How a Lower Crouch Behind The Plate is Taking Gary Sánchez's Defense To New Heights
TAMPA, Fla. – In what appeared to be an ordinary Spring Training drill, Gary Sánchez and the Yankees' contingent of catchers took turns throwing down to different bases on Saturday afternoon.
The backstops squatted behind the dish, receiving fastballs from a pitching machine before popping up and firing to second and third base, as they would in a game.
According to New York's new catching coach Tanner Swanson, however, the stance that Sánchez and the club's backstops were using is brand new, designed to improve their defense behind the plate across the board.
"The emphasis is just trying to find better positions for [Sánchez] and honestly for all of our guys to better optimize the bottom of the strike zone," Swanson explained. "That's the focal point, to find new positions a little lower to the ground and can handle pitches with depth at the bottom of the strike zone. And from that position, learn how to lock and throw."
At first glance, the crouch appears unconventional.
As Sánchez squats, he lowers his right knee close to the dirt. Once he receives the ball, he pushes forward into his throwing position. In other words, after sinking his center of mass, he works from the ground up to best utilize his elite arm strength.
As pitchers across Major League Baseball throw breaking balls more often – pitches that generally cross the plate low in the zone – the new stance implements a modern way to stretch the strike zone downward and capture more called strikes.
Swanson said Sánchez has bought in and the results are beginning to follow suit.
"I think his willingness and desire to work through some of these things for a guy at his caliber says a lot of what Gary Sánchez is about behind the scenes," he explained. "He’s interested, intrigued, he's asking questions, he’s working through things."
Earlier this week, the Yankees' starting catcher spoke about the change in his crouch. Staying lower to the ground has been a challenge, but as days go by, Sánchez has acclimated himself.
"It’s a little hard because it’s something new that you have to adjust to," Sánchez said through the Yankees' interpreter. "I think we've had about a week since we started working together. I can tell you that now I feel much better than Day 1. Which is understandable, right? It’s a learning process. Anytime you try something new, you need time for you to make that adjustment."
The new crouch isn't limited to serving as a catalyst for better pitch framing. Swanson believes it can help Sánchez's ability to block pitches in the dirt, as well as prevent injury – a problem that's persisted through much of the backstop's five-year career.
"Traditionally catchers are up in this high stance [when runners are on base] and I think just transitioning now and presetting in a knee-down position will contribute to less stress," Swanson said, spelling out that pitch framing metrics have plummeted among catchers once a runner gets on. "It’s not just to make Gary a better pitch framer at the expense of everything else. We actually believe that he’s going to see gains in all of his defensive game.
This past season, Sánchez drastically improved his blocking. He allowed just seven past balls after leading the league with 16 and 18 in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
While focusing on blocking, however, his framing numbers dipped. According to Statcast, Sánchez had a minus-4 rating in framing runs saved in 2019 (ranked 47th among big-league backstops) and finished with a 47 percent called strike ratio on borderline pitches (45th). The year prior, Sánchez was ranked 22nd and 17th in those two defensive categories – plus-3 runs saved and 49.9 percent strikes called. Swanson's new positioning are intended to bring out his best both in receiving and blocking the baseball.
Skipper Aaron Boone, who watched attentively during Saturday's drill, revealed that he's already noticed a difference in how Sánchez receives the ball. For the man who hopes to pencil Sánchez's name in the lineup as much as possible this season, his catcher's health is a priority.
"Hopefully the positions were getting our guys in will be less stressful on the legs, knees, groin, hips and everything," Boone said in a presser Saturday afternoon. "Hopefully we’re getting him into an extremely athletic and comfortable position that lessens the load a little bit and the toll that catching every day can take."
Amending a stance takes time. In fact, Swanson divulged that as recently as Friday, his staff and Sánchez still had yet to find a positioning that works best for his body.
As Sánchez and the Yanks' catching coach venture into uncharted territory, Swanson's focus on supporting the backstop's continued growth on the defensive side of the ball hasn't wavered.
"It’s a lot of trial and error," he said. "Just trying to figure out with the individual. We know what the outcome is, we know what we’re gaining towards. We try to reverse engineer it in a lot of ways and figure out what do we need to do to achieve that goal."
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