I've never been to Charleston before, but by all accounts from those who have, it seems like an interesting place. Interesting in that it looks kind of nice and important stuff happened there a long time ago. Big wars kind of important. It seems the kind of place you visit with the family, point to something old and war-ish looking and say "look, a lot of people died here a long time ago." You could explain the how and why, but they don't care.
For a place I've never been to and have no connection to whatsoever, I find myself paying attention to Charleston a lot. It probably has something to do with the RiverDogs hoarding all the good Yankees prospects. It's almost certainly the reason, actually. Hoarding is usually a bad thing, but in this case I can't really blame them. The players they have are worth hoarding. The things hoarder freaks usually keep aren't. If you are one of those hoarder freaks and find this offensive, good. Twenty-year-old newspapers aren't that important, so stop, you freak.
If I remember correctly, and it's very possible that I don't, the focal points of this year's Charleston team were supposed to be Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams. It's understandable why we were supposed to focus on those guys. They're both really good players, which is a good thing to focus on, and will presumably address major needs for the team in the future; also a good thing. That future is a long way off, especially given the nature of the Yankees, but it never hurts to look ahead.
Two months into the season the focus seems to have shifted a bit. Mason Williams is doing Mason Williams things, so the hypothetical lens is still trained on him. But in a fit of what I assume is attention deficit disorder, the second invisible eye has moved on to Tyler Austin. That's kind of a rude thing to do to Sanchez after such a brief courting, but Austin is the pretty new thing in the room. Pretty new things make the eyes wander. It's only natural.
With how quickly the glare shifted, it's reasonable to question the motives. This kind of thing happens all the time and there's usually a good reason. The player isn't hitting at all, he isn't hitting for power, he read the reports of attitude problems and made a full-blown pro wrestling heel turn, whatever. I'd understand people moving on if any or all of those situations came to pass, but the real reason seems to fall in far simpler territory; home runs. Sanchez isn't hitting many home runs. He's hit some home runs, two to be exact, but we were given the impression there would be a gaggle, murder, flock, business or some other name given to a large group of home runs. Where the flock, yes, I'm going with flock, of home runs has deserted Sanchez, they have landed on the bat of Tyler Austin. Thirteen home runs through 39 games is a lot of home runs. It probably qualifies as a swarm but that would be confusing.
If this is the reason people have given their eyes to Austin it makes perfect sense. Home runs are flashy so they draw our attention. But just for a second, let's take eyes off the shiny new thing and move back to Gary Sanchez. The 19-year-old is repeating the South Atlantic League so you'd expect more home runs. That isn't happening, but a lot of other stuff is happening. Of all the stuff that's happening, the most important thing is that Sanchez is showing signs of becoming a more complete hitter.
The numbers for his May encore are extreme, but so is the sample size. Fifty-four plate appearances is roughly two weeks worth of games so all of this could change in a couple games. Or it might not. He might tread water and strikeout once every three times at the plate while hitting a liner in the fourth for the rest of the month. It's not the ideal outcome, but it might happen. Odds are the walks and on-base percentage won't hit the mark from last year, which is bad, but we can live with a minor downturn for the time being if the other things hold steady. At this point we're probably being greedy asking for significant improvement in the areas he's already excelling in so steady is just fine.
The dingers will come in time. That's poorly phrased, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. Sanchez is hitting the ball too hard and has too much raw power not to hit more dingers. It's a minor annoyance that they happened yet, but mosquito bites are mildly annoying as well. That annoyance passes quickly enough and so will the lack of dingers. It's nothing worth worrying about when there are other parts of Sanchez's game that actually are; namely the defense. Because it's always the defense.
Passed balls happen to catchers. Even the good ones misread or just flat out butcher a pitch a couple times a year. Twenty-six passed balls doesn't happen to catchers. It happened to Sanchez last year, but that doesn't happen. Sanchez had more passed balls than nine teams in the South Atlantic League last season. That's not supposed to happen. Throw in eight errors and that's really not supposed to happen.
Sanchez is young and plays a difficult position to excel at. That's always the first thing that comes to mind whenever I have to do a double take on last year's numbers. He's just 19 in his second Low-A season so the rational part of you could probably pencil the 2011 struggles in as youth, an anomaly or a combination of the two. To this point the passed balls are way down, three in 27 games, so that's good. But he's made eight errors and has seen his caught stealing numbers drop to 28% (-3%) in the same time frame, so that's not so good. There's no cliché about two steps forward, two steps back, but Sanchez is making a good case to patent one.
I really don't know what to make of his defense, which would normally bother me, but no one else seems to be able to either, so I'm left even more confused. I think. Opinions are largely split on how good/bad/mediocre Sanchez's work behind the plate is, so that makes me feel a little better. Fangraphs' Mike Newman wrote something on the subject awhile back and came away with a mixed bag of opinions. The bat is obviously the marquee ability, the arm is strong and on target when the pitcher hits his spot, but it strays a bit if he has to adjust to a less than perfect pitch. There's more! The big takeaway from Newman's visit appears to be Sanchez's struggle with technique. Frequently stabbing at pitches, attempting backhands vs. dropping to block, failing to hold glove position when the ball arrives, etc. Not the best way to make a first impression.
A split requires an opposing side, which is where Keith Law comes in. Only a brief blurb is available, but it gives the impression that Sanchez left an impression. Law praised Sanchez's all-field power at the plate and labeled his performance behind the plate as a "pleasant surprise." Considering Sanchez threw out four of six runners in a 4-3 Charleston win that night, the report would only be shocking if that wasn't the impression Law was left with. A one game sample isn't much to go on from either side, but it seems to get to the heart of Sanchez's defense. There's going to be good games, there's going to be bad games and there are going to be games where you only notice him with a bat in his hand. The point is not to dwell on just the extreme highs and lows, but to take them as part of the bigger picture. The extremes aren't going to decide whether he excels, sticks or is forced to fake catching to stay in the league. It's the bat that will, or at least should, decide if he makes his home behind the plate. If the bat becomes what it's expected to it will more than justify the extremes. It will take truly spectacular and consistent failure on the defensive side to ruin the enviable situation the Yankees face in the near future.
This all seems too familar. Given how the last situation played out, it's fair, and probably for the best, to take a step back and breathe for a moment. The bat is fine and will continue to be fine. There is no need to worry about the bat due to a lack of early season dingers. The defense shouldn't even induce worrying at this point. Catching isn't easy. He will mature, he will learn from better coaches as he does and if he grows into his potential, he will at least play passable catcher. It's too soon to worry. Worrying adds years to your life and weathers youth. Concern is normal, however. That's the better emotion for now. Concern leaves the door for hope open more than worry and shows you really care. You do care, right?