DUNEDIN, Fla. — When the Yankees take the field on Opening Day, all eyes will be on Gerrit Cole. The right-hander will be pitching in front of fans at Yankee Stadium for the first time, looking to start the season with an ace-like performance in pinstripes.
Up until this point of the spring, we weren't quite sure who would be behind the plate for Cole as he faced the Blue Jays on April 1.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone gave an answer to that ongoing question on Sunday morning.
"I would expect Gary to be behind there on Opening Day," Boone said prior to Sunday afternoon's spring training exhibition game against those same Blue Jays.
At the surface, this isn't shocking news.
Sánchez has been the Yankees' starting backstop on Opening Day in each of the last four seasons. Even after his disappointing year in 2020, this club's coaching staff (as well as general manager Brian Cashman) have made it crystal clear this spring that Sánchez will have another shot in 2021 to prove himself.
Considering how well Cole pitched last year with Kyle Higashioka behind the plate, however, there's some added intrigue to this decision.
The difference in the right-hander's splits between the two backstops is glaring. Cole made eight regular season starts with Sánchez behind the dish last year, pitching to a 3.91 ERA over 46 innings pitched. Throwing to Higashioka, over four starts and 27 innings pitched, Cole posted a spectacular 1.00 ERA.
Cole allowed 12 of his 14 regular season home runs in the shortened campaign while pitching to Sánchez.
By the end of the season, factoring in Sánchez's struggles in the batter's box, the 28-year-old had lost his starting gig. In fact, in the postseason, it was Higashioka behind the plate in all three of Cole's starts.
Even with Higashioka getting the start on Sunday in Dunedin, catching Cole's penultimate outing of spring training, Sánchez will start the year behind the dish for the ace.
Higashioka had been sidelined recently with side soreness. Boone explained that the decision not to send Sánchez to catch Cole on Sunday had absolutely nothing to do with Opening Day and regular season playing time.
"With Higgy being out there for a couple days and then coming out of the off day, I wanted to play Gary back-to-back days. So it's just that," he said.
As the season progresses, we'll likely see Higashioka work with Cole on multiple occasions. Although he's been a backup for his entire big-league career, Higashioka showed last year—playing in meaningful games over Sánchez down the stretch—that he's capable of performing on both sides of the ball.
That said, it's Sánchez's job early on.
The backstop has spoken frequently this spring about the improvements he made this offseason and the adjustments he made with his swing to bounce back in 2021. Although he's cooled off significantly these last few weeks of exhibition games, the backstop roared out of the gates offensively earlier in the month.
Through his first five games of the spring, Sánchez was hitting close to .400 with three booming home runs. Now, after 13 games, the catcher is hitting .194 (6-for-31).
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