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Has Gary Sánchez unlocked the key to his swing?

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The Yankees catcher has come into spring sporting a high leg kick that was also present during his best stretches in pinstripes.

Yankees player Gary Sanchez hits a homer against Detroit Tigers during spring training 2021 Photo by J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

There is perhaps no Yankee under more scrutiny this spring and this season than Gary Sánchez. The mercurial catcher has at times flashed MVP-level brilliance and at others has scuffled to the point of being unplayable. Given Brian Cashman’s comments over the winter criticizing Sánchez’s horrible 2020, it is fair to think that 2021 could be a make-or-break year for the 28-year-old catcher.

According to reports, Sánchez took the first steps toward rediscovering his All-Star form and re-cementing his status as starting catcher last November. Sánchez reportedly sought out help to increase his mobility, flexibility, and injury prevention. He then decided to play Dominican winter ball for the first time since 2013, hoping to rediscover the confidence that helped fuel his successful stretches, and to implement mechanical adjustments recommended by hitting coach Marcus Thames.

These different measures to kickstart Sánchez’s 2021 season on the right foot appear to be paying dividends. Thames noticed much greater fluidity in Sánchez’s core and hips while watching the catcher’s batting practice. In winter ball, Sánchez got off to a hot start with two doubles and two homers in his first five games before cooling down a bit in his last ten. In the early goings of the Yankees’ spring exhibition schedule, it seems like one of his mechanical tweaks is paying off as well.

This spring, Sánchez is sporting a pronounced leg kick, lifting his left leg early and quite high. Sánchez has employed a leg kick at various times throughout his career, and it has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. Its primary function is to serve as a timing mechanism for the hitter. When Gary’s timing is on with the leg kick, he hits the ball as far as anyone in the league. When the timing is off — and particularly when he is late as I detailed last summer — the results can be ugly.

Sánchez spoke at length about his leg kick in the press conference following the Yankees’ 5-4 spring training victory over the Tigers last Monday. He discussed how the high leg kick helps him stay balanced over his base and is a key in maintaining the rhythm of his swing. Sánchez conceded that on occasions when he lost his feel in the box, he considered making adjustments or ditching the high kick altogether, but ultimately he stuck with it and feels like he is in a very good place with its timing this spring.

Sánchez has such immense strength that he does not need to get out ahead of the fastball to pull it with power, as evidenced by his mammoth blast over the scoreboard in the exhibition game against the Tigers. In this sense, the high leg kick serves as a sort of dual timing mechanism, acting as a cue to initiate his weight transfer while also preventing his hips from flying open too soon.

Another important aspect of the leg kick is how it keeps his weight centered. Gary is able to maintain good upper body posture, sinking into his hips to create a stable power base. In all of the clips, you can see how Sánchez stays anchored on his back side, letting him see the ball for a fraction longer. This allows him to stay through the away pitch and drive it the other way. In combination with the aforementioned flexibility training, these mechanical adjustments provide quickness to hit the elevated fastball in the zone - a pitch that bedeviled him last season.

I went back to investigate how Sánchez has fared with this leg kick in the past. Pouring over the video clips from the last five years, a trend started to emerge. For the majority of Sánchez’s 122 home run swings, the high leg kick was present. Granted, this is by no means conclusive evidence, as I had neither the time nor the patience to view all of his non-home run swings. Nevertheless, it is an encouraging sign that the leg kick has yielded positive results when everything is synched up.

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I did manage to briefly review swings from Sánchez’s worst stretches in pinstripes - namely July of 2018 and 2020. To be honest, the results were inconclusive. For many of the bad swings, he employed either a slide step or an abbreviated leg kick with a toe tap preceding the final plant of the foot. For many other swings however, he did use a leg kick, though the timing of the plant was noticeably off. Given his comments this spring and the success he’s had in the past with the high leg kick, the best path forward seems to be to continue working with the leg kick, hoping to find the right balance and rhythm and perfect the timing to the millisecond.

When he is in peak form, Gary Sánchez is — in my opinion, anyway — the most fearsome hitter in the Yankees’ slugger-studded lineup. He boasts generational power from the catcher position, and has singlehandedly turned the tide of games with his bat. His position in the lineup becomes just another land mine for the opposing pitcher to potentially step on. The Yankees are at their best with a productive Sánchez, and Gary is at his best when he feels comfortable with the timing of his leg kick.