When Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson released the ball, it had to feel good coming out of his right hand. A 94-mile-an-hour sinking fastball that was running along the inside part of the plate and diving below the strike zone. With a two-ball, two-strike count, it was a pitcher’s pitch – close enough to a strike to tantalize the batter.
And yet, it didn’t matter. The batter, Gary Sanchez of the Yankees, whipped his bat down and through the ball, sending it soaring to the third deck in left field at Target Field, an estimated 460 feet from home plate.
“It was a good pitch,” Sanchez said late Monday night, speaking through an interpreter. “But that’s how the game is – they execute a pitch and you’re able to hit it. And sometimes they throw you a fastball right down the middle and you miss it.”
In a season troubled by injuries, defensive deficiencies, an occasional lapse in effort and an anemic bat – he was hitting .187 with a .414 slugging percentage entering Wednesday, lower than his backup, Austin Romine – that swing was a reminder of Sanchez’s tantalizing talent.
It is also underscores why the Yankees, built as they are around a raft of exceptional young talent, have been unable to keep pace with the Boston Red Sox this season: the progression of emerging talent is rarely linear.
The Yankees play host to the Toronto Blue Jays for a three-game set starting on Friday.
Take the jewels of the Yankees’ farm system: right fielder Aaron Judge, first baseman Greg Bird, pitcher Luis Severino, third baseman Miguel Andujar, second baseman Gleyber Torres and Sanchez. (Only Torres, who was acquired from the Chicago Cubs when he was at the Class A level, has played for another organization.)
While it is the most promising group to come through the system since the late 1990s, the players’ transition has not been without some travails in the Bronx.
“It’s almost inevitable that you’re going to face adversity on a big stage while you’re still coming into your own as a player,” manager Aaron Boone said. “And part of being, ultimately, a really good major-league player is being able to deal with the highs and lows of a major-league season and dealing with failure at some point, and being able to fight through and be able to improve your game.”
Consider that Judge, who at 26 is the oldest of the group, batted .179 and struck out in half his at-bats when he was called up at the end of the 2016 season. And even last season, when he was the runner-up for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award, Judge endured a dreadful six-week stretch in which he set a record for consecutive games with a strikeout. Now, the Yankees desperately await his return from a fractured wrist.
Or that Severino, who showed promise and poise when he was called up late in 2015 at the age of 21, went 0-8 with an 8.50 earned-run average as a starter the next season. He blossomed into a two-time all-star, a form he is trying to recover as the playoffs approach.
Bird looked like a future anchor at first base when he was called up late in 2015, and hit 11 home runs and drove in 31 runs over the final six weeks of the season. But since then he has persistently been hurt or underperformed – except last October, when he was arguably the Yankees’ best hitter in the playoffs.
And while Andujar and Torres are contenders for the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award, each has had hiccups.
Andujar, who is the first Yankee rookie since Joe DiMaggio to hit 20 home runs and 40 doubles, is the worst defensive third baseman in baseball according to many metrics. His throwing error with two outs in the ninth provided an opportunity for the Red Sox to complete their four-game sweep in early August.
Torres, whose 23 home runs share the American League lead for rookies, went through a three-week slump after returning from the disabled list in late July that included going 0-for-11 in the sweep at Fenway Park.
“I tried to do too much when I came back – hit everything, swing at everything,” Torres said. “Everybody was telling me everything, you know what I mean? After that, I talk to my hitting coach, I look at a couple of videos and I see my timing is a little bit off. When I was playing in the minor leagues, I didn’t have a real struggle, so it’s a little different here for sure.”
Torres has set himself apart by getting back on track quickly, hitting .345 with five home runs since Aug. 17. But recuperating has not always been so seamless – particularly for Bird, who has lost his starting job recently to Luke Voit.
Bird missed the first two months of the season after ankle surgery, and is batting just .195 with a .667 on-base plus slugging percentage since returning in late May.
“Those times are a test, and you’ve got to learn from them and be able to move on and not lose sight of who you are,” Bird said. “The biggest thing for me is to be able to believe in myself and keep trusting it.”
Bird said it was instructive coming up in 2015, when the Yankees were full of polished players who were on the back end of accomplished careers – Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira among them.
“I remember Carlos swung at a pitch up here one time,” Bird said late Monday night, holding his hand shoulder high. “And Alex swung at a pitch in the dirt, and I was thinking to myself: ‘Wow, they do that?’ When you’re in the minor leagues, you only watch SportsCenter. You only see highlights.
“If you see the highlights tonight, you see Gary hitting the ball 460 feet. You don’t see the process. Because if you watch a full major-league game, people are swinging at all kinds of stuff and people make errors.”
Giancarlo Stanton, who arrived in the big leagues at the age of 20, did so in a far more decompressed environment – for the Marlins in South Florida.
“Just get used to big-league competition with not a lot of pressure and expectations as a young guy,” Stanton said. “Here, if you don’t perform, you’re going down until you can – pretty much immediately. They give you ample amount of time, a chance, but not as long as you would on a non-contender.”
This is especially true now, as the season is drawing to a close.
Bird is on the bench, Judge’s status is uncertain and Sanchez hardly resembles the sensation who hit 20 home runs over the final two months of the 2016 season. Any thought that the prodigious home run (and two other hits on Monday) would rejuvenate him were doused on Tuesday when he hit a sacrifice fly, struck out twice and grounded into a double play in a 10-5 loss to the Twins.
Severino will take the ball on Wednesday night against the Twins, hoping to show enough in his final three starts to earn a start in the wild-card game – something that seemed a foregone conclusion at the all-star break.
If the Yankees, who entered this season with World Series ambitions, have any of hope of realizing them, the talented young core that they have banked on has three weeks left to find its form.