By Sweeny Murti
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The ascent of major league prospects is a lot like the game Chutes and Ladders. You don’t make it to the top without sliding back down a few times.
I remember many years ago when Mike Francesa howled at me on the air, “How much longer do I have to look at this kid?” He was speaking about a rookie the Yankees had called up a week earlier who started just 2-for-23 at the plate.
It’s 12 years later now, and Robinson Cano is on his way to the Hall of Fame. And there was actually a pretty rapid climb up the ladder for Cano, who finished 2005 batting .297 with 14 home runs and was second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He made the first of his eight and counting All-Star teams the following season.
The climb to the top is filled with more adversity for most players, and a pair of young Yankee stars are battling some now as we hit the dog days of summer.
Following his meteoric rise to modern-day Monument Park status in the first half, Aaron Judge is batting just .182 (14-for-77) with five home runs since the All-Star break. Teams have pitched him tougher in the second half, beginning with that four-game series in Boston when he went just 1-for-18.
A big test is coming for Judge when the Yankees meet the Red Sox again this weekend. It will be the start of a 10-game stretch with six against the real rivals and four in between against the cross-city rivals in this year’s Subway Series. A lot of eyeballs will be on Judge to see if he can help lift the Yankees at a most crucial time.
Whether he breaks out then or at some other point, you know how I know he’s going to be okay? It’s all in the attitude, and it came across in a chat I had with him about a month into the season.
It was late April, and I was asking Judge about how he moved away from football and basketball where his size brings a natural advantage, and towards baseball where his size doesn’t bring the same natural advantage. An answer he gave stood out because it told me a lot about his mindset during times of struggles.
“People say it’s a game of failure, but I like looking at it like a game of opportunity,” Judge told me. “You know, you may go up there and strike out three times, but your fourth at-bat the game might be 1-1 and you might have a chance to help out the team with a home run or just a base hit or something. You always have an opportunity to help out the team no matter what.”
There’s a great sense of maturity to that answer. Judge, a 25-year-old rookie, might struggle the entire second half the way a 23-year-old Reggie Jackson did in 1969. After hitting 37 home runs in 91 games before the All-Star Break, Jackson hit only 10 more in his final 61 games after the break. Jackson felt the pressure as a young player and got himself out too many times, he told me at this year’s Old-Timer’s Day.
Jackson turned out okay, I’d say. Judge’s attitude tells me he will, too, even if this second half is dramatically worse than his first half. It’s a game of opportunity, not a game of failure. More opportunities await.
Gary Sanchez is staring at a crossroads, too, and has the opportunity to make himself better. Criticized publicly and pulled aside privately by his manager, Sanchez was told he needed to improve behind the plate after a passed ball and a wild pitch contributed to a loss in Cleveland last Friday.
Sanchez now has 18 passed balls and 45 wild pitches against him in his first 100 games behind the plate. His rocket arm still makes him a defensive asset, as he threw out 41 percent of base-stealers last year and 35 percent this year, still well above league average.
I asked several former catchers recently about the causes and fixes for passed balls. Some say it is a matter of focus, while one told me Sanchez could be having trouble seeing certain balls out of the pitchers’ hands. The wild pitches are often a function of the pitcher, but there is technique involved that could help him keep the ball closer to his body and prevent runners from advancing.
A lot of this is about putting in the work, which Sanchez has done in the past and is doing again. The word “lazy” gets thrown around on the passed balls, but that is about the technique, not the work ethic. It is easy to confuse when you hear the word. Make no mistake, Sanchez didn’t get this far by being lazy in his work ethic. He does, however, need some help in cleaning up the defensive part of the game, which will make him a better all-around player.
Is it fixable? Absolutely.
In his first two years in the majors Johnny Bench allowed 32 passed balls and 118 wild pitches. By his fourth year, Bench had cut down to just six passed balls and 29 wild pitches in 141 games.
The next two weeks are just as crucial for Sanchez as they are for Judge. Their performances in the six-game showdown with the Red Sox could make or break the Yankees’ chances of winning the AL East. If they fail, it won’t mean they are doomed for a career of failed expectations. It just becomes part of the process.
And if the struggle gets real for elite prospects who had historic peaks and valleys within their first 12 months in the majors, then what about prospects like Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade, who have barely more than a month in the majors?
Frazier plays with an undeniable electricity, but has just six hits in his last 38 at-bats and is batting .206 with a .603 OPS over his last 16 games. He is learning to adjust at the big league level and that’s hard to do even when your team isn’t in a pennant race.
Wade was lighting up Triple-A this year, but has frustrated fans saying he shouldn’t be in the big leagues and that he can’t hit. Fact is Wade probably wouldn’t be here if Starlin Castro hadn’t injured his hamstring a second time. And while he hasn’t hit yet, it’s unfair to say he can’t hit. Wade has long been a favorite of opposing teams’ scouts.
The greater struggles of Wade and Frazier, and the pockets of failure experienced by Judge and Sanchez — they are all parts of what happens when you “let the kids play.” That was the refrain from Yankees fans who wanted these Baby Bombers to replace the aging and failing players of the last several years. The ascent of young players is rarely straight up.
The problem is these are not exhibition games. They are real, with high stakes and big league ticket prices. It’s fair to have high expectations for Yankees, no matter what their experience.
I’m not saying you have to like it when young players struggle. But you do have to accept that they will.
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN