By Randy Miller
ARLINGTON, Texas — Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka threw Texas Rangers designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo a 0-1 splitter in the fifth inning Friday night that was low but not in the dirt and seemingly catchable.
All-Star catcher Gary Sanchez reached out for the ball and missed it.
The tying run scored on this play that appeared to be a passed ball but was scored a wild pitch, the go-ahead run moved up to second base as well and the Rangers were on their way to an 11-5 comeback victory.
That wild pitch was one of four in the game by Yankees pitchers, and Sanchez deserves some of the blame.
On his first day back from a three-game suspension for throwing sucker punches in a brawl-filled game in Detroit on Aug 24, Sanchez once again provided offense going 2-for-3 with two RBIs while not having a great game behind the dish.
“Sanchez has got a ways to go defensively, and I knew it all along,” a Major League scout for an opposing club told NJ Advance Media. “He gets very lazy. He wants to reach instead of shifting his feet. He tries to get away with stuff because of his strong arm.”
How big a problem is this?
“I’ll tell you what,” the scout said. “I’ll go on the record right now and say it: For the playoffs, you watch, Austin Romine will catch more than Sanchez. Romine doesn’t have much of an arm, but he’s the better catcher.”
Sanchez, 24 is still in his first full season and already considered one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. He hit 20 homers in 53 games last year as a rookie, then 28 more so far this season despite spending almost a month on the disabled list.
Behind the plate, his arm is a big strength and his game calling has been praised all year by Yankees manager Joe Girardi. But blocking balls and mistakes have been a big issue to the point Sanchez was called out by Girardi in a post-game interview last month.
Some of Sanchez’ defensive stats are scary bad.
His 14 passed balls and 12 errors lead the AL. He’s also tied for the league lead for being behind the plate for the most wild pitches, 47, and the guy he’s tied with, Mike Zunino of the Seattle Mariners, has caught 100 2/3 more innings.
“That’s not good,” the scout said. “That tells me that that’s a guy that takes more pride in his hitting than he does in his defense, and his defense is the most important part.”
How many of the Yankees’ four wild pitches on Friday are on Sanchez, who has been saying he’s working hard every day to improve?
“It’s something that I would have to look at,” Girardi said after the game. “I thought he made some pretty decent blocks on some tough splits.”
A former catcher, Girardi probably was more bothered than he let on because the wild pitch that didn’t hit the dirt contributed to a game-changing, four-run rally.
The scout who talked to NJ Advance Media said that he’s surprised Sanchez hasn’t improved a lot defensively over the last two seasons because Tony Pena is on the Yankees’ coaching staff. Pena was one of the best offensive and defensive catchers in baseball during his playing days, a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner.
And like Sanchez, Pena is Dominican.
“I thought Sanchez was going to take off because he’s around Tony Pena every day,” the scout said. “It hasn’t happened. But Sanchez is still young and somebody needs to beat into his head – it might have to be some pitcher – ‘Hey, look man, we know you can hit. You’re most important job is handling us. Until you get that in your head, you’re not going to be a superstar.'”
There’s another issue the scout has with Sanchez … his frequent mound visits.
“In one of the Red Sox games last weekend, Sanchez went to the mound to talk to Dellin Betances about five or six times in one inning,” the scout said. “It happened almost every time with two strikes, and I’m sitting there like, ‘Come on, the deuce is very easy (to call). Betances has a put-away breaking ball. With two strikes, it’s almost unhittable. Throw it. Trust yourself to block it if it’s in the dirt.
“You watch, somebody is going to say something, and there’s going to be some rule changes on that. The other night it got to the point where Girardi put his head down and started shaking his head.”
What does the scout think of Sanchez’ game calling?
“It’s gotten better,” he said. “It’s not elite, but it’s not the worst.”
The scout predicts all of these defensive issues will be solved long before the Yankees would even consider having preliminary internal discussions on switching Sanchez to another position, such as full-time designated hitter.
“I think he can be an everyday catcher,” the scout said. “His arm is one of the best in baseball. It might be the best in baseball. And I think there’s no question he’s the best-hitting catcher in baseball. It’s not even close.
“He’s just got to get in his mind that catching is a little bit more important than just going up there and whacking the ball over the fence all the time.”