Despite being an early-August call-up, Gary Sánchez nearly took home AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2016. During the next season, Sánchez again impressed everyone who witnessed his power at the plate. His bat that year earned Sánchez an All-Star nod and Silver Slugger Award, and drew comparisons to the likes of Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez.
Sánchez ended 2018 with a .186/.291/.406 slash line. That batting average was the second-worst in the league. At .291, his on-base percentage fell way below the .318 league average. He produced a modest bounce back in 2019, but not quite back to his 2017 level.
Then, of course, Sánchez endured a brutal 2020, featuring a .147/.253/.365. It’s easy to attribute the slugger’s disappointing numbers to the strangeness of a pandemic-affected season.
But Sánchez’s performance in 2020 can’t just be written off. And the Yankees have an important decision to make as MLB’s non-tender deadline of December 2 approaches (the deadline for teams to offer their pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players a contract for 2021). The organization has invested a lot in developing Sánchez since signing him as a 16 year old in 2009. In the face criticism, and often underachieving, the Yankees have reiterated their support of him time and time again.
But statements Yankees GM Brian Cashman made about Sánchez at the team’s end-of-season press conference differed in tone from their past expressions of unwavering support.
Brian Cashman says it's "certainly a fair question" if Gary Sanchez will be the Yankees' starting catcher in 2021.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) October 14, 2020
For a few years running, Cashman had asserted and re-asserted his complete confidence in Sánchez. His most recent statement suggests the organization’s confidence in Sánchez isn’t what it used to be. Sánchez hasn’t looked completely right for three consecutive seasons now and it would be disingenuous for the Yankees to characterize his defensive miscues, or 36 percent strikeout rate, as an aberration.
Cashman’s tone and language marked a turning point in the way the Yankees’ front office publicly discusses Sánchez’s play. While Boone’s upbeat nature typically allows him to put a sincerely positive spin on nearly anything, there came a point in 2020 when Boone’s optimism didn’t ring true anymore. The Yankees’ departure from expressing anything but full confidence in Gary stood out to me.
I decided to map out chronologically the Yankees’ public statements on Sánchez since he came up from the minors, through his stellar debut, his excellent 2017 campaign, and on through his subsequent decline. When reviewing the statements in this way, a rough timeline of the Yankees’ support for Gary emerges.
In January 2016, former Yankees manager Joe Girardi—a catcher himself—said he was excited to watch Sánchez in spring training that year. When Sánchez joined the big league club in August 2016, Girardi sang his praises.
August 26, 2016 - “He has been unbelievable offensively, unbelievable defensively, and fundamentally he does a ton of things right, and there’s a lot of talent there,” Girardi said of Sánchez in an interview with WFAN’s Mike Francesa.
September 21, 2016 - “I haven’t seen anything like it,” Girardi said of Sánchez’s offensive power, per a YES Network tweet. A few days later Girardi said he would (if he could) vote for Sánchez to win Rookie of the Year.
Girardi continues to compliment Sánchez catching abilities, and particularly his arm strength, throughout the 2017 season.
August 4, 2017 - Girardi seems puzzled by Sánchez’s defensive mistakes and acknowledges the catcher’s struggles on that end. Sánchez needs to improve, he says.
Side note: Girardi also mentions an impressive play made by Cleveland’s third baseman at the time (is this when Gio Urshela landed on the Yankees’ radar?).
Sep 29, 2017 - At the end of the 2017 regular season, the language Girardi uses to talk about Sánchez continues to reflect his unflinching support, as to be expected given the catcher’s offensive exploits that year.
Girardi on Sanchez: "this is my catcher."— Erik Boland (@eboland11) September 29, 2017
By the 2017 postseason, however, Girardi’s annoyance with Sánchez’s defensive mistakes becomes more visible.
October 5, 2017- During the 2017 ALDS, Girardi appears to say something about Sánchez’s glove positioning to Yankees first-base coach Tony Peña (who was also a Gold Glove catcher during his playing days).
After the 2017 season, the Yankees’ didn’t renew Girardi’s contract and hired Aaron Boone to manage the club in 2018. According to many, the organization wanted to hire a manager who could form close relationships with young players on the team.
June 2, 2018 - Sánchez didn’t start off 2018 on a strong note. When asked about the catcher’s slump, Boone seems unconcerned. “He’s one of the last people I worry about hitting-wise. I know over time he’s going to rake,” Boone said.
September 6, 2018 - On an appearance on Mike and the Mad Dog, Girardi, no longer the Yankees manager, critiques Sánchez’s defensive positioning and stance behind the plate. He provides further commentary on the weaknesses he’s observed when it comes to Sánchez’s catching technique.
“You’ve got to fix his base. It’s his base. The left knee collapses and he’s not in a position to catch or block some of these balls. Until that base is fixed, he’s going to struggle.”
March 28, 2019 - As the 2019 season got underway, Boone starts to acknowledge Sánchez’s offensive and defensive struggles in a more direct way. The discussions surrounding the Yankees’ catcher characterize Gary’s disappointing 2018 season as a learning experience.
Aaron Boone says he "wholeheartedly" believes in what Gary Sanchez is doing to bounce back with a strong season in 2019.— WFAN Sports Radio (@WFAN660) March 15, 2019
The #Yankees manager joined @CMBWFAN earlier this afternoon from spring training in Tampa, Florida. Listen: https://t.co/WuhYCIEWLY pic.twitter.com/3Ce0QNvhfd
Sánchez led off 2019 looking like the slugger he’s supposed to be. But early on, the Yankees’ historic injury bug bites him. On and off the IL throughout the summer, Sánchez can’t replicate the success he enjoyed in April and May, though he still finishes the season with a strong .841 OPS.
October 16, 2019 - Boone continues to defend Sánchez’s blocking abilities after Sánchez fails to block pitches in the dirt during a playoff game. “I always feel like he’s a pitch away or an at-bat away from really getting locked in and changing the course of a game,” Boone says to The Athletic’s Marc Carig.
Once the 2020 season finally begins in July, Gary’s bat simply doesn’t show up. Boone’s statements about Gary’s struggles at the plate begin to sound more qualified. He still expresses support for his catcher, but emphasizes the need for him to improve.
September 10, 2020
"I do really feel like he's close. Hopefully we can get the Gary we know that's capable of wrecking a game"— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) September 10, 2020
Aaron Boone on Gary Sanchez pic.twitter.com/7tAzz5fu4r
October 14, 2020 - At the Yankees’ end of season press conference, Boone says, “I still have a ton of confidence in Gary Sánchez. I know it was a tough year for him.” He also emphasizes his belief that Gary looked better at the plate at the end of the season and goes on to praise Higashioka, saying his performance during the ALDS led to his increase in playing time.
So, does Gary have a future with the Yankees? It’s uncertain. But it’s also hard to know how much trade value Sánchez has, following what amounted to the worst season of his career. But tracing the tenor of the Yankees’ public statements about Sánchez makes it clear the organization’s patience with the catcher is waning. They know the level he can reach at his peak, but they have grown tired waiting for him to reach that peak again. Everyone is.