Aaron Sanchez Is the Blue Jays' Ace, But For How Much Longer?
At the end of spring training, the Toronto Blue Jays had a decision to make.
Would they allow Aaron Sanchez, one of their best relief pitchers who put up a 3.22 ERA in 92 1/3 innings last year (41 games, 11 starts) to become a starting pitcher? After all, over the course of his brief career, Sanchez had been much better coming out of the 'pen with a 1.67 ERA in 54 relief appearances. As a starter (11 starts), he had an ERA 3.55.
Not only that, but as a reliever, opponents hit just .151 against Sanchez, but they hit .242 against him as a starter. And his fastball was also better as a reliever, averaging 96.6 miles per hour (MPH) over his career, while it was a still-good 94.3 MPH as a starting pitcher.
After an impressive spring in of the rotation, the Jays decided to let him start, and boy have they been happy with the results.
In Monday night's 4-2 win over the San Diego Padres, Sanchez was electric, going 7 innings and giving up no runs on 3 hits with 7 strikeouts. It was his 10th straight victory (now 11-1 on the season), and his ERA sits at 2.72, second-best in the American League.
.@A_Sanch41’s fan club got even bigger after his outing tonight. #OurMomenthttps://t.co/mbsbnf9o0I
— Blue Jays (@BlueJays) July 26, 2016
Sanchez has not lost since April 22 against the Oakland Athletics, a span of 16 starts. And he's having one of the best seasons by a Blue Jays pitcher in franchise history.
Aaron Sanchez is having the best season by a young (age-23 or under) #BlueJays P since the early 1980s pic.twitter.com/WjtjDAPKXa
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) July 26, 2016
Frankly, he's having one of the best seasons by a young starting pitcher of any team in recent memory, too.
Great stat from @ESPNStatsInfo: Lowest ERA, AL qualified starter, 23 or younger in wild-card era: (1) King Felix, 2009; (2) Aaron Sanchez.
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) July 26, 2016
The concern coming into the season was that Sanchez' off-speed pitches weren't good enough to face teams two and three times through the order, but that hasn't been the case. His K/9 (7.82) and strikeout percentage (21.3%) are much higher than they were last year (5.95 and 16.1%, respectively).
His fastball has maintained its velocity from last year (94.7 MPH), but he's using his curveball more (16.4%, compared to 12.9% in 2015). He's also mixed in a changeup about 10% of the time too, up from last season when he only threw it 5.0% of the time.
Not only that, all his pitches are moving a bit more, too.
The chart above, from Brooks Baseball, tabulates the amount of vertical movement, in inches, of all his pitches. As noted above, Sanchez is primarily a three-pitch pitcher, throwing a fastball, curveball and changeup. Those are the three categories to look at most closely.
With all three pitches, Sanchez is generating more sink, much like this.
If you don’t know how filthy @A_Sanch41 is … you should. pic.twitter.com/Si8DfcIclZ
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) July 26, 2016
But as good as Sanchez has been this year -- and he is a true Cy Young contender -- there is a great possibility he won't start many, if any, games in September.
Toronto has reportedly wanted to put Sanchez on an innings limit. The most innings Sanchez has ever thrown in a season is 133, all in the minors. He threw just 101 last year between the majors and a few games in the minors, and he has already pitched 132 1/3 frames this season.
Sanchez may be moved to the bullpen as soon as next month, meaning Toronto is in the market for a starting pitcher. However, with Toronto just three games out in the American League East, can they afford to shelve their best starting pitcher?
The Mets decided to roll the dice with Matt Harvey last year, and it paid off. He helped get the Mets to the World Series (this year's shoulder issue is a nerve issue and unrelated to the elbow problem/Tommy John surgery he had the year before). The Nationals went the other way with Stephen Strasburg in 2012, and while they made the playoffs, they were bounced in the first round.
The Blue Jays have a legitimate shot at winning the American League pennant, and it will be interesting to see which direction they go. But it's entirely possible that a leading contender for the Cy Young Award will not finish the season in his team's rotation, despite being fully healthy.
Whatever role he plays, Sanchez has cemented himself as one of the best young arms in the American League.