In the latest step of their yearslong refurbishing project known as Gary Sanchez, the talented-but-streaky catcher, the Yankees hired a new catching coach this off-season. Just as he had done with the Minnesota Twins, Tanner Swanson was tasked with teaching Sanchez a new one-knee catching style intended to convert more low, borderline pitches into strikes.
Another benefit, in Swanson’s mind, would be easing stress on Sanchez’s body, a big priority considering Sanchez landed on the injured list four times during the 2018 and 2019 seasons with leg injuries.
“He needs to be healthy to impact this team the way he’s capable of,” Swanson said during spring training in March.
Both of those goals have been achieved this season. Sanchez, 27, has avoided the injured list, unlike several of his teammates, and he has seen distinct progress in turning low, close pitches into strikes.
But then a curious development came as his health and glove improved: Sanchez’s best trait — the skill that makes him valuable at his demanding position — all but vanished.
Entering Friday’s doubleheader in Baltimore, he was hitting .130, the lowest batting average of any player in the major leagues with at least 100 plate appearances this season. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.582) was far below his career mark (.829). He had 12 hits, including six home runs, in 30 games. Pitches he normally smashes into the gaps or the seats — he hit 34 home runs last season — have fizzled into groundouts or flyouts.
“I’m going through a bad moment,” Sanchez said in Spanish during a video news conference this week. “I’m hopeful that more hits will come and I’ll keep my head up high.”
The Yankees’ problems at the plate have not been limited to Sanchez. From Aug. 18 through Thursday — a stretch that included a trampling by the rival Tampa Bay Rays, — Sanchez, Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, Aaron Hicks and Mike Ford have each posted an O.P.S. under .640. In that span, the Yankees are 4-10.
While second baseman D.J. LeMahieu (.382 average entering Friday) and first baseman Luke Voit (13 home runs) have carried the Yankees’ lineup of late, the absences of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres because of injuries have left the club with a distinct lack of production at the plate.
Nevertheless, the Yankees were 20-16 entering Friday, in position to reach the playoffs only because it was expanded to 16 teams this season. But in a season truncated from six months to two because of the pandemic — making every game count nearly three times as much as usual — every loss and 0-for-4 performance feels that much worse.
“I can’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll get it next month,’ because the season is short,” Sanchez said. “I haven’t been able to make my adjustments like I wanted. I’m just going to try, in this new month, to make it a good month, make the adjustments and hope it goes well.”
The biggest change he said he needs to make at the plate: “Hit the ball and put the ball in play.” Despite a couple recent bright spots — a grand slam on Sunday against the Mets and a solo homer against the Orioles on Friday — Sanchez’s strikeout rate was at a career-high 39 percent entering the weekend. When he has made contact, Sanchez, listed at 6-feet-2-inches and 230 pounds, has been hitting the ball as hard as before but netting more popups or flyouts.
To correct that, Sanchez has been taking extra swings against a high-velocity pitching machine and working to hit the ball more on the barrel, the sweet spot of the bat. It is still a work in progress.
His catching is, too, but Sanchez has at least seen more promise there. Last season, Sanchez often caught while squatting or crashing down onto his left knee a split second before a pitch was delivered. His blocking numbers got better — after giving up 18 passed balls in 2018, the most in the majors — but what worsened was his pitch framing, the art of making a borderline pitch look like a strike to the umpire with subtle movements of the glove or the body.
“He was often dive-bombing to the ground,” Swanson said in March, adding later, “That impact repeatedly to the ground doesn’t look comfortable.”
To help Sanchez reduce the strain on his legs and better handle low pitches, Swanson suggested that he ease down onto his right knee well before a pitch is delivered, even with runners on base. More than half of pitches that hitters take are in the bottom third of the strike zone or lower, Swanson said.
Swanson, 38, helped Twins catcher Mitch Garver improve as a pitch framer with the same technique. Hired by the Yankees in November, Swanson visited Sanchez in his native Dominican Republic over the winter to work on the new approach.
While Sanchez had been behind the plate for a major league-leading 16 wild pitches (the Yankees pitching staff is difficult to catch) and he had been charged with four passed balls (tied for second-most in baseball) entering Friday, transforming dozens of close pitches into strikes is more valuable than preventing a few balls from scuttling to the backstop.
Sanchez said the new stance had grown on him.
“I like it,” he said. “I’m seeing better results. I feel comfortable. I feel less tired, like I’m not tiring as much as last year. This year, I feel stronger.”
All that makes Sanchez’s struggles at the plate even more confounding. But as Sanchez himself likes to say, baseball is hard. To give his mind a break after games, Sanchez said he doesn’t watch baseball channels or check Instagram “especially when you’re going through a bad moment, like hitting is for me now.”
He added, “I don’t want to hear negative things. I always like hearing positive things..”
Despite his offensive woes, the Yankees have stuck with Sanchez as their primary catcher because of his track record, which is better offensively than those of backups Erik Kratz and Kyle Higashioka. Earlier in the week, Sanchez thanked Yankees Manager Aaron Boone and the team for continuing to trust in him and play him.
“He is, by far, our best option on both sides of the ball and we look forward to him finding his groove sooner than later because we need it,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said last week. He noted later, “There’s time on the clock for him to change that narrative.”