You watch the start of New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez's career and you think, "Why, yes, sometimes we can have nice things." The slugging backstop, 23, has been in the minors since he was only 17, and along the way it seemed as if he'd been given up on at least once for each of those seven seasons in the sticks. The Yankees had given him $3 million when he was still just 16, so the hype was immediate, but so was the performance—he hit right away and more or less kept hitting. There were still questions, though: He had power, but would he be an all-around hitter? He could throw, but was he a receiver? Most of all, had the big money made him such an attitude case—there was a two-week suspension in May of 2011—that he wouldn't make it to the majors at all?
Now we know: For once, a highly-rated Yankees prospect is paying off. Sanchez ain't no Jesus Montero, who can be written to care of the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Buffalo, New York, 14203.
With two more home runs on Wednesday night against the Rays, Sanchez's career line now reads .333/.411/.738 with 19 home runs in just 44 games. If you like wins above replacement, well, Sanchez is now tied with Brett Gardner for the highest season total on the team at 3.0, only he got there in a third as many games. He also leads American League position-playing rookies in that same category, and if pitcher Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers doesn't finish strongly, it's possible Sanchez could snag the Rookie of the Year Award.
The Sanchez Surge raises two questions, one unanswerable forever and the other we'll only begin to know the answer to in April, 2017. First, given the way the Yankees, however transiently, launched themselves at a wild card spot after Sanchez started hitting, would the season have had a different arc had Hal Steinbrenner abdicated his decision-making, er, that is, started looking at social media earlier and brought up the kids/deaccessioned Alex Rodriguez faster?
A: We'll never know. Both before Sanchez and after, the team's weaknesses are still greater than its strengths. Moreover, maybe sooner Sanchez isn't the same Sanchez. In the end, it doesn't matter, really. The 2016 season was almost certainly going to be a loss for the Yankees from the get-go, and if Sanchez is only a salve on a lost year, that's enough, especially given how much promise it portends for the future, and not in that Kevin Mass, too good to be true way that suggests a flash in the pan—Joe Charboneau, Bob Hamelin, Angel Berroa et al. No, this you can dream on.
But how big should you dream? Sanchez has the slugging percentage of a jumbo jet. He's been Ruthian, and while that's a good thing, no one is consistent at that level. Sanchez has hit a home run once every 8.7 at-bats, a rate achieved only by Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire over a full season. Ruth's best was a fraction higher than Sanchez's rate, an even 9.0 in 1927. The qualified AL leader for 2016, Oakland's Khris Davis, seems comparatively lethargic at a home run every 13.1 at-bats.
Nothing says that Sanchez isn't a Ruth. His minor league record doesn't look like a Ruth, the present-day offensive environment, though generous with the home runs, doesn't really lend itself to the nurturance of a Ruth, and Ruth/Bonds/McGwire types do not emerge from the genetic bouillabaisse all that often. (One feels obligated to note: Yes, there were pharmaceuticals involved in Bonds and McGwire's careers. Pharmaceuticals were involved in a lot of careers at that time, but only they and Sammy Sosa were blasting away at anything like this rate. Given that, we have to accept that either that trio alone had access to the really good stuff, that they were somehow positioned to take advantage of the drugs in a way no one else was, or that they really did what they did.) Sanchez could be the next one. He could be Johnny Bench or Roy Campanella as well, which is the next step down but still insanely great. He probably won't be, but he could be.
More likely he's going to cool down, perhaps before the season ends in a little over a week, and turn into a pretty good offensive catcher. It might depress a lot of people to suggest that Sanchez could settle into a pattern of production something like that of the man he's effectively replaced, Brian McCann, but remember, the McCann the Yankees signed away from the Atlanta Braves after the 2013 season was a career .277/.350/.473 hitter, production good enough to make him a seven-time All-Star. Sanchez's minor league averages were a very similar .275/.339/.460. He's better than those numbers because he was always young for his leagues and he played in some tough hitting environments, but they could be a stronger signpost for the future than what he's doing now.
In the aftermath of the smash opening of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's musical Oklahoma! in 1943, when it had proved to be the original Hamilton, Rodgers was talking to the Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn and a third party. The third party asked what Rodgers would do next. "I know what you should do," Goldwyn said. "Shoot yourself." By this, Goldwyn meant that given Rodgers' current level of success, the expectations for his next project would be so insanely, unfairly high, that there was almost no point in even trying.
Sanchez has hit his way into the same position. This is a wonderful thing because, even if paying off those heightened expectations is unlikely, the possibility exists that he could. Rodgers found that he had more great stories to tell. Sometimes that kid with the great rookie season isn't Kevin Maas but Mike Trout. We don't know what will happen and we know what the odds are, but Sanchez might buck them. He just might.