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Marley Riveraespan Recorder
Marley Rivera is a writer for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.
As the 2020 season approaches, there has never been the slightest doubt about the identity of the New York Yankees’ novice receiver. Finally, one of the most polarising players of the recent past sat on the bench in a Yankees jersey. Everyone – the fans, the Yankees, the man himself – is asking questions: What’s next for Gary Sanchez?
Since his debut in 2016, Sanchez seems to rewrite the record books with every swing, becoming one of the fastest players in the history of MLB to hit the most home runs in his career. Sanchez is one of only four recipients in the history of MLB, with several seasons 30-27, and his 115 career HRs have been ranked third in 421 games.
But this excellent performance as a catcher comes at a price. Sanchez’s defense has gone from inconsistency to responsibility. His defensive weaknesses, especially his inability to reliably block fields in the ground, are well documented. In the last five seasons, Sanchez has dropped the most crushed balls ever touched by a catcher in the big leagues by 52. Nonetheless, Sanchez’s performance at home plate has consistently made up for his defensive shortcomings, as evidenced by the third best runs generated plus (wRC+) among all backstops since 2016.
Then came the year 2020. Sanchez, once one of the most feared baseball players, beat .147/.253/.365 in 49 games in a season that was shortened by 60 games due to the pandemic, with only 10 homeruns and 24 at bats. For comparison: in 2019 he beat .232 with 34 HR and 77 RBI in 106 games.
Speaking with ESPN from his home in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez talked about learning a new style of wrestling during his terrible 2020 season, the fact that Kyle Higashioka became Jerryt Cole’s personal receiver, that he was benched during the regular season and much of the post-season, and the commercial rumors associated with a favorite target of rabid Yankee fans.
Do you consider yourself a beginning Yankee catcher?
I can’t speak for the team, but I’m ready to be an everyday catcher. Now I’m 27 years old and I don’t see myself playing catcher one day a week, two days a week. I don’t see my career going in that direction. I know I can play every day and help the team on both sides of the ball.
What was it like sitting on the couch during the playoffs?
This is something that has never happened to me in my entire career, either as a minor or as an adult. When they put me on the couch during the regular season, I was told that I would get a day off and then a day or two off to work on things.
Then the playoffs come and you’re excited and you have all that adrenaline. I already felt better and I wanted so badly to contribute to the team, to finally do something I hadn’t done during the regular season. The feeling of not being able to contribute was very difficult. I’ve always supported my team. But the reality is they never told me why I was sitting on the couch. I didn’t know why I wasn’t in the game.
Didn’t they give you an explanation?
In the regular season, they said they’d give me a few days to get back on my feet: Work on what you need to work, take time off and work on areas where you fail. When the play-offs came and I sat on the bench for the first time, I knew I wouldn’t catch any pitcher pitching that day, which meant the start of the regular season. I always told myself I wouldn’t play this particular game, but after today I will. That’s how it started, and I realized I couldn’t do it anymore.
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I played the second game in Cleveland, and I played well. Then we went to San Diego, to the Bubble. I didn’t play the first game because I didn’t get [Gerrit] Cole. After almost a week without a match it didn’t go well in the second match. In fact, none of us were any good at it. Then I thought I’d play the next day because it was a really bad game for everyone. I made three shots, but I felt like I took some good shots, some good shots. It made me feel so much better. But I didn’t play. And I was wondering: What happened here? But it’s my job to support my team. But no one’s told me anything since. They just told me: Stick to the lesson.
Is that why you lost your trust?
It occurred to me that I don’t know what’s going on. I didn’t know why I didn’t play, whether it was because of my defense or because I didn’t hit. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Then you go too fast and then you make mistakes. I want someone to tell me what’s going on – it’s this and it’s that, and you have to understand and take it like a man. Concentrate on what you need to improve this and that. But no one explained why.
Have you spoken to any of the team members since the end of the season?
