the team.
What adjustments did you make when you felt better on your plate at the end of the season?
I focused on hitting the ball hard on right field and that helped me avoid swinging all of those sliders out of the zone. I no longer swung away from these crumbling spaces. That helped me. And towards the end of the season I saw the strike zone better and started to work on some walks.
Playing the winter ball was more about extra work than mechanical adjustments. I’ve made some minor tweaks that I thought would work at the end of the 2020 season too, but that’s not the purpose of being down here. I just ran out of bats this season, so I felt it was important to be able to recover some of those lost ABs and keep getting the reps I need. The Dominican League is obviously a high profile league so it’s great to not only get these reps but also in a challenging environment.
New York Yankees, Gary Sánchez, Kyle Higashioka, Gerrit Cole, Playoffs, Aaron Boone, MLB
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