By: Dan Grant
On Tuesday July 19th, Aaron Sanchez turned in what has become an almost perfunctory performance for him. He shut down the Arizona Diamondbacks over 7 innings, allowing just one earned run on six hits, striking out five and walking none. The newly minted All-Star has become more than the Blue Jays and their fans could have hoped for this season, exceeding all expectations by harnessing his devastating natural ability, and pairing it with a combination of strength and mechanical consistency that was lacking during his first stint in the starting rotation in 2015.
Many worried about how Sanchez would handle the increased workload asked of a full time starting pitcher — we’ve all read the articles about his inexperience, but in a nutshell, the concern was that he’d never pitched more than 133.1 innings in any one season as a professional. He’s sitting at 125.1 innings pitched in 2016 at the moment, and despite his overwhelming success, Blue Jays management has yet to publicly back off their stated plan to move him to the bullpen, a plan devised to ensure against overworking their young star. Manager John Gibbons has repeatedly said it’s a matter of ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’. Given the preponderance of young pitchers that blow out their arms these days, the idea was a sound one when it was originally conceived.
The thing is, Sanchez doesn’t look like he’s wearing down. In fact, he appears to be getting better as the season progresses. He hasn’t allow more than 2 earned runs in any of his past six starts. His command, a huge issue in the past, has greatly improved; he hasn’t walked more than 3 batters in any one game since May 15th, and has done so only once since then. Left-handed batters, who posted a gaudy .279/.390/.488 slash line against him in 2015 still manage to hit him better than righties, but have been tempered to a mark of .228/.306/.388. He’s improved across the board, not just marginally, but by leaps and bounds. He’s become a dominant force in the rotation, and one that Toronto can ill afford to lose. The plan to move him to the bullpen should now be thought of as a contingency, rather than a priority.
Think that’s overstated? Peep this, my friend: his current groundball rate of 57.1% ranks him 5th in the entire major leagues among qualified starting pitchers. Fifteen of his 19 starts so far have ranked as ‘quality starts’, meaning a start that lasts at least six innings, wherein the pitcher gives up three earned runs or less. That number ties him for second in MLB with Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, and trails leader Madison Bumgarner by just one. Heady company for a 24 year old who just four months ago had to battle to win the 5th starters job during spring training. He’s been worth 2.7 WAR already this season, which lands him 14th out of 94 qualified starting pitchers, and has him tied with names like Chris Sale, Danny Salazar and David Price. For the sake of comparison, on the same list J.A. Happ ranks 33rd, Marco Estrada 37th, Marcus Stroman 47th and R.A. Dickey 85th. Sanchez is no illusion. He’s been the Blue Jays’ best pitcher.
Whatever they say publicly, I think the Jays recent actions have subtly acknowledged that they realize how essential ‘Sanchez-as-starter’ is to their immediate success. They’ve been smart about the entire process since the season began, never setting a concrete timeline for his move to the bullpen and speaking effusively about his production in the starting rotation. Their creative shuffling of the rotation coming out the All-Star break was in part necessitated by Marco Estrada’s wonky back, but the reconfigured order of pitchers wasn’t an accident.
After pitching just a single inning in the All-Star game, Sanchez easily could have pitched Sunday, July 10th against Oakland, but was given the extra two days before making his start in Arizona. With Estrada slated to rejoin the team Friday vs Seattle, the newly established order goes Stroman-Estrada-Dickey-Happ-Sanchez. If that five man unit holds firm, Sanchez’s spot in the rotation comes up 14 more times this season. Sanchez is currently averaging just under 7 innings per start, meaning that if he made all those starts and maintained that pace, he’d wind up somewhere between 210-220 innings pitched, which is surely more than Toronto wants to put on his arm this season, particularly if they see playoff starts in his future.
Luckily, playing at
Rogers Centre SkyDome has advantages (no rain!), meaning that Toronto still has three scheduled off-days in both August and September. Three of those days (August 22nd, September 1st, September 22nd) now line up perfectly with Sanchez’s turn in the rotation. If the team decided to skip him on all three of those days, the projected innings total suddenly looks more like 190-200, which is much more manageable. Throw in a couple early hooks when games are out of hand, or a spot start from Drew Hutchison at some point, and it might be possible to keep old Aaron around 180 innings, which seems to be some kind of magical number for those placed on innings limits. It also helps that the teams Sanchez would pitch against on those turns (if he were pushed back a day rather than skipped) are the Angels (home), Rays (road) and Yankees (home). Not exactly a murderers row. It would (and I’ll admit this is way too far in the future to even pencil in yet) also put Sanchez on track to start either the season finale in Boston, if it matters, or the first game of any playoff run, if it doesn’t.
