Entering the 2020 season, there was never any doubt who the starting catcher was for the New York Yankees. That ended with the headline-grabbing benching of one of the most polarizing players to wear a Yankees uniform in recent memory. Which leaves everyone -- fans, the Yankees, the man himself -- wondering: What's next for Gary Sanchez?
Since his debut in 2016, Sanchez seemed ready to rewrite the record books with every swing, becoming one of the fastest players in MLB history to reach most of his career home run totals. Sanchez is one of only four catchers in MLB history with multiple 30-homer seasons prior to his age-27 season, and his 115 career HRs are third most by a player through 421 career games.
But that exceptional power at the catcher position has come at a price. Sanchez's defense has gone from inconsistent to a liability. His defensive woes, particularly his inability to dependably block pitches in the dirt, are well-documented. Sanchez's 52 career passed balls are the most for any big league catcher over the past five seasons. Nonetheless, Sanchez's performance at the plate consistently outweighed his defensive blunders, as evidenced by having the third-highest weighted runs created plus (wRC+) among all backstops since 2016.
Then came 2020. Sanchez, once one of the most feared sluggers in baseball, slashed .147/.253 /.365 over 49 games during the 60-game, pandemic-shortened season, with only 10 home runs and 24 runs batted in. By comparison, he had hit .232 with 34 HRs and 77 RBIs in 106 games in 2019.
In a conversation with ESPN from his home in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez talked about learning a new catching style during his abysmal 2020 season; Kyle Higashioka emerging as ace Gerrit Cole's personal catcher; being benched during the regular season and for most of the postseason; and the trade rumors that go with being the favorite target of angry Yankees fans.
Do you consider yourself the Yankees' starting catcher?
I cannot speak for the team, but I'm ready to be an every-day catcher. Right now, I'm 27 and I don't see myself as a catcher one day a week, two days a week. I don't see my career going that way yet. I know that I can play and help the team on both sides of the ball every day.
What was it like when you were benched during the playoffs?
It was something that had never happened to me in my career, whether in the minors or in the majors. When they benched me during the regular season, it was explained to me that I would catch one day and have a day off or catch two days and then have a day off to rest, [to] work on things.
Then the playoffs came along, and you start getting excited and you have all that adrenaline. I already felt I was in better form and I had so much desire to contribute to the team, to finally do something, which I did not do in the regular season. Feeling like I couldn't contribute was very hard. I always kept supporting my team. But the reality is, they never told me why I was benched. I didn't know why I wasn't playing.
Were you not given an explanation?
In the regular season, when they sat me down, they told me they were going to give me two days or three days to get myself back together again: "Work on what you have to work, rest a little and work on the areas where you're failing." When the playoffs came around, when they benched me the first time, I understood that I was no longer catching the pitcher who was going to pitch that day, which started during the regular season. I used to say to myself, "I'm not going to play that particular game, but after today, I'm going to play." That's how things started off, and I understood.
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 wasn't catching [Gerrit] Cole. After almost a week without playing, it didn't go well for me in the second game. Actually, none of us did well in that game. After that, I thought I was going to play the next day, because it had been a very bad game for everybody. I struck out three times, but I felt like I was taking 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 told me anything. They just told me, "Stay ready."
Did it make you lose confidence?
What crossed my mind was that I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know why I wasn't playing, if it was my defense or because I wasn't hitting. That was what I was thinking about. So that's where you start forcing things more than you should, and that's when you make mistakes. I would have liked someone to tell me, "This is what's happening -- this and that," and one has to understand and accept that as a man. You focus in that you have to improve this and that. But no one explained to me why.
Did you talk to anyone on the team after the season ended?
I asked for and had a respectful and very positive conversation with [manager Aaron] Boone. I explained to him that I thought I deserved an explanation for what happened. We had a good conversation, and we talked about all of that and cleared things up. After talking to Boone, everything is fine. Our communication has been very good and very honest since all of this happened. I have been in communication with Boone, with [catching coach] Tanner [Swanson], with management. But really, we have always had good communication. That's why I was confused when we weren't in communication in the playoffs.