I asked and had a respectful and very positive conversation with [manager Aaron] Boone. I explained to him that I thought I deserved an explanation for what happened. We had a good talk and we put things right. After talking to Boone, everything’s fine. Our communication has been very good and honest since then. I’ve contacted Boone, Tanner [Swanson], management. But we’ve actually always been good at communicating. That’s why I was confused when we didn’t communicate during the playoffs.
Do you think the change in the training of fishermen has affected you?
I’ve trained in many different ways. I’m always working on something during spring training. Anytime. I’m still working on something that needs to be improved. This year he lowered his right knee, so I could have framed the low ground in the area better. So I’ve improved in the lower area rather than the others. I achieved the goal I should have achieved this year better, but I’ve gotten worse on other fields near the area, the ones that aren’t deep. So it worked on one aspect, but not the other.
I have a lot of coaches that catch like everyone else, but I think it’s important to be consistent once you get to the big leagues. I worked with Brownie [former Yankees coach Jason Brown] in the Triple-A League for a while, and we kept working together when I joined the Big League. I think I’ve improved in many ways and I feel good about myself. With the change of trainer I started a new way to hold my right knee. I felt very comfortable in the end because we worked very hard. But then I got better in one area, but worse in another.
I understand the team is trying to help me and I like it. I know they just want me to get better. But this season I have to concentrate on regaining the shape I had last year and being able to process all the things I’ve improved by lowering my right knee. I need to match this form with a return to my 2019 form. In 2019 I reduced the number of presences and improved a lot. This year has been a year of experimentation, not just with the right knee; we’ve done a lot of other things, and I’ve worked very hard. Some things worked and some things didn’t.
It was a big change. I’ve never had a problem with my right knee before. I’ve never thrown my right knee to second base before. But I will continue to work with the organization to determine what worked and what didn’t, to find out how to be a better version of myself behind the scenes.
Was the lack of games or practice time a factor?
Maybe. I think it may have been a lack of practice. Tanner and I have had a lot of conversations, and I don’t think we’ve had the chance or time to really work on this season. He’s got a lot of good ideas, and we’ve never had enough of a chance to work on them. We didn’t have enough time. And it’s been a tough season. We didn’t have the necessary reps during spring training. We’ve had to deal with a lot of uncomfortable things. And I don’t want to make excuses. But I don’t think you can judge anyone after 40 games.
We have had very positive conversations about how I can get back to my 2019 form. I know he can help me get better. He told me he was willing to help me with anything I talked to him about, while he continued to improve with a lowered right knee. We kept in touch, and I know he’ll help me if I have to work on defense in low season. Everyone knows how hard our pitchers are, but I’m used to it. I’m not gonna tell you how easy it is to trap someone like [Aroldis] Chapman or [Zach] Britton with those sinks. It’s not easy. But it’s my job to do my best.
To what extent have the challenges of this shortened pandemic season affected your preparedness and performance in the field?
I’ve been training since MLB cancelled spring training and postponed the season. I’ve always worked hard, but I never knew when we’d be back in the game. I’ve just been working and working… and maybe by overloading my body. I practiced every day, not knowing what day it would happen again. And when it happened, it happened really fast, and we only had a few days to get back to New York. And it was a bit difficult, because there were a lot of things we weren’t used to. It was a very difficult season.
Yankee fans, and even members of the media, have a little vitriol on the social media and think you’re a lazy player. What do you say?
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I don’t get it. I always work hard. Yankee fans are big, but also very demanding. If you do it right, the fans love you, they’ll do anything for you. But if you don’t do it right, it starts at ….. and you know it. They’ll yell at you for everything you’re worth. Sometimes it can be difficult not to get support. But they’re Yankees fans, and all that matters is the result. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like high expectations. One day I can be booed when I have a bad game, and the next day I’m the hero of the game. But I think sometimes people don’t realise that baseball is a game where you fail a lot more often than you succeed. I don’t understand this criticism. The results weren’t, that’s true. But it was never for lack of work.
What do you think of the persistent commercial rumours and their link to the frustration of the fans?
