After Tumultuous Downfall, Gary Sanchez Finds A Home In San Diego


SAN DIEGO—Gary Sanchez knows more than most how fleeting success can be.

A five-time Top 100 Prospect once considered a Yankees franchise cornerstone, he’s now on his fifth team in 15 months. He’s been benched, traded, released and waived. The American League Rookie of the Year runner-up at 23 and an all-star at 24, Sanchez began his age-30 season this year unemployed and without a team on Opening Day.

The downfall was tumultuous, and humbling. But Sanchez, after years of trying to find his place, appears to have finally found a home.

Sanchez has hit six home runs with 15 RBIs and an .853 OPS in 15 games since the Padres claimed him off waivers from the Mets, jolting a slumbering offense and bolstering what had been one of the least productive catching units in baseball. He’s taken over as the Padres starting catcher, climbed to the cleanup spot in their order and rapidly earned the trust and admiration of his teammates and coaches. In just over two weeks, he’s emerged as a fan favorite and a momentary savior for a Padres team that was desperately in need of one.

After years of slumber, “The Kraken” has reawakened in San Diego.

“Really the way that I’ve been treated here, my teammates, the coaches,” Sanchez said through an interpreter, “I feel like I’ve been playing for a long time here.”

Sanchez has been everything the Padres needed, and more. Opening Day catcher Austin Nola hit just .131 with one home run through the first two months of the season before Sanchez was claimed. Backup catcher Brett Sullivan hit .170/.184/.298. Catcher was the biggest black hole in a Padres lineup that has ranked near the bottom of MLB in every offensive category despite the presence of Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts. Sanchez, almost immediately, has fixed that.

But most surprising has been Sanchez’s defense. Sanchez led the American League in both passed balls and errors in 2017, 2018 and 2020. His inability to block pitches in the dirt, and the overall unreliability of his glove, came to define his tenure with the Yankees as well as his reputation as a player.

Those issues have been virtually non-existent with the Padres. Catching an entirely new staff he is learning on the fly, Sanchez has yet to make an error and has only one passed ball in his first 12 games behind the plate.

“I think some of the balls maybe in the dirt, in the past he sold out to framing,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin, who was a 10-year major league catcher. “A lot of teams don’t really care too much about blocking as much as framing because you’re getting more pitches over the course of the game than maybe a ball or two that’s in the dirt.

“I think that’s where he’s gotten some of his criticism, but I think he’s found a nice balance to where he gets into a position he can block the ball in front of him and he’s done that. His framing numbers and his throwing arm has always been there. In a place like New York, you get some criticism pretty quickly, but I like his skills behind the plate right now.”

Sanchez’s strong performance behind the plate extends to other areas. Opponents have run freely on other Padres catchers with 44 stolen bases in 51 attempts, an 86% success rate. Against Sanchez, they’ve been successful on just 50% of attempts while taking off 15% less frequently. Nola ranks near the bottom of MLB in pitch framing, according to Statcast. Sanchez has been solidly league average, a significant improvement.

Overall, Padres pitchers have a 2.56 ERA with Sanchez behind the plate compared to a 3.98 ERA with everyone else. Already, Sanchez has caught three shutouts in his first 10 starts as the Padres catcher, each started by a different pitcher.

“Probably one of the hardest things to do is jump in midseason as a catcher and trying to learn 15 different pitchers, and so I’ve been very impressed with how he’s been going about it,” Padres righthander Michael Wacha said. 

“He’s had a lot of experience catching a lot of really good pitchers, and so I trust what he’s doing back there. He’s got a good mind and he knows how to read swings. There’s a lot of trust in him back there.”

Ironically, Sanchez’s rebirth has occurred in the same city where his downfall accelerated. It was during the 2020 American League Division Series in San Diego that the Yankees effectively benched Sanchez due to his poor defense. He started only one of the Yankees’ five games against the Rays in the ALDS and only two of their seven postseason games overall that year, taking a backseat to the light-hitting Kyle Higashioka.

He struggled badly in his return to a starting role in 2021, leading to the end of his Yankees tenure and the start of his nomadic journey.

The Yankees traded him to the Twins in March 2022. He hit .205 with a career-worst .659 OPS in Minnesota and was allowed to leave as a free agent. He remained unsigned through the offseason before signing a minor league deal with the Giants on April 1, two days after Opening Day. The Giants summarily released him after just 16 games in Triple-A. The Mets signed him to a minor league deal, brought him to the majors for three games after barely a week in Triple-A, and designated him for assignment.

When the Padres claimed Sanchez off waivers on May 29, they were his fifth organization in less than 15 months.

“When he starts moving around, you’re kind of wondering ‘What’s going on?’ ” Melvin said. “But I remember plenty of games against the Yankees where he’s up to the plate and you don’t feel great about it because he’s got that kind of power. So, I didn’t know what my expectations were here. I knew he had a real opportunity when he came in here, and he knew that, too.”

So far, Sanchez has run with it. It’s been a small sample, but already, he’s shown his glory days aren’t solely a thing of the past.

“Obviously I’ve had my highs and lows,” Sanchez said. “But you know, I’ve maintained my head high and I never really gave up or quit. I really just attribute that to the hard work that I put in trying to get back to who I know that I am.”

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