In the midst of Gary Sanchez‘s defensive woes, the New York Yankees need to look no further than Jorge Posada to know that patience is bound to win out.
When Gene Michael was able to build the Yankees at the expense of George Steinbrenner’s paying Howie Spira $40,000 to “dig up dirt” on Dave Winfield, earning the owner a “permanent” suspension from day-to-day management of the club from then-commissioner Fay Vincent (a ban that was later rescinded), “Stick,” a former scout turned general manager, designed a club not around foolhardy free agent signings or trades that gutted the farm system, but around the draft, much like what Brian Cashman has developed in the past few seasons.
Under Michael’s vision, the Yankees, with Bernie Williams already in the farm system, signed Mariano Rivera and drafted Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada. They also traded the once highly-touted Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill, orchestrating what would become a dynasty that comprised the late ’90s and the early 2000s.
Like any team’s pursuit of a championship organization, the Yankees endured their fits of growing pains with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. More so with the latter.
In 1992, his first season in the farm system in the Gulf Coast League, Jeter managed a .202 batting average over 47 games, a plight that amounted to calling his parents every night, seemingly sapped of his desire to play baseball. While his hitting improved over time in the minors, thanks to the tutelage of his manager Gary Denbo, Jeter’s defense suffered: in 1993, while playing in the Class A South Atlantic League (SAL), the shortstop amassed 56 errors, still a league record. Regardless, Baseball America, who would eventually rate Jeter the fourth-best prospect in baseball prior to the 1995 season, named Jeter the “Best Infield Arm” in the ’93 campaign.
Prior to ’93, Baseball America rated Jeter the 44th ranked prospect in baseball, but due in large part to his offense that season (he hit .295 with five home runs, 71 RBI, and 18 stolen bases, finishing second in the SAL with 11 triples and third in the league in hits with 152), the magazine would regard him as the 16th best prospect in baseball heading into 1994, likely believing his glove would translate to the major league level, which it did (whether he deserved his five Gold Gloves remains a point of contention amongst the many who covered and observed Jeter’s no-doubt Hall of Fame career).
Jorge Posada demonstrated similar inadequacy behind the plate, using his bat, not necessarily his glove, to will him to the major leagues. Posada, who would eventually serve as Andy Pettitte‘s battery mate while they played together in Greensboro, hit 17 homers and accrued 61 RBI with the Prince William Cannons of the Class A-Advanced Carolina League in ’93. In that same season, Posada managed 38 passed balls, the most in the league.
Posada was ultimately called up to the majors for two short stints in 1995 and 1996, although he was blocked from playing full-time by Joe Girardi and Jim Leyritz, who displayed World Series heroics of their own against the Atlanta Braves in ’96, with Girardi’s RBI triple off Greg Maddux factoring in the series-deciding Game 6 at Yankee Stadium and Leyritz’s game-tying, eighth inning homer in Game 4 bringing New York all the way back from a 6-0 deficit to ultimately even the series at two games a piece.
By 1997, Posada succeeded Leyritz as the Yankee backup catcher with Girardi serving as his mentor. By 1998, the year in which manager Joe Torre facilitated one of the greatest iterations of the Yankees in club history (they won a then-record 114 regular season games, 125 in all, en route to World Series title), Posada was, by a slim margin, New York’s primary catcher, starting 85 games behind the plate, hitting .268 with 17 homers and 63 RBI.
In 637 chances over 792 innings caught in ’98, Posada allowed seven passed balls. Next season, in 756 chances over 885 2/3 innings behind the plate, Posada would allow 17 passed balls, eventually leading the American League in the category in 2001 (18) and 2006 (13). Because of these woes (and, admittedly, Girardi’s age), it would take until 2000, his fourth season in the majors, for Posada to helm the position outright, when he started 136 games at catcher. Despite becoming New York’s starting catcher, Posada would have double digit errors in 2001 (11) and 2002 (12). Never mind that Posada was the subject of trade talks at the end of the ’95 season to bring Tino Martinez to New York (he eventually did for a package that, obviously, did not include Posada, in ’96) and was the centerpiece, along with Mariano Rivera, a failed starter who was shifted to the set-up role behind closer John Wetteland, of an aborted trade that would have sent pitcher David Wells to the Bronx from the Cincinnati Reds in ’96 (fortuitously, Wells would eventually come to New York, where Posada caught his perfect game against the Twins in ’98, and Rivera would become the greatest closer in baseball history).
