John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
You can hear it in Brian Cashman's voice. He feels as if he has been defending his belief in Gary Sanchez forever, going all the way back to the day 10 years ago when the Yankees signed him as a chubby 16-year old.
So the GM can get a little worked up if you ask about his catcher, especially these days as Sanchez has rebounded from his sub-par 2018 season in a big way, sitting second in the American League in home runs and playing defense at an All-Star level.
Best catcher in baseball? Cashman reaches to find even higher praise, in a general sense, invoking the "U" word that in recent years was more commonly associated with one Kristaps Porzingis.
"I just know he's a difference-maker for us because we're running out a unicorn, meaning something that doesn't exist in most places," Cashman was saying over the phone on Thursday. "We're running out a special mystical beast and we call him 'The Kraken' for good reason. He's a monster at his position."
That's some colorful description, and it's hard to argue with any of it with Sanchez putting up big numbers offensively. He's hitting .266/.332/.607 with 23 home runs and a .939 OPS, all while playing what scouts are saying is improved defense.
At a time in baseball when there are only a few catchers playing at a high level offensively as well as defensively, Sanchez does stand out as unique, mostly because of his prodigious power.
This season, in fact, he's currently hitting a home run every 10 at-bats, the best such ratio in the Majors among all players -- better than Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, or even Pete Alonso, who has the second-best at one every 10.8 at-bats.
As such you can't blame Cashman for feeling vindicated after insisting all along that Sanchez's stunningly poor .186 batting average in 2018 was more a matter of bad luck than any serious concern about either his motivation or future production.
For that matter, a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery may have played a bigger role than anyone knew at the time. Yet Cashman says the Yankees' internal metrics, which he won't reveal publicly, gave him confidence Sanchez would rebound regardless of the shoulder.
"During the winter people were saying we needed to trade him," the GM recalled, "and I was saying, 'No, if we repeated that season 100 times over, 99 times out of the 100 he would have much better results.' "
With that in mind, the Yankees apparently never considered the Marlins' offer to trade J.T. Realmuto, widely considered the best catcher in baseball at the end of last season, for Sanchez.
Cashman wouldn't comment specifically on that potential trade, but he made it clear he said no multiple times when teams called to ask about Sanchez's availability.
"All the teams that see player talent the way we do knocked on my door to see if they could get him, hoping he was a buy-low candidate," the GM said. "They saw the same things we saw, which is, 'Wow, this guy's the best catcher in the game, but he doesn't look like it, so maybe we can steal him.'
"I'd field the calls and tell them we're not looking to move the guy, but I'd listen to what they had to say. You do that with everybody. But I was never trading Gary Sanchez. As an organization, we never stopped believing in him. We believed in him for a long time, when many people have chosen not to.
"All the way back to when we signed him internationally (out of the Dominican Republic) in 2009. We gave him $3 million and a lot of people were like, 'Hey, he's too big to catch,' and 'I wouldn't have given him that money because I don't see him staying at that position.' "
Over the years, some of the skepticism has lingered, and some of the criticism of Sanchez's defense has been warranted, especially last year when he appeared to be out of shape. It limited his mobility and contributed to his 18 passed balls, the most of any catcher in the Majors.
This year, Sanchez by all accounts is in better shape, and so far has limited the passed balls to a total of five, while scouts say he is moving better behind the plate and doing a better job of blocking potential wild pitches.
"There's no question he's working harder at it," says one scout who has seen a lot of the Yankees this season. "It's not just making the effort to block a breaking ball in the dirt, but getting his body into a position where he can keep the ball in front of him, and not have it bounce off to allow a runner to move up. It's a big improvement."
Cashman acknowledges that Sanchez is better this season at blocking pitches, but even so, he takes issue with the idea that the passed balls were ever reason to consider turning him into more of a full-time DH.
"It's the least important part of catching," the GM said. "I'm not saying it's not important, because it is, and it's an area that Gary has continued to work on. But when people were calling for his head, it was all of the other things he did well that were reasons we knew better.
"He's our best game-caller. He puts down the right fingers because he has studied and absorbed the scouting report and he executes it. He'll also adjust and adapt based on the pitcher's stuff that day, as all great catchers do.
"I'm not saying he's perfect. There's no perfect player. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. That was an area of weakness. Maybe it's less of a weakness now, but even if it wasn't, he still does so many other things exponentially better than most that it's worth our while."
One thing for sure: Nobody is talking about Sanchez's weaknesses this season, as he launches home runs at a spectacular rate and still wows observers with his arm strength.
As such, he deserves the label of best catcher in baseball at the moment. Even if Cashman prefers to call him a unicorn.