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The Yankees must live with Gary Sanchez’s defense

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It’s been a rough season behind the plate for the Yankees catcher. The team should remain patient, though.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have struggled in a number of areas this year. Plate discipline, baserunning, and situational hitting quickly come to mind. In many ways, these shortcomings prove symptomatic of a young team. Perhaps none capture this aspect better than the defensive struggles of Gary Sanchez.

After a strong debut in 2016, Sanchez has floundered behind the plate for most of this season. He’s caught 553.2 innings on the year. In that time, he’s allowed 12 passed balls. That mark stands out as the worst in all of baseball. It looks even worse when one considers that more than a few of the 29 wild pitches on his watch appeared catchable.

“He needs to improve, bottom line he needs to improve,” said Joe Girardi to reporters following Friday night’s game against Cleveland. “It is something that we are working on and continue to work on.’’ Girardi’s exasperated tone caught the attention of many, considering his general hesitance to speak candidly of his players.

The New York media has piled on Sanchez as well. Comments on social media and in stories would lead one to think that he was at fault for all of the Yankees’ woes. Terms like “lazy, “checked out”, and “arrogant” are recklessly brandished in these criticisms. After doing so much to rejuvenate a starving fanbase last season, Sanchez has been portrayed as nothing short of a liability in 2017.

There have been some productive discussions about his defense, of course. Brian Cashman believes that Sanchez added too much muscle, resulting in a loss of flexibility. Girardi, meanwhile, noted a change in his mechanics. “A lot of times it is their stance. Sometimes their rear end sags and sometimes you misread a ball,’’ he explained.

Whatever the cause, it’s time to step back and take a collective deep breath. Growing pains are inevitable, and Sanchez is playing one of the more difficult positions in baseball. His defensive numbers are down across the board, but he’s still just 24 years old. There’s plenty of time for him to hone his craft.

I’ve seen some writers suggest the Yankees move Sanchez to another position. This proves foolish, considering his bat plays so well behind the plate. He’s an elite catcher because of his offensive production. The Yankees lived with Jorge Posada because they understood how important it was to have an impact bat as the backstop. Heading into Saturday night’s game, Sanchez owned a 120 wRC+. That’s among the best at the position. Moving him erases such an advantage.

In many ways, this scenario reminds me of Luis Severino in 2016. Severino made a dominant impression during his first taste of the big leagues, but slumped mightily last year. He mostly pitched out of the bullpen or in Triple-A. Many questioned his future as a starting pitcher. Others outright lobbied for the Yankees to make him a full-time reliever. Ultimately, his struggles proved a case of growing pains. He’s now pitched his way into Cy Young discussions. This could hold true for Sanchez.

There’s no denying that he’s struggled behind the plate this season. His defense has been at best inconsistent, and at worst unwatchable. Yet he’s too important of a player to write off. He’s a cornerstone bat at a premium position, and moving him would only hurt the Yankees. Sanchez has deficiencies to improve, but he needs time do so. For now, the team has to live with his defense, even if it’s rough around the edges. Patience figures to pay off in the long run.