Do you think the changes in catcher coaching have affected you?
I have worked out in many different ways. I am always working on something during spring training. Always. I am always working on something that needs improvement. This year, it was lowering the right knee, which would make me better in framing low pitches in the zone. So I got better in the lower zone, but I got worse in other zones. I improved in the objective I was asked to improve upon this year, but I got worse in other pitches near the zone, those that were not low. So it worked in one aspect, but it didn't work in others.
I had many catching instructors in the minors, like everyone else, but I think it's important to have consistency once you get to the big leagues. I worked with Brownie [former Yankees catching coach Jason Brown] a bit in Triple-A, and we continued working together when I got to the big leagues. I think I was improving in many ways and I felt good about my catching. With the changes in coaching, I began to work on this new way of keeping my right knee down. I ended up being very comfortable with it because we worked on it so much. But then I got better in the one objective we set but got worse in other areas.
I understand that the team is trying to help me, and I like that. I know all they want to do is see me improve. But this offseason, I have to focus on trying to recover that form from last year and be able to mix everything that I improved upon by adding lowering my right knee. I have to combine that with a return to my 2019 form. In 2019, I lowered the number of passed balls, and I improved a lot. This year was a year of experimentation, not only with the right knee; we did many other things, and I worked very hard. Some things worked and others didn't.
It was a big change. I had never caught with my right knee down. I never threw to second base with my right knee down. But I will keep on working with the organization to identify what worked and what didn't work so I can figure out how I can be the best version of myself behind the plate.
Was a lack of games or practice time a factor?
Maybe. I think it could have been lack of practice. Tanner and I have talked a lot, and I don't think we had the opportunity or the time to really work on it this season. He has many good ideas, and we never had a chance to work on them enough. We did not have enough time. And it was a difficult season. We did not have the necessary reps during spring training. We had to deal with many uncomfortable things. And I'm not making excuses. But I think you can't judge someone by 40 games.
We have had very positive conversations about how I can get back to my 2019 form. I know that he can help me improve. He told me that he was open to helping me in everything I talked to him about, and at the same time, also to continue improving with the right knee down. We have kept in touch, and I know that when it's my turn to start working on defense this offseason, he will be there to help me. Everyone knows how difficult our pitchers are, but I've gotten used to it. I'm not going to tell you it's easy to frame someone like [Aroldis] Chapman or [Zack] Britton with those sinkers. It is not easy. But it's my job to do my best.
How much did the challenges of this pandemic-shortened season affect your preparation and performance on the field?
I kept on working out and training ever since MLB canceled spring training and delayed the season. I always kept working hard, but I never knew when we were going to return to play. I just worked and worked ... and maybe I overworked my body. I was training every day without knowing what day it would all restart. And when it did, it was all really fast, and we had just a couple days to get back to New York. And it was a bit complicated, because there were many things that we weren't used to doing. It was a very difficult season.
There is some vitriol in social media among Yankees fans and even members of the media that you are a "lazy" player. What do you say to that?
I simply do not understand. I am always working hard. Yankees fans are great, but at the same time, they are very demanding. If you're hitting well, fans love you, they do whatever it takes for you. But when you are not doing well, then it starts ... and you know. They will yell anything at you. Sometimes it can be difficult not to have a little encouragement. But those are Yankees fans, and the only thing that matters are results. And I would not have it any other way. I love the high expectations. I can be booed one day when I have a bad game, and the next day I am the hero of the game. But I think sometimes people do not understand that baseball is a game where you are going to fail many more times than you are going to succeed. I just don't understand that criticism. The results were not there; that is true. But it was never due to lack of work.
What do you say about the persistent trade rumors and their connection to fans' disappointment?
