This story is also posted in Spanish. Read it here.
When Sanchez arrived at his first spring training camp in 2012 — before he’d hit 20 major league homers as fast as anyone in history — he was just a teenager trying to make an impression.
Jeter already owned 3,000 hits and five rings and was revered by his fellow players for the respect he showed his peers. When he saw the 19-year-old Sanchez, Jeter didn’t big-league him.
“The one thing I can say is that when he saw me, he would say hello to me,” Sanchez says through an interpreter. “That made my day in a way. Here is Jeter, worldwide-known, baseball superstar, knows who I am and he says hello to me. That one thing boosted my confidence.”
When Sanchez thinks of a leader, one name leaves his lips.
“I would say Jeter,” Sanchez says. “He was the captain. He was the guy we looked up to.”
This year, Sanchez is transitioning from rookie sensation to being the founding member of what could potentially become another Core Four. Until Greg Bird, Gleyber Torres or Justus Sheffield — or one of the other Yankees prospects — takes it away from Sanchez, he is the young man out front, the new face of the Yankees. With that comes a responsibility to lead.
“I see him doing that,” manager Joe Girardi says.
It would be a bit of a stretch, at this point, to compare Sanchez to Jeter. But when you watch him daily on the field and off, he has a similar confidence and casual intensity. Sanchez’s leadership will rely more on showing than telling.
“I have a quiet character,” Sanchez says.
Sanchez, 24, will start Opening Day as the team’s most feared hitter, with perhaps baseball’s best arm behind the plate. But some of his better qualities come out when the TV cameras are off. It begins with his intensity in mastering that day’s plan, in meetings with the starting pitcher and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, a task made easier by his commitment to understanding English.
“He leads them with the fingers he is putting down on pitch to pitch to pitch,” says Tim Naehring, the Yankees’ vice president of baseball operations. “You don’t see a lot of [pitchers] out there shaking [off the signs], so they are agreeing and trusting a young catcher to lead them through some of the best offensive lineups in the American League. He’s very aggressive in pitching inside, which is something that I think is a mindset. It is outstanding to see he has that mindset. There are a lot of leadership skills that he has that are going to bode well for his career.”
He also is willing to walk out to the mound and put his arm around a five-year veteran such as Michael Pineda to offer some advice or deliver a charged pep talk.
“He is not intimidated, which, to me, is a good thing,” Girardi says. “I don’t want him to be timid. I want him to be vocal. I want him, in a sense, to lead.”
Despite his large frame, Sanchez is strong enough defensively that pitchers feel confident burying a slider in the dirt. His cannon arm allows pitchers to use their normal delivery from the stretch.
Sanchez is a great equalizer. In essence, he makes his teammates better, which is the central tenet of leadership.
“To me, a core player being a catcher is ideal,” Naehring says. GM Brian Cashman listened to Naehring and catching coordinator, Josh Paul, among others, before it was fashionable to consider Sanchez a star. Even after he failed to win the backup catcher spot last spring, the front office put a no-trade label on Sanchez. The offense seemed to be a given, but what people such as Naehring saw is how much Sanchez can impact a game as a backstop.
“I remember having a conversation with [Cashman] last year in May or June,” Naehring says. “I was like, ‘Those guys are hard to find.’ People put a lot of value in pitch framing and the extra strikes that they get, which is great, and I understand that has tremendous value in our industry. But there are a lot of other little things that are demanded of a catcher that also impact the game.
“We were just talking about how this guy has X amount of upside, and I couldn’t emphasize enough, ‘Cash, this [is the] type of guy that other clubs would love to have. You are looking at a premium position and you are looking at a guy who could be a premium bat in the middle of your order.’ Look around the league. How many of those guys do you have?”
The Yankees have Sanchez, who one day might be the superstar saying hello to a teenager in his first Yankees spring training camp.
“Ultimately, the narratives get written after the success gets had,” Cashman says. “Let Gary just find his own way and develop his own reputation. Those guys that earned the title Core Four — [Jorge] Posada, Jeter, [Mariano] Rivera and [Andy] Pettitte — that is something they did over an extended period of time with championship glory to follow. That was their world. Gary is going to be whatever he is going to be. If ultimately it leads to greatness, better for all of us, including him. I can’t put the cart ahead of the horse.”