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25 Most Surprising Seasons in Yankees History: 2016 Gary Sánchez

A midseason callup did his best Babe Ruth impression en route to a Rookie of the Year runner-up — in only two months.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

There wasn’t a lot to love about the 2016 Yankees season. Perhaps the high-water mark of the campaign was when the Yankees finally decided to sell at the deadline, offloading two of their three best relievers for Gleyber Torres, Jackson Frazier (née Clint), and others. It was a refreshing dose of reality that the Yankees weren’t going to compete, and that it was best to retool and get set for 2017.

Then on August 2nd, Gary Sánchez was called up for the second time that season, and did his very, very best to make the club competitive all by himself. In the dog days of August and September, the at-the-time No. 5 organizational prospect was about the only thing worth watching, clubbing 20 home runs in just 53 games and finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting.

2016 Statistics: 53 games, 229 plate appearances, .299/.376/.657, 20 home runs, 42 RBI, 170 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR, 3.0 bWAR

Prorating for catchers is tough, since none of them play 150 games a year. In 2023, the top 10 catchers in workload averaged 518 plate appearances, meaning that if Gary had matched that workload with his 2016 production, we would have seen a seven-win season from a rookie catcher. Unconscious.

In Sánchez’s first game after the callup, a home affair with the Mets, he notched his first career hit with a single to lead off the seventh inning. Two batters later, he scored his first run, pushing his club’s lead over the Mets to 6-4. He ended up going 1-for-4, and there was no looking back. He recorded at least one hit in three of the next four games, before showing off the power on August 10th:

It’s telling of the relative weakness of the Yankee lineup that year that a dozen of his 20 home runs came as solo shots, as even once he moved up in the order — playing 40 of his 51 games post-callup in the third slot — he was often hitting behind Jacoby Ellsbury and his .330 OBP, or having to cover for a truly terrible bottom of the lineup.

In some kind of ironic foreshadowing, Sánchez became one of the most feared hitters in baseball down the stretch while fellow call-up Aaron Judge struggled to find any kind of consistency despite his prodigious potential (and first-at-bat pop). What made Gary’s run so incredible was that he did it making so much contact, walking just 10 percent of the time and hitting over .300 after that first 1-for-4 contest.

It was a real testament to how much Sánchez took the sport by the storm in those mere couple months that he managed to earn AL Rookie of the Year runner-up honors anyway, even garnering the only four first-place votes that didn’t go to the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer. It would’ve been incredible to see him win, but what a feeling it was to watch him in the moment.

We all remember when Sánchez was at his worst, and it felt like he couldn’t make contact on any pitch in any location, which makes that incredible 2016 run even more stark.

In some ways, 2016 was maybe the worst thing that could have happened to Gary. He followed up the campaign with an excellent 2017, albeit one more in line with “great 24-year-old catcher” and not “Mike Trout while wearing the tools of ignorance.” Similar to what will most likely happen to Aaron Judge in 2023, though, even an excellent follow-up season left Gary not quite living up to what he had done a year before. Then as Sánchez began to decline, the contrast between what he was and what he had turned in to became more and more vivid.

Gary Sánchez did not have a happy ending to his time in New York, and at time of writing he remains unsigned as a free agent. He never quite recaptured what he was when he first arrived in the bigs, but it’s a foundational memory for this era of Yankee baseball. For two months it felt like the Yankees had conjured up the best player on the planet, and like how Rick and Ilsa always have Paris, we’ll always have 2016.