The Jays can play this strategy by ear — Sanchez might need all those days off or he might need just one or two. They have options. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs suggested a different strategy during a live chat on Wednesday:
So again, options. Skipping him, a DL stint, spot starts, a combination of all three — whatever is needed. The point is this: barring some kind of disaster, Aaron Sanchez has to stay in the rotation. The risks are known. Worry warts have been quick to point to Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez as cautionary comparisons, and that’s fair, to a point. But both Strasburg and Fernandez rocketed to the majors, spending minimal time in the minor leagues: Strasburg threw just 55.1 innings before being promoted to Washington in 2010 and Fernandez pitched 134.1 in his only full minor league season before making the Marlins big club in 2013. Both dazzled before eventually needing Tommy John surgery.
Sanchez hasn’t had nearly the same path. He’s been in the Blue Jays system since 2010, gradually building up to this. He threw seasons of 25.1, 64.1, 90.1, 108.2, 133.1 innings consecutively from 2010-2014. Last year he pitched just 102.0, but spent six weeks on the disabled list. His development has been sound. He’s 24, not 19. The same faction who are worried about Sanchez being the next Strasburg or Fernandez were saying that putting him back in the rotation was going to turn him into the next Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Bard or Neftali Feliz. “Keep him in the bullpen,” they said. “He’s good there. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
How’s that one looking right about now?
Here’s the other thing about Strasburg and Fernandez: they had the luxury of joining clubs that were in the absolute toilet. The Marlins have been a dogs breakfast for years, so they could afford to rush Fernandez and were mostly unfazed when they had to subsequently wait out his rehab. The Nationals surprised everyone by getting good while Strasburg was on the shelf, and struggled with the decision to put him on a strict innings limit while attempting to compete for a pennant in 2012. They ultimately shut him down as planned, and while Strasburg’s health has been fine since then, the Nationals have never been closer to post-season glory than they were that season. Was it worth it, ultimately? It’s hard to say.
Some Nationals fans would yes, because Strasburg recently signed a major contract extension with the Nationals (7 years, 175 million), forgoing his first chance at unrestricted free agency. In his press conference, he credited the trust developed between him and the Nationals during that shutdown process in 2012: the team showed him they cared about his long term future more than their own short term success. Some might see that as a clear blueprint for how the Jays should handle Sanchez, but I don’t agree, at least not completely.
What the Jays should copy is not the decision that was made, but the process: the Nationals were unrelenting in their commitment to the needs of their player. The needs of Sanchez now and Strasburg then are far different. Strasburg was returning from Tommy John surgery; Sanchez is not. Strasburg’s agent wanted him shut down — the only noise coming from Sanchez’s camp has been from the player himself, quietly adamant this Spring Training that he wanted a chance to start. Yes, you need to monitor him closely, and make sure he’s not overloaded. Yes, he’s the prototypical Tommy John candidate- a power pitcher who’s played travel ball since the eighth grade, who could play baseball all year because of the balmy weather in his hometown of Barstow, California. But if you’re the Jays, you’ve known that all along.
This Blue Jays team is a contending one right now. However, it might have a short window, at least with the current core. There’s just so much uncertainty in the long term. We don’t know what’s to become of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion or Michael Saunders beyond this season. Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin have rebounded after slow starts, but the chances of them significantly declining as they pass into their mid-thirties are not zero. I’m not one to ever run around screaming the sky is falling, because I feel that kind of attitude is pointless. I do however believe that you have to take your shots when you get them. The 2016 version of the Blue Jays has a real shot to compete for a World Series title, and Aaron Sanchez starting games is a massive part of that opportunity.
The kid has done literally everything asked of him. Bullpen, rotation, majors, minors– all of it. Whatever Toronto has asked, Sanchez has done, and done well. He’s succeeded at every task. He’s been completely committed. At some point, you have to reward that. You have to build that trust, the same way Washington did with Strasburg. The whole point of moving Sanchez to the bullpen rather than shutting him down outright was to maximize his on-field contributions for this season, while still protecting his long term health. You can still do that, you still have to do that, but Sanchez has proven via his performance that it’s time to move the goalposts.
Aaron Sanchez has already proven everybody wrong this season. The Blue Jays need to let him keep it up.
Dan Grant is an editor at the Same Page and a contributor to SB Nation’s Raptors HQ. He can be found on Twitter @SlamminDannyG. He finds bragging uncouth, but he believed in Aaron Sanchez from the beginning.