A team in transition can have a lot in common with the changing of seasons. The calendar says it’s spring in late March, but if you look out the window and see snow, it sure feels an awful lot like winter still. A club can sell off at the trade deadline, because their performance up to that point had been uninspired, but it’s likely their play after the fact will be even worse.
Rarely does the change break in with a thunderclap: a night-and-day difference, the longed-for future arrives far sooner than you imagined possible. In August 2016, however, Gary Sanchez arrived with the ferocity of a hurricane. With each home run, he awakened a slumbering fanbase, jolted a team out of autopilot, and captured the attention of the baseball world.
In short, he signaled the beginning and the end of the Yankees’ rebuild.
The storm made landfall in Boston, in the eighth inning of a game on August 10, 2016. Sanchez had just 26 big-league plate appearances to his name, and the Yankees were six games back in the standings, but the Bombers had a 6-4 lead over the Red Sox. The little things, right? Junichi Tazawa fired off a 91 mph fastball that sat middle-middle, and Sanchez teed off. The 23-year-old catcher sent his first home run into the left-center seats at Fenway Park.
Sanchez followed that up with a bomb at Yankee Stadium on August 14, in a losing effort against the Rays. Two days later, he crushed two long-balls to single-handedly defeat the Blue Jays. The second home run of the day drew a “wow” from Paul O’Neill in the broadcast booth. The very next day, he did it again, swatting his fifth home run in a single week.
The Yankees, who sold off at the trade deadline 16 days earlier, now sat five games out of a Wild Card spot.
★ ★ ★
“I’d like to unleash the Kraken, which is Gary Sanchez, on our roster in 2016 if I can,” Brian Cashman told reporters on December 9, 2015. These comments came just a month after the Yankees flipped John Ryan Murphy, a fan-favorite backup catcher, to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. The trade seemingly cleared the path for Sanchez’s arrival in the Bronx, a journey seven years in the making.
A native of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez grew up with a passion to play baseball, no matter his means. As a child, he reportedly collected broken, discarded dolls, whose heads he would use as makeshift baseballs. For two years the Yankees closely monitored Sanchez. They found his displays of raw strength impressive, and banked on his bat as capable of developing into a big-league weapon. When the July signing period opened in 2009, the Bombers officially signed Sanchez, giving him a $3 million signing bonus.
Sanchez began his professional career in 2010, splitting his time between the Gulf Coast League Yankees and the Staten Island Yankees. He quickly climbed the various top 100 prospects lists, and fans began to dream on his potential.
The road to the big leagues, however, does not make for easy traveling. In fact, many speed bumps and obstacles lurk along the way, especially for a teenager nearly 1,200 miles away from home. For Sanchez, he had to adjust to the pressures of growing up within the Yankees’ organization, as well as deal with the creeping sense of prospect fatigue. Fans have a short attention span, and when prospects take years to develop, they lose patience. Their goodwill dissipated even quicker after he caught a demotion for refusing to warm up a reliever at the Low-A level in 2011.
The catcher found himself on the receiving end of the Yankees’ disciplinary arm in 2014, while playing for Double-A Trenton. That summer he sat out five games for an unspecified infraction. While those hurdles led many to sour on the 21-year-old, the organization still believed in his potential. In fact, he would unlock a new level of focus just a year later, with the birth of his daughter in 2015.
“Once she was born, it was kind of like a switch went off,” Sanchez told Bryan Hoch, in his book The Baby Bombers. “I saw the opportunity in front of me. I just decided, whatever I need to do and whatever it takes to get to the big leagues, let’s get it done now. When you have a daughter, it’s kind of like a source of energy and motivation. It pushes you to do more, to be better.”
Indeed, Sanchez did more. He produced a 2015 season so productive (134 wRC+ split between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wikes-Barre) that he earned his major-league debut that September. It was a cup of coffee, two plate appearances against the Orioles in October, but he scaled the mountain. And, on top of that, he convinced the team he was part of the future.
After the Murphy trade, all eyes focused on Sanchez in spring training. The backup catching job was his to lose. Whether caught pressing or just poor baseball luck, Sanchez had an uninspiring camp in 2016. He went 1-for-21, and the team assigned him to the Triple-A RailRiders to start the season. There he would wait—save for a cameo against peak Chris Sale, of all people—until August. Cashman told reporters after the trade deadline that Sanchez would get a promotion, and he finally got to unleash the Kraken.
★ ★ ★
The Yankees started a six-game trip to the West Coast on August 19. Their schedule called for three games against the Angels, followed by a three-game set at SAFECO Field versus the Mariners. Traveling across the country for six straight games would present a tall order at any time of the year. In the dog days of August, however, it seemed especially cruel.
Nobody told Sanchez this.
In the first game in Anaheim, he went three-for-five with two doubles. He saved the fireworks for the next day, however, when he swatted his sixth home run of the season. It came in the first inning, off a hanging Ricky Nolasco breaking ball.
Seattle somehow treated Sanchez even kinder. The Yankees lost game one of the series, despite the Kraken’s best efforts. He swatted two homers, a solo shot in the first inning and a two-run jack in the sixth, both off Cody Martin. In the series finale, he launched another first-inning home run, this one against Hishashi Iwakuma.
By the end of the West Coast trip, Sanchez owned a .389/.450/.847 batting line with nine home runs (241 wRC+). The Yankees won four of the six games, yet they remained five games out of a playoff position.
★ ★ ★
Ryan Ruocco served as the play-by-play announcer for that West Coast trip. He entered the broadcast booth in Anaheim well aware of the power display Sanchez had put on a week earlier. What went through his mind, then, when Sanchez teed off Nolasco?