Over the course of his borderline Hall of Fame career, Posada would be a key cog in the media-ordained Core Four, garnering five All-Star appearances, five Silver Slugger awards, and four World Series titles, finishing in the top ten in AL MVP voting in 2003 (third) and 2007 (sixth). Posada’s Similarity Score, according to Baseball Reference, rated his career close to Gary Carter, Gabby Hartnett, and Carlton Fisk‘s, all Hall of Famer catchers. Posada’s JAWS figure, the Wins Above Replacement measure determined by Jay Jaffe for Baseball Prospectus in 2004, rates him the 16th highest all-time for a catcher, with ten players ahead of him enshrined in Cooperstown (potentially eleven, if Joe Mauer joins them).
Alas, in 2017, Posada’s first time on the Hall of Fame ballot, Jorge only produced 3.6% of the total BBWAA votes, well short of the ten percent a player needs to remain on future ledgers. Regardless, Posada cemented himself as a superb catcher in the mold of a long tradition of Yankee legends behind the plate that includes Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, and Thurman Munson.
Imagine if patience did not prevail in Bob Watson, Brian Cashman, Steinbrenner, and Torre’s collective handling of Jorge Posada. While the organization notoriously played hardball with Posada in contract negotiations (the club renewed his contract in ’99 for $350,000 in spite of Posada’s asking price of $650,000, much to Posada’s chagrin), and they had the luxury of playing a capable replacement in Girardi over Posada, the Yankees took their time with Posada and groomed him into a Hall of Fame caliber player.
Ironically today, Joe Girardi serves as catcher Gary Sanchez‘s manager. So promising was Sanchez’s monster second half of 2016 (he finished second to Detroit’s Michael Fulmer in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, despite only playing for what amounts to two full months) that the Yankees traded Brian McCann to Houston in the offseason and awarded Sanchez the starting position behind the plate outright.
Sanchez, now without a veteran catcher to mold him, was pressured to man the position on his own and help usher in a new era of Yankee prospects. No easy task, especially for a 24-year-old kid.
This season, Sanchez, at least at the plate, has proven his 2016 campaign was no fluke: he is hitting .265 with 17 home runs and 52 RBI. In the full calendar year since his call-up last season, Sanchez maintained a triple slash line of .282/.358/.560, leading all catchers in HR, RBI, OPS, and WAR in that span.
Due largely to his ten errors (2nd in the AL) and twelve passed balls (which leads the league), Sanchez was overlooked for Austin Romine, who has hit .221 and sustained a 59 OPS+ this season, on Saturday against Cleveland as Jordan Montgomery‘s primary catcher, and was benched again Sunday, when Romine went 0-for-4 at the plate. Thankfully, Romine and Girardi were bailed out behind the bats of Judge, Didi Gregorius, and Jacoby Ellsbury, avoiding a catastrophic tailspin in the divisional standings en route to a convincing 8-1 win.
Having missed 21 games in 2017 due to a biceps injury, all while manning a position that is magnified in light of his immense success in 2016, Sanchez finds himself under a microscope, especially given how fantastic he was behind the plate last year, when he threw out batters at a 41% clip, gunning down one less batter–13–than he has this season in nearly 240 fewer innings.
Because of what Sanchez allegedly “withered” to, Girardi brought his frustrations to the media’s attention.
“He needs to improve. Bottom line,” Girardi remarked after Friday’s 7-2 ugly loss to the Indians, capped off by Sanchez’s twelfth passed ball, a defeat that put the Yankees three games behind Boston for the AL East lead.
