Everyone and their uncle released a top prospect list for the Blue Jays system over the offseason –- don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the guilty parties as well –- and the one thing every list could agree on was that they couldn’t agree on how to rank the Blue Jays quintet of young, high upside arms: Drew Hutchison, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris.
Each pitcher has his strengths and weaknesses, which left a lot of room for personal bias and gut feelings to creep into the rankings. To get an idea of just how variant the order was, below is a chart of the pitchers and their rankings in each of the respective lists.
The only two with identical orders were Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus and myself, and just for the record, my list was released over a month earlier. The most obvious trend is that Sanchez consistently ranked low, and only Keith Law of ESPN placed him within baseball’s top 100 prospects. The worst ranking was by the aforementioned Mr. Goldstein, who added “He’s still a high-ceiling arm, but he will need more work than was anticipated.” Statistically speaking, it made sense – Sanchez did not have a very good 2011 season, but my goodness, how rapidly things can change in only a few months.
Drew Hutchison is in the show while Daniel Norris still awaits his short season assignment in extended spring training, putting the three Lansing pitchers, Syndergaard, Nicolino and Sanchez, on a level playing field. They have been pitching in a piggyback system, where one pitcher starts their scheduled game and pitches his three or four innings, and is then immediately followed by the other pitcher who throws the same number of innings in the same game. Syndergaard has been pairing with a 2011 draft pick, Anthony DeSclafani, while Sanchez and Nicolino have been pitching in tandem.
After an offseason in which he was the most heavily scrutinized, the 2012 season has been all about Aaron Sanchez. Speaking in terms of both statistics and recent scouting reports, he has been the most impressive of the trio, and could easily find himself soaring up mid-season prospect lists.
The most obvious question is, what has changed?
People may be quick to suggest that he’s finally resolved his glaring command issues, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. His 4.70 walks per nine innings this season is actually higher than it was in 2011, when he walked 4.31 batters per nine innings. The biggest change, at least through the first six weeks of the season, has been his ability to completely overpower hitters. His strikeout rate of 10.96 batters per nine innings is exceptional, and has helped Sanchez to a microscopic .111 opposing batting average. That number is obviously unsustainable –- his BABIP is only .182 –- but both his current season (2.27 GO/AO) and historical (2.90 in 2010, 1.60 in 2011) ground ball rates suggest he should always be well above average in that respect, and it speaks to how much life he has on pitches
The next question should be, how has he changed?
The scouting reports on Sanchez have always been based around one word: projection. When he was selected by the Blue Jays in the first round of the 2010 draft, he was a rail thin high school kid, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing a meager 170 pounds. His fastball sat in the 88-91 range with the highest readings coming in at 93 mph, and the curveball Sanchez threw was considered only an average offering. Despite this, Sanchez was the type of pitcher scouts drool over in high school, as they knew his body had so much more to offer. Projection.
Sanchez got into a handful of games in late 2010, but didn’t truly get some exposure until the summer of 2011, when he made his debut with Toronto’s newest affiliate, the Bluefield Blue Jays. He had already beefed up a few pounds, and it was evident on the mound. His fastball was beginning to sit in the low 90’s, and touched as high as 95 mph. His curveball was significantly improved as well, showing tight rotation and hard, late break. Sanchez’ curve was even rated as the best in the system by Baseball America, a notable feat given that six of the top seven arms in the system (according to my rankings) throw a curveball.
He has taken things a step further in the first two months of 2012, with multiple reports, including one by Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos himself, stating that Sanchez was now being clocked as high as 97 mph on his fastball. In an April 26th “Scouting Notebook” over at Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein backed up that report, stating that Sanchez has been the most impressive of the Lansing trio, throwing his fastball 91-97 mph and showing a plus curveball. Now bulked up to 190 pounds, projection is becoming reality.
Prospect rankings are extremely fluid, so it’s not unusual for a hot or slow start to a season to cause a player to move up or down in the minds of writers. Sanchez still has legitimate flaws, but it’s quite obvious that he’s more than just the team’s fifth best pitching prospect as I gave him credit for last winter. In fact, if I were to re-rank the aforementioned five pitchers, I might boost Sanchez as high as second. His fastball is only a step behind Noah Syndergaard’s, but his curveball is significantly better. I wouldn’t rank Sanchez as the top arm on the farm, as I feel Norris has done nothing to lose the title I bestowed upon him in December. Four months from now, however, the story could be very different. Once September rolls around, Sanchez will have roughly 120 innings of data, and Norris will have finally made an extended professional debut. If the scouting reports from August are as glowing as the versions we’re hearing now, it’s very feasible that Sanchez could be Toronto’s new top pitching prospect, something I would have had a very hard time believing only a couple of months ago.