I don’t have anything to say about that. You have to show who you are through action. If 2021 is here and I do my job, it will speak for itself. The only thing that matters to me is winning the championship. I just need to get better and keep working.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge me for the 2020 season alone. The Yankees are a puzzle. I’m a solid piece. I am part of this team and I am very proud to wear stripes every day. I’m ready to play every day. And I can’t control what people say will happen to me in the future. I have no control over this. I only control what I can control. I’m a New York Yankees player now, and this is my team. I can’t imagine people saying this or that or the other. That can’t be my goal.
Is it disappointing that we don’t have Jerritt Cole, the ace of the Yankees?
Last time I had Cole, we gave up a few runs, a few home runs. I didn’t catch him after that. At first I thought I only had the weekend off. The next time Cole showed up, I had a day or two off and I couldn’t catch up with him. And that’s when I told myself I couldn’t catch him. But no one told me or explained anything to me. I’m a person who doesn’t like to cause trouble, so I give up. I stayed calm, because if Cole decides to pick someone, he’ll know what he’s doing. But like I said, I think they could have explained it to me by saying what’s going on. And as a man, I would understand.
Do you want to catch Cole on a regular basis?
I want to catch all our pitchers. All of them. If I only catch one pitcher, I only play for one day. I want to play every day.
Are you saying this chaotic year was an anomaly?
It just wasn’t me. That 2020 thing, it wasn’t me. It’s been a bad year. And it wasn’t a year, it was 60 days. Manny Ramirez once told me that players like us make their season in two months. But I’m not going to apologize. It’s time to move on and focus on next year.
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And now I have to listen to all the negative comments, all the things everyone says about me, because the truth is that I didn’t play the game well. That’s why I have to accept everything anybody says. Let them say what they want, I deserve it. It will make me a better and stronger person.
What does Gary Sanchez have to do to get back to one of the most dangerous players in baseball and not someone who is 40% off in 2020?
The aim is to focus on the horizon of 2021. All numbers start with zero. I went through something like this in 2018: I’ve had the whole year and there’s been so much criticism. In 2019] I arrived, proved myself and had one of the best years of my career.
Who are you talking to? Who helps you the most?
I talk a lot with Marcus and our coaches. You’re very helpful. But someone who wasn’t there this year was Danilo [Valiente]. Danilo couldn’t be here this year because of COVID-19.
Danilo has known me for a long time and we worked together a lot in the cage, we talked a lot and we fought a lot. He’s still in the cage, so I’m gonna talk to him and he’ll help me make adjustments during the game. I missed it this year. During the game, Marcus and our coaches have to focus on the real game, on every shot, not just me. But Danilo always sits in the cage, makes a smooth throw, throws a DB or turns on the machine for anyone who needs a tune-up. And I missed it. I used to sit talking to him and he reminded me of what Marcus had said and said things that really opened my eyes.
Did you feel you didn’t have enough time to make these adjustments this year?
I thought I had enough time to adjust, but unfortunately I might not have had enough time because I couldn’t do it. I have a better view of the ball in the straight. I haven’t had so many swings and misses. I’ve made a lot more contacts. I felt much more confident, I felt better in every way. Sometimes you lose everything. If you’re in a bad situation, it goes wrong and you can’t adjust. You lose everything on your plate. But at the end of the season I felt I could help the team.
When you started to feel better at home plate at the end of the season, what adjustments did you make?
I concentrated on hitting the ball to the right field and that helped me not to swing the sliders out of the zone at all. I was no longer lulled by the sound of footsteps. It helped me. And at the end of the season I saw that the strike zone was improving and I started to work a few steps.
What about your decision to play in the Dominican Republic this winter?
Playing the winter ball was more a matter of extra work than mechanical adjustments. There are a few small adjustments that I thought would work at the end of the 2020 season, but that’s not why I’m here. I didn’t have enough this season, so I thought it was important to find some of those lost ABs and continue getting the reps I needed. The Dominican league is clearly a first class league, and it’s great not only to gain this experience, but also to play under difficult circumstances.