Yankees, Aaron Boone Face Critical Test in Solving Big Gary Sanchez Problem

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJuly 25, 2018

ST PETERSBURG, FL - JULY 24:  Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees looks on during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 24, 2018 in St Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The New York Yankees have a Gary Sanchez problem that goes far beyond a strained groin and far beyond a game that might not have been lost with a little more effort from their 25-year-old catcher.

This isn't about a game in July. It's about games in October, and whether the Yankees can win a championship with him behind the plate.

"No way they can win in the playoffs with Sanchez catching," one National League scout said Tuesday.

I'm not sure I buy that, because Sanchez was the starting catcher for 12 of the 13 games the Yankees played last October, when they took the Houston Astros to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. They're 35-18 in the 53 games he has started behind the plate this season, which is better than their record in games when he hasn't been the starting catcher (28-17 entering play Tuesday).

I do buy that Sanchez's continuing defensive struggles and his issues with concentration and hustle have presented Yankees manager Aaron Boone with the first big issue to solve in what has been an ultra-smooth first season in charge.

It's easy to jump on Sanchez this week, because the two lack-of-hustle plays in Monday's 7-6 Yankees loss to the Tampa Bay Rays were so inexcusable—even after finding out Sanchez was dealing with the groin issue that sent him back to the disabled list Tuesday. Sanchez allowed a run to score from second base when he didn't move fast enough to recover a passed ball (his 10th of the season, tied for most in the majors). And he was retired at first base for the game's final out, on a play in which the Rays first tried unsuccessfully to get Aaron Hicks at second base.

It's easy to jump on Sanchez this year, because his .188 batting average (down from .278 last year) and .699 OPS (down from .876) have made it harder to overlook the transgressions in other parts of his game.

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It's easy to jump on Sanchez, because on his way through the Yankees farm system he sometimes had similar issues, with the Yankees using benchings, suspensions and "timeouts" to convince him he had to grow up. And because some of the same issues they tried to correct then—concentration lapses and poor receiving technique—have been so evident this season.

"What you're seeing now is what we all saw in the minor leagues before 2015," an American League scout said.

Sanchez went back on the disabled list Tuesday, but his play remains a major concern for the Yankees.
Sanchez went back on the disabled list Tuesday, but his play remains a major concern for the Yankees.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Yankees stuck with Sanchez then, believing his strong right arm and powerful bat would make him worth the effort. It helped that despite the benchings and suspensions, Sanchez never had a reputation as a bad kid, just as one who needed to mature.

Two years ago, it seemed they were right to wait. Sanchez came to the big leagues and hit 20 home runs in just 53 games, including 11 in one stunning 15-game stretch in August.

It was easy to love Sanchez in 2016. When I did a story on him that September, I quoted a scout who pointed to Monument Park and said, "That's where he could end up."

Then came 2017, when on the one hand Sanchez became just the second catcher born in the Dominican Republic to make an All-Star team (Tony Pena was the first). On the other hand, his defense was enough of an issue that then-Yankees manager Joe Girardi publicly scolded him and even benched him for a game in August.

Boone has been more publicly supportive, to the point of telling reporters Tuesday at Tropicana Field that he wouldn't have benched Sanchez for Monday's transgressions. Sanchez didn't play Tuesday, but only because he went back on the disabled list with the recurrence of the groin injury that had already sidelined him for 20 games before he returned over the weekend.

To his credit, Sanchez didn't blame his lack of hustle on the sore groin, which he said he felt tighten up on the first-inning passed ball.

"An injury is never an excuse," Sanchez said, according to George A. King III of the New York Post. "If I'm on the field, I'm good to play. My answer is the same [as Monday]: I could have done a better job."

Sanchez hasn't hit as well this year as Judge, but his 14 home runs are tied for first among major league catchers.
Sanchez hasn't hit as well this year as Judge, but his 14 home runs are tied for first among major league catchers.Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Even that wasn't enough for many Yankees fans, or for rival scouts who have grown tired of watching Sanchez mess up over the years.

"He always owns up to it," one American League scout said. "But then it happens again."

Even so, that same scout said, "I'd still take the bat."

Four scouts interviewed Tuesday about Sanchez were unanimous in still believing in Sanchez's offensive potential. Some speculated his struggles have come from trying to pull the ball too often, while others wondered whether his problems on defense evolved into a confidence issue that has hurt his offense as well.

All agreed the Sanchez problem is a challenging one for the Yankees. Their other young players cause them little concern, with Aaron Judge one of the most respected players in the game and Gleyber Torres fitting in seamlessly after a late-April promotion from the minor leagues.

Sanchez is the one who complicates things. He always has been.

When it was that way in the minor leagues, the Yankees decided it was worth the aggravation he caused to find out how good a player he could become. They may well decide that again, but after what happened Monday, it's a question they once again must answer.

   

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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