Girardi added, “I don’t have a problem with his effort, but sometimes he shows his frustrations.” Moreover, Girardi quipped, “He’s late getting down. That’s what I see sometimes, and it’s something we’ve been working on and we continue to work on. He’s capable of doing a better job.”
Feeling blessed, my friends. Always positive. // Nos sentimos bendecidos, amigos. Siempre positivo. #iamgary
— Gary Sanchez (@ElGarySanchez) August 8, 2017
According to Mike Mazzeo of The New York Daily News, Sanchez went into Friday ranked third in catcher’s ERA (3.43) and seventh in the percentage of runners caught stealing (35.9). Calling the game, framing pitches, and throwing out batters, all of which he does at a superior clip to Austin Romine, is obviously not the problem for Sanchez. Neither is his hitting. Contrarily, receiving the ball appears to be the tarnish at the center of what still remains a great season for Sanchez (lest we forget that he made the All-Star team).
Perhaps, like Mets fireballer Noah Syndergaard, out since May with a torn lat muscle, Sanchez bulked up too much in preparation for 2017, which would explain the biceps injury. Maybe Sanchez’s muscle mass explains Sanchez’s defensive woes. Regardless of this speculation, one can understand why Sanchez was committed to bettering himself to be ready for this season.
Before Aaron Judge grew into a star this season, Sanchez, in light of his stellar August and September last year, hit his 20th homer in his first 51 games, the fastest to do so since Wally Berger of the Boston Braves in 1930, according to CBS Sports. To accomplish such a feat at a position so demanding as catcher makes the achievement that much more impressive, and subsequently made Sanchez the face of the Yankees after A-Rod and Mark Teixeira, the few mainstays left from the last title team in ’09, departed in 2016.
The difference between what Sanchez and Romine are as players demands the former be inserted regularly into the lineup, no matter his faults.
How to fix Gary Sanchez: Let him play and keep getting better at baseball. Remember he's in his first full season and is insanely talented.
— Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) August 6, 2017
Girardi, of all people, should know best about grooming a struggling catcher, as he has firsthand experience in handling one. Quite frankly, his ability to serve Sanchez and trigger a turnaround in his defensive efforts will prove as vital to a contract extension (his pact runs out at the end of 2017) as will his capacity to lead the Yankees deep into October, more so if Sanchez and Judge can competitively feed off one another in the lineup a la Winfield and Don Mattingly in ’85 and Maris and Mantle in ’61.
While he is managing an offense that has sputtered, with Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks landing on the disabled list and Judge, Matt Holliday, and the recently acquired Todd Frazier scuffling, Girardi needs all the offense he can muster. Sitting Sanchez not only stunts his development, it saps his confidence and could compound issues to a point where the benching and negative press at the expense of his manager adversely impacts his production at the plate, which, despite a .234 average in July and August, remains an asset (he has an OPS+ of 113, considerably better than his backup Romine).
After their three-game set with Toronto, which could serve as the precursor Sanchez and the Yankee offense needs to trigger the offense, the Yankees will play six of the next ten games against the Boston Red Sox, whom Sanchez is hitting .286 against with 7 homers and 18 RBI in 16 games. New York, to close out the month of August, will be hard-pressed to overtake their rivals with an offense that does not feature Sanchez in some capacity, be it at a catcher or at DH. Given Holliday’s most recent stint on the DL, Girardi will no longer have to rely on his .136 average in 81 at-bats since returning from a previous stay on the disabled list with a viral infection.
Removing Sanchez from the lineup leaves Didi and a struggling Judge with one less bat to protect them, especially if it comes at the expense of playing Romine, himself an automatic out.
Gary Sanchez may not have to be the face of the New York Yankees any longer, nor is he a “one hit wonder” who is resting his laurels on his 2016 campaign. All Girardi has to do is play Sanchez full-time to discover how true the latter proclamation really is.
Consequently, only time will tell if Sanchez becomes Posada’s equal; however, sitting him will never allow us to discover what El Kraken is truly capable of becoming.