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Why Austin Romine’s hitting surge didn’t arrive by accident

 

The Yankees have one catcher slugging over .370 and another slumping near the Mendoza Line. And this comes as quite a big surprise, since the two players’ performances aren’t reflecting the numbers printed on the back of their baseball cards. 

Of all the backup catchers in the majors, Austin Romine is surely the hottest, and his recent hitting surge has coincided with the adversity hampering Gary Sanchez.

Although Romine has played in half as many games as Sanchez (120 fewer at-bats, too), he’s in the midst of a career-best 11-game hitting streak, and since May 20, he’s tied his season-high in home runs with four. During this span, Sanchez has hit zero balls over the fence, and his batting average has dipped down to a measly .201, due to a 2-for-32 with no extra-base hits skid. 

In the first game of a split doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers on Monday at Comerica Park, Romine crushed a three-run shot to left-center field in the Yankees’ 7-4 win, while Sanchez went 0-for-3 with a passed ball and wild pitched allowed in the team’s 4-2 loss during the nightcap.

In brief, Romine and Sanchez have been playing on opposite ends of the spectrum.

But Romine’s sudden production at the plate hasn’t been a fluke or an accident. His success can be traced back to an offseason challenge proposed to him by Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone.

Boone’s message was simple: You haven’t reached your hitting ceiling yet, so let’s go to work.

“I loved [Boone’s challenge],” Romine recently told MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. “It wasn’t negative, like, ‘You’re not doing well and we expect you to do more.’ It was, ‘We know you can hit more than that,’ and it was positive. All that stuff has come, and it’s all been positive. They’ve been behind all of us. They’re pushing us to be better and to better ourselves every day.

“I’ve sold out for it and good things are happening, with the positivity behind me from our hitting coaches and manager, bench coach, all of them. It’s a very positive environment.”

Prior to this season, Romine’s career average was a meager .220, and he was known only for his ability to call a good game behind the dish. However, since Boone’s arrival, Romine — who turns 30 in November — has altered his batting stance from closed to square, and the Yankees have reaped the benefits of Romine’s adjustments thus far.

“The reason we [challenged Romine] is because we think he has the talent to be a quality hitter,” Boone told MLB.com. “That’s where the challenge came from, because we believe in the ability. To his credit, he’s worked really hard at it. I talk to him every day in batting practice; the way he’s getting ready to hit, the move he’s making, it’s a quality one. In a weird way, I’m not really surprised that he’s doing this well.”

And though Sanchez has struggled mightily, the change in Romine has allowed the Yankees to be more patient and hands-on with Sanchez. It’s become a good problem, in a sense, according to Boone.

“I feel like all those things can add up to a more productive player in Gary’s case throughout the season, keeping him strong and keeping him fresh,” Boone said. “Catcher is obviously such a demanding position, and because Gary is so important to our team offensively as well, I think it’s really important that we protect him and preserve him and give him the rest that keeps him sharp and fresh throughout the season.”

There appears to be no secret to Romine’s results. His barrel is meeting the ball much quicker, and he’s playing with a greater confidence and approach.

“I’m not swinging at pitchers’ pitches,” said Romine, who’s hitting .469 with eight extra-base hits and 13 RBI during his hot streak. “I’m not trying to hit their best pitch. I’m trying to work counts and get ahead and swing at fastballs out over the plate. There’s no mystery to what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to go up the middle the other way. If I get a mistake, I can hit it out, but my game plan is hit the ball up the middle and go the other way.”

If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.

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