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Yankees think Sanchez could have big year, scouts not convinced

Tampa, Fla. — First there was the blocked balls and compliments from Gerrit Cole. Then there was the monster homer and the hits to the opposite field. Next, Gary Sanchez threw out runners in two straight games.

After five games in the Grapefruit League, there are a lot of good signs for the catcher coming off the worst season of his career. Once considered a possible non-tender or trade candidate, Sanchez is being built up as a possible MVP candidate by his teammates.

“Gary is going to have a special year this year, with the changes I’ve seen him make and the improvements on both sides of the baseball,” outfielder Aaron Judge said. “Gary is a guy that can go out there and win (the American League) MVP (Award]). He’s that dynamic, that important of a player to this team.”

Sanchez is a very important piece for the Yankees to have in the right place this season. When he is right at the plate, his power makes this lineup potential so much more dangerous. If he can continue to improve behind the plate, that gives him more of an opportunity to make that difference in the lineup.

Still, it’s five games into spring training, just five games. While the Yankees are thrilled with Sanchez’s work this offseason and the results so far, not everyone outside the Yankees Universe are putting their money on Sanchez as the AL Comeback Player of the Year.

“Hit an opposite-field dinger the other day, so it shows the power is still there, but he’s still on and off (with) good (at-bats). It may be a matter of getting his rhythm,” one American League scout, who has watched Sanchez’s games this spring, said. “His catching looks as always, struggling occasionally compensating with the above average arm. Needs a rebound and I’m hoping he has for sure but as of today nothing obvious stands out as a difference.”

The Yankees, however, are going on the premise that 2020, the coronavirus pandemic-shortened 60-game season, was just a weird year in which they could not judge Sanchez on. They think he will be more like the 2019 Sanchez, who crushed a career-high 34 homers.

Last year, Sanchez slashed .147/.253/.365 with 64 strikeouts in 156 at-bats. Sanchez was in the bottom two percentile of strikeout percentage and bottom 11 percentile of whiff percentage that season, according to Baseball Savant. He got just nine at-bats in seven playoff games.

Even after last year’s disaster, Sanchez is still among the top offensive catchers since he came into the big leagues. He leads all catchers in home runs (115), slugging percentage (.503), and OPS (.824) since his rookie year in 2016.

Last year, Sanchez lost his starting job when it became clear Cole preferred pitching to Kyle Higashioka. Cole went 5-1 with a 1.79 ERA and a .165 batting average against in seven starts with Higashioka. In his first eight starts of 2020, with Sanchez behind the plate, Cole went 4-2 with a 3.91 ERA and a .224 opponents batting average.

Sanchez took the benching in the playoffs personally. He spent part of the offseason playing winter ball in his native Dominican Republic to work on shortening his swing. Then he reported to Tampa early to work on his catching.

The framework had been laid last spring, when new catching coach Tanner Swanson had Sanchez work in a lower stance. He had Sanchez get into a crouch with his knee on the ground to help him receive the pitches in the lower portion of the strike zone. Swanson said it has also put him in a more athletic position to block balls.

With the stop-and-start 2020 spring training, including a four-month coronavirus quarantine hiatus, Sanchez never seemed to get comfortable in that stance.

“He has really invested himself into what we’re doing and has refined his process,” Swanson said. “He’s putting a lot of quality work in and we’re seeing that transfer to the game. He’s spoken a little bit regarding his overall comfort with some of the adjustments we made last year and continue to refine now. I think he’s in a really good place.”

Now, Sanchez feels really comfortable in the stance and has built on it.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve done a lot of work with the right knee down as well with the left knee down,” Sanchez said. “We keep working on it. We’re working on a lot of different things that I think are going to allow me to be better.”

What has impressed Aaron Boone is that the work Sanchez has done has been driven by him this year.

“He’s helped drive a lot of his work — not to say that there wasn’t in the past, but there’s just a real business-like way he’s going about things,” the Yankees manager said. “I think his foundation’s a little bit better at this point than it was last year. I just feel like he looks like he’s in a really good place.

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