While Gary Sanchez’s bat was making daily headlines last summer, his arm was quietly blowing up radar guns across the league. Sanchez caught 13 would-be base-stealers during his two-month major league stint, and his 41-percent caught-stealing rate was good for fifth in all of baseball (minimum 30 attempts). Sanchez became a Statcast star, routinely firing off throws of 85-plus mph out of the crouch. Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted in late August that Sanchez already owned half of the top ten strongest catcher throws in 2016…this after he’d been on the job for just a few weeks.
On the same day Petriello published those numbers, the Yankees opened a series in Kansas City. Entering that series, Sanchez had gunned down twice as many runners (6) as he had steals allowed (3). He had quickly developed a reputation as one of the most feared arms in the league, and now he was set to face the ultimate test: A Royals team coming off back-to-back pennants and a World Series championship largely built on pillars of speed and athleticism.
Sanchez caught every pitch of the three-game set, two of which pushed into extra innings. The Royals ran wild. The defending champs racked up eight stolen bases in the series, nearly half of the 19 steals Sanchez would allow all season. The Royals proved that the mighty Kraken could be slain.
I went back and watched the pertinent innings of that series to try to glean some insight. Why and how, after such a promising start, did those three nights go so wrong for Sanchez? The Royals’ speedy display revealed some hard truths. If you want to beat a world-class arm, you need a playbook, and each one of Kansas City’s steals taught a valuable lesson essential to that playbook.
So, you want to run on Gary Sanchez? Study up.
Lesson #1: Pick a slow pitcher.
Steals #1 and 2 (August 29): Jarrod Dyson/Lorenzo Cain, 1st inning
The Royals wasted no time in testing the young phenom, picking up their first two stolen bases in the opening inning of game one. Sanchez made two excellent throws, but both Royal runners were able to sneak in ahead of the tags. At first glance you might chalk it up to good baserunning and simply tip your cap. Another less-obvious factor was at play here though, and it came in the form of Michael Pineda.
Pineda allowed 16 stolen bases in 2016, not an outrageous amount but poor enough to put him among the ten worst offenders in the American League. Pineda has a fairly deliberate motion to home even from the stretch, eating up precious milliseconds that might have otherwise turned these steals into outs. When dueling with an arm like Sanchez’s, you want all the extra time you can get. In 2016, Pineda was a good bet to spot you that time.
Lesson #2: Pick a slower pitcher. (Bonus: shoddy defense)
Steal #3 (August 30): Lorenzo Cain, 8th inning
If Pineda was poor at holding runners on, Dellin Betances was downright frightful. The Yankees’ relief ace somehow allowed 21 stolen bases in 2016, the fourth-most of any pitcher in the American League despite pitching just 73 innings. No other reliever in baseball came within seven of Betances’ total.
Maybe that was in the back of Sanchez’s mind when he hurriedly fired this ball down to second base on a short-hop, skipping it past the glove of Didi Gregorius and into center field. Even despite Betances’ drawn-out delivery, Sanchez’s throw still beat the speedy Lorenzo Cain by several feet. While a slightly more accurate throw would have assuredly nabbed Cain, niftier glovework by Didi on a challenging but eminently catchable ball would have done the same. Instead, all blame was laid at Sanchez’s feet as he picked up an E2 in addition to the charged stolen base. So it goes.
Lesson #3: Predict the future.
Steal #4 (August 30): Raul Mondesi, 10th inning
The absolute best way to steal a base against Sanchez is to ensure that the ball never leaves his hand in the first place. Better still, remove him from the equation entirely by running when his pitcher throws the ball right past him, as demonstrated here by rookie Ben Heller.
Pitching in just his third career game, Heller led off the inning by plunking Raul Mondesi before uncorking this 1-1 fastball that dove under Sanchez’s glove and ricocheted off the backstop. Mondesi, running on the pitch, was credited with the fourth steal of the series.
Divining pitch locations from the great beyond may not be the most practical approach for every team, but as the Royals demonstrated here, it’s a viable strategy if you’re able.
Lesson #4: Bribe the opposing manager and/or official scorer.
Steal #5 (August 30): Jarrod Dyson, 10th inning
Another way to discourage Sanchez from throwing the ball is to make sure no one is at second base to receive him.
In this instance, Yankee manager Joe Girardi has opted to move his infield in with the tying run at third, curiously conceding scoring position to the winning run with nobody out. Sanchez instinctively pops and cocks his arm, prepared to unleash another laser before quickly realizing he’s a man deserted. The runner strolls into second unopposed. Sanchez is sabotaged, first by his own manager’s overzealous tactical decisions and later by the hometown scorekeeper who marks it a stolen base. It is a lonely man who is forsaken even by defensive indifference.
Lesson #5: Literally be Jarrod Dyson.
Steal #6 (August 31): Jarrod Dyson, 2nd inning
If you must beat Gary Sanchez straight up, you’ll do yourself a huge favor by literally being Jarrod Dyson.
Among all players since integration with at least 200 stolen base attempts, Dyson’s 85.4 percent success rate ranks second all-time, trailing only Carlos Beltran. Dyson was responsible for three of the Kansas City’s eight swipes off Sanchez, the last of which came early in the series finale. Dyson is about as elite a base runner as exists in Major League Baseball today, and even he only narrowly snuck past Sanchez’s rocket arm on both of the rookie catcher’s attempts to cut him down.
Lesson #6: Break his will.
You’re Gary Sanchez. You’re in the middle of your 29th consecutive inning behind the plate. The Royals have run ragged on you for three straight nights. A combination of slow pitchers, poor fielding, errant fastballs, puzzling defensive alignments and questionable scorekeeping has helped spike your stolen bases-allowed by 200 percent.
Oh, would you look at that? There’s another man on first, and here comes Billy Burns to pinch-run.
Steal #7 (August 31): Billy Burns, 11th inning
There he goes, of course. You snatch a fastball out of the dirt and whip it desperately with all your might. The ball carries high and begins to tail. Didi leaps out into the baseline for it, and for a moment you think the power of the throw might send him careening off into the Kansas City night. He comes down unscathed, but Burns is safe. You’re physically exhausted and mentally dejected. Enough is enough.
“Screw this,” you think to yourself. “Go ahead and take third, Billy. I’m done.”
Burns obliges, and you no longer care. You decide there are more productive things to do with your time. Framing? That’s a thing now, right? You’re going to work on your framing.
Steal #8 (August 31): Billy Burns, 11th inning
Good for you, Gary. Good for you.
Lead photo: Adam Hunger / USA Today Sports