I have nothing to say about that. You have to show who you are with actions. When 2021 is here, and I am doing 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 puzzle; I am one piece. I am a part of this team, and I am very proud to wear pinstripes every day. I am ready to play every day. And I have no control over what people are saying, of what will happen to me in the future. I don't control any of that. I just control what I can control. Right now, I'm a player for the New York Yankees, and that's my team. I can't think about people saying this and that or the other. That cannot be my focus.
Is it disappointing to not catch Gerrit Cole, the Yankees' ace?
The last time I caught Cole, we gave up a few runs, a few home runs. After that, I did not catch him again. At first, I thought I was just getting days off. The next time Cole's turn came up, I had had like a day or two of rest, and it ended up that I was not in the lineup catching him. And at that moment, I said to myself, "I'm not going to get to catch him anymore." But nobody told me or explained anything. I am someone who does not like to cause trouble, so I just let it go. I remained calm, because if Cole decides to choose someone, he knows what he's doing. But as I said before, I think they could have explained things to me, saying, "Look, this is what's going on." And as a man, I would have understood it.
Would you like to catch Cole regularly?
I want to catch every single one of our pitchers. All of them. If I am only catching one pitcher, then I will only play one day. I want to play every single day.
Are you then saying this chaotic year was an aberration?
It just wasn't me. That 2020 thing, that wasn't me. It was a bad year. And it wasn't a year; it was 60 days. Manny Ramirez once told me that players like us make their season in two months. But I'm not going to make any excuses. It's time to move on and focus on next year.
And now I have to listen to all the negative comments, everything that everyone has to say about me, because the truth is that I played badly at the plate. That is why I have to take everything anyone says. Let them say what they want; I deserve it. That will make me better and stronger.
What does Gary Sanchez have to do to return to being one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball and not the one who struck out 40% of the time in 2020?
It's about focusing on 2021. Everyone's numbers start at zero. I went through something similar in 2018: I was hurt all year, and there was so much criticism. [In 2019], I came in, proved myself and had one of the best years of my career.
Who do you talk to about hitting? Who is the person who helps you the most?
I talk a lot with [hitting coach] Marcus [Thames] and our coaches. They help me a lot. But someone who was not there this year was [batting practice coach] Danilo [Valiente]. Danilo was not able to be there with us this year because of COVID-19.
Danilo has known me for a long time, and we worked a lot in the cage together and talked hitting a lot. He's always in the cage, so I would head over there and talk to him, and he would help me implement adjustments during the game. I missed that this year. During the game, Marcus and our coaches have to be focused on the actual game, on every hitter, not just me. But Danilo is always in the cage, doing soft toss or throwing BP or putting the machine on for anyone who needs to make adjustments. And I missed that. I would always sit with him and talk, and he would remind me of things that Marcus said and would say things that really opened my eyes.
Did you feel that you did not have enough time to make those adjustments this year?
Well, I thought I had enough time to make my adjustments, but unfortunately, maybe I did not have enough time because I was unable to do it. I was seeing the ball better down the stretch. I was not having as many swings and misses. I was making a lot more contact. I already felt more confident, felt better in every way. Sometimes you just lose everything. When you're in a bad slump, everything goes wrong and you are unable to make adjustments. You lose everything at the plate. But towards the end of the season, I felt that I was in a position to help the team.
When you started feeling better at the plate at the end of the season, what adjustments had you made?
I focused on hitting the ball hard to right field, and that helped me in avoiding swinging at all those sliders out of the zone. I was no longer swinging at those breaking pitches away. That helped me. And towards the end of the season, I was seeing the strike zone better and I started working in some walks.
What about your decision to play in the Dominican Republic this winter?
Playing winter ball was more about getting extra work in than any mechanical adjustments. There are certain smaller adjustments I've made, which I thought were working even at the end of the 2020 season, but that's not the purpose of me being down here. I just had too few at-bats this season, so I thought it important to be able to recover some of those lost ABs and continue to get the reps I need. The Dominican League is obviously a high-caliber league, so being able to not only get those reps but do so in a challenging environment is great.