“I’m thinking, This dude is injecting excitement back into Yankees baseball,” Ruocco told Pinstripe Alley. “After embracing the rebuild, the Yankees already have a future cornerstone to get fired up about, and wow he’s even more incredible than we could’ve imagined. His power was just remarkable and it was becoming a must-watch show.”
Then came the three home runs in Seattle. After each one, Ruocco’s calls grew more and more animated. “Gary Sanchez continues to amaze,” he called out after Sanchez’s second bomb off Martin. “Are you kidding me?!” he wondered out loud. Then, after taking Iwakuma yard, he delivered my personal favorite call of the season: “And Sanchez again with a bomb! This monster keeps eating.”
When asked about what it was like to call those games, Ruocco admitted his tone changed as the homers piled up. “I remember almost the hints of amazed laughter creeping more and more into my calls,” he said. “It was just absurd what Sanchez was doing. I started thinking about how I needed to have some sort of perspective or scope incorporated into the calls to reflect how ridiculous what he was doing was.”
Michael Kay, the voice of the Yankees for the YES Network, experienced something similar. While he can’t pinpoint an exact home run where the light switch flipped, he remembers that Sanchez hit double-digits in no time. “I was kind of stunned,” Kay said.
He also explained how Sanchez almost single-handedly changed their approach as broadcasters. “In terms of changing the narrative, all of a sudden each a-bat became must-see TV, and that’s how we played it,” Kay noted. “Remember, this was supposed to be a couple of months of rebuilding, and suddenly they started winning, and Sanchez started hitting home runs, and each game had a story arc and was really interesting. It became very cool.”
Between his career as a beat writer and his tenure in the broadcast booth, Kay has covered the Yankees since 1987. He’s covered his share of rookie breakouts, some fleeting (Kevin Maas), while others more significant (Derek Jeter and Aaron Judge). None, however, compares to the record-breaking speed at which Sanchez racked up the homers. “His greatness was squeezed into two months, and it just seemed more incredible,” he added.
What was the biggest takeaway that Kay and Ruocco picked up from Sanchez’s 2016 run? The immediate success of the Yankees’ rebuild. “Sanchez’s run made the Baby Bombers more acceptable to the public and the organization. Because he did so great, it became a thing where they felt let’s see what the other kids can do,” said Kay.
“I do agree with Michael,” Ruocco chimed in. “ I think the fans were already ready to embrace giving the next generation a shot, and this immediately validated it. CC [Sabathia] always joked about how the rebuild last [sic] only a few weeks thanks to Gary...For the veterans on that team, I believe they saw what Gary was doing and knew the turnaround might come much more quickly than many originally anticipated.”
★ ★ ★
On August 26, the Yankees returned home for a quick, three-game set against the Orioles. They took the series, winning the first two games. Unsurprisingly, Sanchez homered in both victories. Then the league adjusted to him: Sanchez went homerless for nearly 50 plate appearances.
The Yankees, however, apparently felt energized by his breakout, as they went 8-3 over their next 11 games. Then Sanchez homered three times in five days. As the evening of September 13 drew to a close, the Yankees sat just two games out of a Wild Card spot. It had been 43 days since the team sold off at the trade deadline. There were 23 games left to play.
★ ★ ★
Ruocco was right: Yankees fans were ready to get behind a new wave of talent. They just needed a spark, a player to latch on to, a defining performance. They sat through years of decline, of uninspiring play by veterans, of a farm system slowly coming into its own. They needed Sanchez.
Take Kaden Laduke for example. He remembers Sanchez’s arrival fondly. “It made the team fun again. They hadn’t truly been a fun team since 2012...with little moments peppered in like Jeter and Mo’s last seasons. Gary coming up and crushing it gave the team some flavor and pizzazz that they hadn’t had since Raul Ibanez was hitting those playoff homers in 2012. It allowed younger fans to have a guy that they could look at and know would help the team for years to come and gave older fans a reason to stick around.”
Micahel Dunlea is one of those younger fans. Born at the apex of the Yankees’ dynasty, Dunlea was 11 when the Bombers won the World Series in 2009. “My time as a Yankees fan has been strange,” he told Pinstripe Alley. “I got to see the end of the Core Four, with a few of those contending years through 2012, but the thin years were indeed thin.”
“Sanchez’s arrival in 2016 was the needed paradigm shift to wake up a franchise that was sleeping,” Dunlea added. “While in recent years Judge, Severino, Torres etc have overshadowed Gary, he was the first arrival of the era that has brought us to this moment of being World Series favorites...for the first time in a decade.”
A long-time fan, Ana Cabrera echoes the thrill Sanchez delivered: “The kid was a breath of fresh air. Must-watch tv and excitement looking for those home runs. [I] will not forget the time they tried to walk him and he reached out to hit the ball, making a fly out and bringing a run home!”
A fine moment, indeed:
★ ★ ★
There was no fairytale ending for the 2016 Yankees. They didn’t go on a Cinderella-story run down the stretch and sneak into the postseason. In fact, after beating the Dodgers on September 13, they lost their next five straight, including a four-game sweep at Fenway Park that all but buried the Bombers.
Sanchez, however, kept things interesting. He blasted five more home runs to finish the year with an even 20. In 53 games he authored a .299/.376/.657 batting line with a 170 wRC+, and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Even after the Yankees were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, fans tuned in to see how many homers he could blast.
In the years since Sanchez’s debut, the Yankees have known nothing but success. The club exceeded all expectations in 2017, falling just a game short of the pennant. They won 100 games in 2018, and led by Aaron Boone’s band of misfits, performed even better in 2019. Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres emerged as the cornerstones of the offense, but their paths were made clear by Sanchez.