If someone had told you before the season had started that a major-league catcher would hit 20 homes and bat over .300 for the season, you’d probably say that would make for a pretty good season, probably even worthy of an All-Star selection.
Incredibly, Gary Sanchez, the rising rookie star of the New York Yankees, currently has 19 home runs, 38 RBI and is batting .330, but he’s done that in only 46 games through games of September 24. There hasn’t been a start like that for a rookie position player in quite some time.
Sanchez was brought up to the major-league team on August 3, at about the same time the Yankees unloaded its top players in relief pitchers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller and its top slugger, Carlos Beltran at the major-league trade deadline. The team received a slew of top prospects in return, who heavily figure to be in their future plans. Not too long after, Alex Rodriguez retired. Mark Teixera had also announced the 2016 season would be his last. At the time, Yankees fans feared the team had cashed in its chips for the current season, not expecting to be relevant during the last two months of the season.
In many respects, Sanchez’s promotion to the big-league club, along with a few other top farm hands, was an acknowledgement that the Yankees were indeed looking to the future. Little did they expect that Sanchez would be leading the team into the final weeks of the season, still with a mathematical chance at a wild-card berth in the post-season. In all likelihood, the Yankees won’t get that wild-card spot, but they have indeed been relevant in the overall league standings as play winds down. Sanchez can claim a lot of the responsibility for the situation.
Sanchez has been a top prospect for the Yankees almost since he first broke into pro baseball as a 17-year-old in 2010. Some baseball analysts have said it has taken him longer than expected to reach the big-leagues. And that may be partially true, but Yankee player development executives has been wise in letting him fully develop. And the initial results occurring now are proof of that.
Brian McCann, a seven-time All-Star with the Atlanta Braves and the regular catcher for the Yankees the past three seasons, recently commented that he thought Sanchez was the best catching prospect he had ever seen. That may be a stretch, since Sanchez has yet to perform over a full season, but that’s still a lofty comment from a well-respected player like McCann. In fact, Sanchez will be taking McCann’s job as full-time catcher for the Yankees next season.
Naturally, debate has emerged about whether Sanchez’s play in only the last two months is sufficient for his being named the Rookie of the Year in the American League. Many feel that because he hasn’t performed over a longer time during the season, he shouldn’t be considered, as compared to rookie candidates Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers and Tyler Naquin of the Cleveland Indians. Their performances have been more representative of a broader season. Until Sanchez began his meteoric rise in home runs, Fulmer, a pitcher who has helped keep the Tigers in contention, was the front-runner for the rookie honors. And, indeed, he may still win it. But if Sanchez slams a couple more home runs during the last days of the season, there’s a strong case for him to take home the trophy.
In any case, there is a precedent for a rookie performance similar to Sanchez’s resulting in a Rookie of the Year selection. In 1959 Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants was called up on July 30 and proceeded to hit 13 home runs and 39 RBI while hitting for a .354 average. He accomplished his feat in 59 games, and was rewarded with National League Rookie of the Year honors.
Yankee history includes a somewhat similar case to Sanchez’s, when rookie Kevin Mass hit 21 home runs in 79 games from June 29 to October 3 in 1990. However, looking back on his extraordinary year, Maas’s accomplishment didn’t have nearly the impact on the overall Yankee team performance that season.
Yankee fans have good reason to be optimistic about its future, if Sanchez can sustain his performance next year and beyond. The club has had a good look at some of its other rookies they brought up late in the season, such as Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin, who hit back-to-back home runs in their major-league debuts. Judge went on to produce seven RBI in his first nine games. The Yankees also have Greg Bird, who hit eleven home runs in 46 games as a rookie last season, but missed this season due to injury. These guys have already acquired the nickname, “Baby Bombers,” as a take-off of the legendary Bronx Bomber teams that began in the early 1920s featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
History shows that Yankee backstops have been key to their dynasty teams. The first was catcher Wally Schang, who contributed to three World Series beginning in 1921. Bill Dickey was the Yankee catcher from 1929 to 1943, winning seven of eight World Series appearances. Yogi Berra became the regular catcher in 1947 and held the job until 1960. During that time, he was a participant in eleven World Series, winning eight of them. Elston Howard supplanted Berra as the regular Yankee catcher in 1961 and helped the team win two of four consecutive World Series appearances. Thurman Munson played in three Yankee World Series during the 1970s, winning two. Most recently, Jorge Posada, one of the famed Yankee “Core Fore” of the late 1990s and 2000s, played on four World Series championship teams.
Yankee fans would like nothing more than Sanchez becoming the next in the line of elite Yankee catchers leading them to more World Series championships.