Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

Yankees: Making The Case For Pitchers And Personal Catchers

In early March, newly appointed Yankees manager, Aaron Boone, definitively said there would be no personal catchers for Yankees starting pitchers this season. At the time, it was like, okay if you say so, but has anybody asked for one? But now, there appears to be a good reason for Boone and others to rethink that statement.

Sonny Gray had the most pitiful start of any Yankees pitcher this season last night in the team’s loss to the Boston Red Sox (10-2) in the rubber game of the series at Fenway Park. Everywhere you look, Gray stunk. And worse, he looked lost on the mound.

Three innings pitched, seven hits, six runs, three wild pitches, a hit batsman…he was so sorry no one on the Red Sox bothered to get excited when he plunked a hitter following the brouhaha the previous night.

By now, you probably know where I’m going with this, but before getting there let’s be clear that Gary Sanchez is not the reason Gray stunk up the joint last night. Gray did that all on his own. But a valid question does suggest the possibility that Gray would have been better if another catcher was assigned to him last night.

The relationship between a pitcher and catcher is unique in baseball. The only thing that comes close to it is the “feel” between a shortstop and second baseman in the exchange on a double-play ball. It’s a matter of comfort and being in sync with each other. Knowing, for instance, even before the sign is put down the catcher is calling the pitch you want to throw breeds confidence in executing the pitch.

Or, your catcher knowing when you need a blow and calling time out to give you a breather, and when you don’t and you just need a kick in the ass with some glove pounding and body language that tells you, “Pitch, damn it.”

No matter how good Gary Sanchez gets behind the plate, he’ll ever be good enough to meet the standards of a major league defensive catcher, as well as someone who can handle a pitching staff.

On the question of personal catchers for pitchers, it’s often a non-starter as it was in the case of Aaron Boone early in Spring Training. Managers feel, and rightly so, it cramps their style and decision making. But a single edict, such as Boone’s, often flies in the face of prior success on the baseball diamond.

Because if you look back into the annals of baseball, successful teams of pitchers and catchers are all over the place. Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver, Greg Maddux and Eddie Perez in Atlanta, Jon Lester and David Ross, the list goes on. When it looked like the Dodgers were ready to let A.J. Ellis go in 2015, Clayton Kershaw stepped in, and the Dodgers relented, resigning Ellis as a free agent.

The Yankees, though, have a unique situation with Gary Sanchez. It would be fair to say Sanchez will never be an elite catcher (defensively) in the major leagues. To be sure, he has worked hard to improve from last year’s debacle of all those passed balls and umpteen trips to the mound with no apparent purpose, and the improvement is modestly noticeable. But in the end, he is still Gary Sanchez the power hitter and crusher of baseballs the Yankees cannot afford to do without this season.

You can’t ignore what you see in this video and regardless of how much improvement Sanchez makes in this area when you are starting from zero, it’s a long way to the top, or even mediocrity…

Sanchez, by all accounts, should be the Yankees permanent designated hitter in the same vein that J.D. Martinez serves in that role for the Red Sox. Or Albert Pujols for the Angels. But therein lies the trouble for Boone and the Yankees.

Boone cannot afford to play Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge 150 times in the outfield. Each needs a semi-blow, and the DH spot is the perfect place for them to keep their bats in the Yankees lineup.

Boone, by the way, has other unique ideas that carry some weight, making sense with regards to the Yankees lineup, such as his notion of the lead-off batter being a flexible commodity. But, this one is different.

And that’s because there is a marked step-up on the days when Austin Romine handles the catching. If I can see it in how the pitchers are relating to Romine, surely Aaron Boone can’t be missing it. Romine may not be Johnny Bench with the bat, but he is hitting .350 with four RBI in just 19 at-bats over five starts this season. Even so, it’s good to recall that David Ross, in the year the Chicago Cubs won a World Championship (2016), hit .229 with a mere 38 hits over the course of the season, but was a mainstay as the backstop for Jon Lester, who was the MVP of that World Series.

Does Sonny Gray or any of the other Yankees starting pitchers prefer a personal catcher? I don’t know. But it does seem reasonable that Boone would at least consider moving away from his dogmatic statement about personal catchers if there is a chance the team could benefit from a change.

Call each of the starters in for a talk. Solicit their feelings and go from there. Boone is supposed to be the excellent communicator, and this is a good chance for him to exercise that quality.

At the moment, the Yankees are carrying only two catchers on their active roster, having decided to go with another bullpen reliever instead of adding a third catcher. Thus, another medium to above-average catcher might be something for Brian Cashman to begin working on as an upgrade to Romine. Kyle Higashioka, currently at Triple-A, would not seem to fit that bill.

Is this one of those the Yankees must do it or their season goes to hell scenarios? Of course not. But the idea should be somewhere in the mix because no matter how good Gary Sanchez gets behind the plate, it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever be good enough to meet the standards of a “good” defensive catcher, as well as someone who can handle a pitching staff.

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