NEW YORK -- No player in baseball needed a good start to the 2021 season more than Gary Sanchez. The New York Yankees catcher had a miserable season a year ago, hitting .147/.253/.365 and losing his job to backup Kyle Higashioka in the postseason. There was speculation the Yankees could non-tender Sanchez in the offseason, though that didn't happen.
Sanchez got off to that much-needed good start Thursday afternoon. In his very first at-bat of the new season, Sanchez clocked a long two-run home run to left field off Blue Jays ace Hyun-Jin Ryu, driving in his team's first two runs of 2021. Ryu caught a little too much of the plate with a fastball and Sanchez yanked it out to his pull field. To the action footage:
"It was nice to see, especially good to answer back," Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said about Sanchez's home run, which came a half-inning after the Blue Jays took a 1-0 lead. "Came at the right time, grabbed the momentum back in our favor. Good swing on a good pitch. The boys were fired up."
Fastballs were a major issue for Sanchez last year. He hit .173 with a .444 slugging percentage against fastballs overall, including .222 with a .571 slugging percentage against fastballs in the strike zone. The MLB averages on heaters in the zone were .303 with a .788 slugging percentage. Sanchez was 81 batting average points and 217 slugging percentage points below average.
"There were a couple things me and (hitting coach Marcus Thames) were working on the last three days of spring," Sanchez said about his work at the plate the last few weeks. "We're getting good results out of that. For me, I think it's just keep going and following the routine we've creating. Focus on that and keep going forward."
The home run was only the start of Sanchez's good afternoon. Cole of course started Opening Day for the Yankees, and last year Higashioka took over as Cole's personal catcher midway through the season. Here are Cole's numbers with each catcher:
Higashioka was also behind the plate for Cole's three postseason starts, during which he had a 2.95 ERA in 18 1/3 innings. Small sample sizes, no doubt, but Cole's results were considerably better with Higashioka than Sanchez,.
"We'll come in with the idea that, whether it's Gary or Kyle, they'll both work with really all of our pitchers here in spring," Boone said during his start of spring press conference (video). "Whether it's in bullpens, and then into the spring games, I'm always willing to do whatever I feel like it's necessary moving forward. But no, I don't have that plan of pairing Cole and Higashioka."
Boone's willingness to give Sanchez another chance with Cole was rewarded Thursday. Sanchez helped Cole navigate through 5 1/3 effective innings despite not being completely locked in with his command in the early innings. Cole retired 13 of the final 17 batters he faced Thursday, seven via strikeout. He allowed two runs in his 5 1/3 innings and struck out eight.
"I thought we did a nice job. I just want that slider back," Cole said following the game when asked about working his Sanchez, referring to the cement mixer Teoscar Hernandez hit for a game-tying solo homer in the sixth. "I thought we were good. We made -- I had some poor execution on a couple pitches that burned us -- we made really good pitches to stop the bleeding in the second. There was a lot of good out there."
In the top of the seventh Sanchez threw out Randal Grichuk trying to steal second base to end the inning with the score tied 2-2. Understandably, most of the Sanchez discourse involves bat and the passed balls, though his throwing has not been great the last few years either. He threw out only 25 percent of base stealers the last two seasons, down from 36 percent from 2016-18, and below the 27 percent league average.
"That's something I mentioned before, how I felt spring training went," Sanchez said. "I said that it was definitely my best spring training behind the plate. For me, I want to find that consistency, and keep that consistency going behind the plate as well."
After ending the top of the seventh with the caught stealing, Sanchez led off the bottom of the seventh with a rare infield single (he had 10 infield hits from 2018-20). Two innings later Sanchez worked a five-pitch leadoff walk against Jordan Romano, then was removed for a pinch-runner. The Yankees put the go-ahead run at third base with less than two outs both times, but failed to score. Sanchez started rallies and his teammates couldn't finish them.
Following a miserable 2020, Sanchez's first game with a clean slate in 2021 couldn't have gone much better. Personally, that is. The Yankees did lose the game in extra innings (TOR 3, NYY 2). Sanchez went 2 for 3 with a walk and a home run, plus he threw out a would-be base stealer and helped Cole through a fine Opening Day start. One game does not a season make, but after last season, Sanchez will take the early confidence builder.
"It feels good to get going this way," Sanchez said. "I spoke about consistency before and I think I had that today in all my at-bats. That's definitely something I want to keep having throughout the other games, and stay calm. And behind the plate as well."