By George A. King III
TAMPA — As the ball climbed into the sky of white clouds, the only question was if the wind blowing that way would make it interfere with the traffic on Dale Mabry Highway well beyond George M. Steinbrenner Field’s center-field fence.
In the end, Gary Sanchez’s towering homer never made the street, but it did clear the center-field clock used for displaying how much time between innings a pitcher has to throw his first pitch.
Nothing counts under the palm trees, but Sanchez’s performances at the plate and behind it are impossible to ignore. He has quickly morphed into a “Can’t Miss At-Bat’’ the way Darryl Strawberry, Alex Rodriguez and Reggie Jackson once were.
Wednesday, Sanchez drove a pitch from Team Canada’s Shane Dawson for one of the four Yankees homers in a 10-4 win.
While Sanchez’s power is real, it isn’t limited to hitting. Scouts are still buzzing about him throwing Tigers speedster Anthony Gose out at second from his knees on a steal attempt Saturday.
“He was [clocked at] 1.9 [seconds] from his knees, are you kidding me?’’ said a scout sitting behind the plate that day. “Gose got a good jump. I looked at another scout and said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”
To put the stopwatch times on Sanchez’s throwing prowess, anything under 2.0 is considered good. This spring he has been timed at 1.82. Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez was in the 1.7s.
Sanchez caught 13 of 32 runners (41 percent) attempting to steal last year. The Royals’ Salvador Perez led the 13 catchers in the big leagues who qualified by nabbing 48 percent. Sanchez didn’t qualify.
“I watched a lot of him in the minor leagues and it seemed right when he was getting good he got hurt, a fastball on the wrist or get hit by a pitch,’’ a scout said of Sanchez. “I used to think he wasn’t going to be as good as Jorge Posada, but now, maybe the Yankees have Johnny Bench, and there aren’t too many Johnny Benches.’’
Sanchez isn’t going to be Bench because there is only one Bench. But according to a talent evaluator, Sanchez’s attitude in the batter’s box is loaded with confidence.
“Some guys are trying to hit, he knows he can hit,’’ the scout said of Sanchez.
That wasn’t the way Sanchez looked last spring when he entered camp as a prohibitive favorite to be Brian McCann’s backup and lost the job to Austin Romine by St. Patrick’s Day. In 14 spring games, Sanchez hit .091 (2-for-22) without a homer or an RBI.
Asked about the difference in this camp compared to last year, Sanchez had a very humble answer.
“The mentality is to work as if I’m not a regular catcher,’’ said Sanchez, who became the No. 1 catcher when McCann was dealt to the Astros in November.
Sanchez didn’t look like the next Bench in 71 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last summer, hitting .282 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs. But, despite a late September swoon (6-for-39 in final 10 games), Sanchez hit .305 with 20 homers, drove in 42 runs and posted a 1.052 OPS in August and September with the Yankees.
Catching in the big leagues extracts a toll on the body and the mind. Nevertheless, Sanchez is 24 with a 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame that produces power at the plate and a laser-throwing arm behind it.
“There is a ton of confidence back there and he changes the game there, too,’’ manager Joe Girardi said of Sanchez, who looks and plays nothing like he did a year ago at this time.