The Time is Right for Aaron Sanchez
Tall pitchers (we’re talking 6’4″ and over), generally speaking, have multiple advantages over shorter pitchers. Their height allows them to get more of a downward plane on their fastball, which can make it more difficult for a hitter to track it. Because their height and reach allows them to release the ball that much closer to home plate, hitters may not have enough time to properly pick the ball’s flight up, creating an illusion called “late life”.
With that size, however, often comes a lot of moving parts in a delivery. As a result, it can take a tall pitcher longer to refine their mechanics and achieve a consistent release point, which has much to do with the command of their pitches.
Which brings to mind Aaron Sanchez.
Drafted in the compensation round of 2010, Sanchez advanced slowly through the minors. Baseball America noted this about him on draft day:
His command is negatively affected by variances in his arm slot, and Sanchez will need to add at least a pitch and potentially two to his current arsenal. Sanchez profiles as a No. 3 starter. He may take some time to reach the majors, but his tantalizing upside is difficult for any organization to ignore.
Moved to the bullpen in the minors in early July of 2014, Sanchez and his pared down pitch repertoire were lights out in relief for the beleaguered Toronto bullpen a few weeks later.
Results and Averages – from 01/01/2014 to 01/01/2015
Pitch Type Count AB K BB HBP 1B 2B 3B HR BAA SLG ISO BABIP
Fourseam 86 14 2 4 0 1 0 0 1 .143 .357 .214 .091
Sinker 321 77 18 5 1 10 1 0 0 .143 .156 .013 .186
Change 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Curve 51 18 7 0 0 1 0 0 0 .056 .056 .000 .091
On the basis of a strong spring last year, the Blue Jays resisted the urge to keep Sanchez in the back of the bullpen, and installed him in the fifth starter role. Inconsistent at first, Sanchez grew up as a starter before our eyes, culminating in a masterful 8-inning, 103-pitch performance against the Astros, allowing only 2 runs, 1 of them earned. In four April starts, he managed only a 53% groundball rate; in his next 7 starts, he was over 60%. Plagued somewhat by walks during April and May, he didn’t walk a batter in the Astros start.
It was to be the last we saw of Sanchez in the starting rotation that year. Originally skipped for his next start, Sanchez was eventually sent to the DL, and when he returned six weeks later, it was in his former set-up man role. GM Alex Anthopoulos said at the time that there wasn’t enough time to have Sanchez stretched back out as a starter – interestingly enough, there was plenty of time for Marcus Stroman to do so when he came off the DL in September.
Concerned about his durability, Sanchez embarked on an ambitious off-season training program to build muscle and cardio capacity, and now looks much bigger, particularly in his upper body. His new frame should allow for added innings. And the concern all along has been that he’s never thrown more than 130 in a season, and the Blue Jays are understandably wondering if having Sanchez for perhaps 150 innings as a starter is preferable to about 80 from him in relief, and using a veteran like Gavin Floyd or Jesse Chavez for those turns in the rotation.
The time is right for Sanchez to start, however. Before he went on the DL last year, he was showing improved command and pitch sequencing, and was turning into a groundball and weak contact-inducing machine. He likely would have benefitted tremendously from the presence of Troy Tulowitzki – his 60.6% groundball rate was 5th best among pitchers who threw at least 90 innings last year. There was some concern about the drop in his strikeout rate, but he was sacrificing K’s for groundballs, as evidenced by the 15 ground outs he rang up in the Houston game.
As John Lott pointed out, the track record for pitchers who have been converted back into starting from relieving is not good (although he overlooks successes like C.J. Wilson and Chris Sale). The Twins pitched rookie Alex Myers exclusively in relief last year, but have sent him back to Triple-A to work on his command of his secondary pitches in a starting role. There have been some suggestions that the Blue Jays take the same track with Sanchez, and while that has some merit, there’s ample evidence that he will be able to pick up where he left off last year as a starter in the majors. The concern among many is that Sanchez is basically only a one-pitch pitcher, and will have trouble turning over a lineup, but the reports from Florida this spring are encouraging: his curveball (which his Florida State League pitching coach Darold Knowles termed “major league-ready” in 2013) has shown flashes of its former self in terms of depth, and his change up seems to improve with every outing. According to Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair, a National League scout told him Sanchez is the best pitcher he’s seen all spring, and the Blue Jays “would be crazy to put him back in the bullpen.” Pitching in the rotation will give him an opportunity to continue to refine his secondaries. Shuttling him back to the pen will sentence him to more time as a one or two-pitch hurler. With the improved Blue Jays defence as a result of Anthopoulos’ trade dealing, Sanchez should be even more effective in a starting role.
Chavez is a free agent after this season, and Floyd’s injury history doesn’t bode well for the long term. Even if it might mean taking some lumps early in the season, at 23 years of age, Sanchez has time on his side, and if the Blue Jays are taking the long view, he is easily the most viable option in the back of the rotation. Ultimately, they will need to closely monitor his innings, and may have to skip his turn in the rotation as September approaches, but there’s plenty in the sample size of last season and this spring to warrant