‘MVP’ talk suddenly surrounding Gary Sanchez

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TAMPA — Gary Sanchez had a 2020 to forget.

But it didn’t make his teammates and coaches forget about what the Yankees catcher is still capable of, especially after an offseason in which Sanchez planted the seeds for a potential bounce back in 2021.

“Gary’s a guy that can go out there and win AL MVP,” Aaron Judge said Sunday from George M. Steinbrenner Field after the Yankees beat the Phillies 4-0. “He’s that dynamic and that important of a player to this team.”

“He does seem very focused in his early work,” DJ LeMahieu added. “Out to prove that he’s Gary Sanchez and he’s one of the best catchers in the league.”

To get back to that player — the one who was an All-Star in 2017 and 2019, looking like a key piece of the Yankees’ core — Sanchez got to work early this offseason. After playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, he arrived in Tampa in January to continue refining his shortened swing and working with catching instructor Tanner Swanson to build on the changes they made to his catching stance last spring.

It’s still too early in camp to tell whether Sanchez’s offseason work will make all the difference this season, but the first returns are promising. He went 1-for-2 with a walk Sunday in his fifth game of a spring training in which he has cracked a pair of home runs, thrown out a pair of runners and drawn praise from his pitchers for his defense.

“He’s been really accountable for his performance in 2020 and hasn’t run from that and has faced some of those challenges head on,” Swanson said. “Personally, our dynamic has really improved as well. I think that’s been a positive thing as we continue to find areas where we can strengthen his game. It’s really evolved from a coach-to-player directive — a place where, in the past, especially early on, it was, ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me’ — to now it’s really developed into a partnership, which is much more effective in terms of the long-term sustainability of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Swanson joined the Yankees ahead of the 2020 season and had Sanchez adjust his catching stance to have one knee down, aimed at improving his pitch framing. Sanchez’s framing metrics may have improved — from -6.8 to -0.8 framing runs, per FanGraphs — but his overall defense took a hit, dropping from -2 defensive runs saved in 2019 to -4 in 2020.

Now, with more time working on the stance and Sanchez voicing his feedback in that process, Swanson believes the results will show this season.

“His voice has increased in terms of what he likes, what he dislikes, what he’s feeling, how we continue to make adaptations to refine what he’s doing and how he’s doing it,” Swanson said. “I never questioned his belief or his buy-in [last year]. I just don’t think he ever got fully comfortable to the point where we could expand.”

Sanchez never seemed to get comfortable at the plate, either, as he lost his starting job to Kyle Higashioka by the end of the playoffs and entered the offseason with an uncertain future.

The Yankees ultimately stuck by him, though, and have seen a more confident Sanchez early in camp as a by-product of his offseason work.

“He’s helped drive a lot of his work — not to say that there wasn’t in the past, but there’s just a real business-like way he’s going about things,” manager Aaron Boone said. “I think his foundation’s a little bit better at this point than it was last year. I just feel like he looks like he’s in a really good place.”

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