Gary Sanchez eager to prove to Yankees that he deserves to be No. 1 catcher

Kristie Ackert, New York Daily News
·4 min read

TAMPA — Gary Sanchez does not see himself as a backup catcher, someone who plays just two or three times a week. The Yankees’ embattled backstop is coming off the worst year of his career that included being benched during the playoffs.

Still, he doesn’t come into spring training feeling the pressure to win back the job that Kyle Higashioka took from him.

“That’s something I can’t do. I can’t name myself the starting catcher,” Sanchez said through Yankees interpreter Marlon Abreu Saturday afternoon. “But what I can tell you is that I do want to be playing every day. I don’t see myself just playing two times a week. I feel I would like to have the opportunity to play every day.”

And the 28-year-old Sanchez began working to prove he deserves to be the Yankees starting catcher last fall. He spent the weeks after the season working with the Bombers hitting coaches Marcus Thames and P.J. Pilittere on his hitting stance. He then tried to put the changes into effect by playing winter ball in his native Dominican Republic.

So he doesn’t view spring training as an audition to save his job.

“The reason why I say that is to focus on my job to focus on the work that I need to do. I want to go out there and have fun and enjoy playing this game. Right now everybody has a zero batting average. It’s a new start. A fresh start for everyone, including myself,” Sanchez said after pitchers and catcher worked out for the third day on Saturday. “I can’t start thinking about those results of last year. I want to focus on my work. I want to go out there, play the game, have fun playing the game and concentrate on my game.”

That game is trying to rebound from a disastrous 2020, particularly at the plate.

He slashed .147/.253/.365 with 64 strikeouts in 156 at-bats. According to Baseball Savant, Sanchez was in the bottom two percentile of strikeout percentage and bottom 11 percentile of whiff percentage last season. And while he was among the players hitting the ball the hardest, and did have 10 home runs, he also struggled with the highest percentage of line drives of his career — not the best option for slow-footed catchers.

Defensively, the Yankees have clearly upped the bar for Sanchez.

Not only is Sanchez facing Higashioka, who started five of the seven playoff games last season, but the Yankees brought in veteran Robinson Chirinos, who worked with ace Gerrit Cole during his breakout season with the Astros.

Working with the Yankees’ $324 million ace is key. When Cole made it clear he was more comfortable throwing to Higashioka, that opened the door for the backup to get more starts.

And Sanchez’s struggles at the plate snowballed into him being benched in September to work on his swing. He never really recovered.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone, however, said this spring that he will not go into this year with set personal catchers. In fact, on Friday Cole pitched to Sanchez in his first bullpen of the camp.

The Yankees brought in catching coordinator Tanner Swanson before last season to try and make Sanchez a better receiver. He reworked his stance, using a knee down in the dirt to give him better coverage of pitches low in the strike zone.

But, Sanchez did not get the nickname “The Kraken” because of his receiving, he was always going to work his way into a lineup with his bat. With monster power — consider his career power numbers are similar to Aaron Judge but he is a much smaller man — Sanchez has to win back his spot with his bat.

To that end, Thames and Pilittere got Sanchez to put more weight on his back leg, hoping to keep him more patient so he would wait for the ball to come into his power zone. They tightened up his swing as well.

“I feel really good and I think that’s what’s the key,” Sanchez said. “Honestly, I just feel anxious to get going, and really show what I can do on the field.”

So, far, Boone is happy with the work Sanchez has put in this winter.

“I think he looks really good. I like where he’s at,” the manager said. “From a catching standpoint right now, I know Tanner came out probably about a month or so ago, maybe longer, to kind of set his pre spring training work and routine in place.”

“So I feel like they’re on a really good, on a good page right now. I feel like he’s got a really good routine going right now that he’s frankly, helping to drive a lot of his routine,” Boone said. “He’s made some adjustments offensively, shortening up his swing. So I would say here in the early days, he’s doing quite well.”