If Yordano Ventura is any indication, the Toronto Blue Jays should let Aaron Sanchez start
By Michael Wray
Watching Yordano Ventura pitch for the Kansas City Royals last night made me start thinking about the future of Blue Jays’ pitcher Aaron Sanchez.
Both are hard throwing right handers. Ventura, 23, has hit 102 MPH on the radar gun more than once and stymied opponents in 31 appearances (30 starts) during the regular season with a 3.20 ERA and 3.60 FIP (3.74 xFIP).
Sanchez, 22, thoroughly impressed the Jays’ brass and others in a second half call up when he posted a 1.09 ERA and 2.80 FIP (3.00 xFIP) in 33 relief innings. He didn’t clear triple digits on the gun but his hardest pitch recorded at more than 99.8 MPH.
Sanchez likely won’t throw quite as hard as a starter and regularly worked 93-96 MPH in the minors prior to his call up. He’s also taller than Ventura (listed 6’4 compared to 6’0) but Sanchez somewhat surprisingly throws from a slightly lower release point.
Ventura didn’t seem to run into the same sort of trouble that Sanchez did in the minors with control and had relatively steady walk (and strikeout rates) throughout his career in the minors while Sanchez, as most Blue Jays fans know, was a bit more up and down.
The Scout feature on Brooks Baseball shows they are both in the “double plus” velocity range with scores of 70 or better.
In terms of horizontal movement they score similarly, Sanchez seems to have a bit more “run” while Ventura has slightly more vertical movement (or perceived rising action) on his heater.
All and all, the fastball from both players seem very much the same when it comes to raw “stuff” but it ends up playing a bit differently on the field.
Ventura relies on his four-seam fastball and had a whiff rate of 10.62% on that pitch in 2014. Sanchez, on the other hand, doesn’t throw his four-seamer nearly as often and his whiff percentage was just more than one-third the rate (3.49%) of Ventura’s. Hitters were also more patient to wait him out as they swung at his four-seamers 8% less often than Ventura’s.
We are dealing with a smallish sample size for Sanchez as he only threw 86 four-seamers in 2014, which means one pitch would change these numbers by more than one percent, but rather than dwell on this fact let’s admit our data has flaws, work with what we have and move on.
Sanchez did throw more sinkers (321) than four-seamers (I normally refer to sinkers and two-seamers interchangeably, I obviously can’t see the grip so I don’t bother trying to differentiate between the two as they are basically the same pitch) and that may very well remain his weapon of choice going forward. He had a higher whiff rate (8.72%) with his sinker compared to his four-seamer and allowed very little hard contact, evidenced by his low line drive and fly ball rates.
It’s been fairly well-documented that Sanchez was a ground ball machine in 2014 as two-thirds of his balls in play were grounders, which was fourth best in baseball (of pitchers with at least 20 innings). Using Baseball Savant to isolate only his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, 11% of the total pitches he threw ended up on the ground, which was eighth best out of pitchers with at least 100 of those pitches.
This off-season, which as usual has started early for the Blue Jays, one discussed talking point has been whether Sanchez is better suited for the starting rotation or the bullpen. The major case against using Sanchez as a starter has been his lack of development with his changeup, which was all but shelved when he pitched for the Jays in relief.
One of the cavaets of moving Sanchez to the bullpen was it allowed him to get away and dominate with basically two pitches, his fastball and curve. The general thinking is that to succeed as a starter, he’ll need a third pitch.
If you blinked you would have missed them but Pitchf/x did record a measly 4 changeups for Sanchez in 2014. That is if you consider a 92.5 MPH a changeup. One of the major keys for Sanchez in 2015 will be whether or not he’ll be able to maintain a reasonable amount of velocity difference between his fastball and change.
As I mentioned early, Sanchez sat for the most part in the 93-96 MPH range as a starter last season. Even if he’s able to tone down the changeup to around 88-89 MPH, which is about where Ventura sat with his change, a difference in velocity of just 5-7 MPH normally won’t be enough to fool major league hitters unless the pitch has enough vertical depth to mess with a hitter’s timing (such as a split change and/or whatever it is Felix Hernandez throws).
Sanchez doesn’t get enough consistent depth from his change, which makes some question how effective he’ll be as a starter. Mark Anderson of Baseball Prospectus shared this evaluation of Sanchez’s changeup within BP’s very informative Eyewitness Accounts database.
"“Poor pitch in both outings; lacks feel for offering; consistently misses up with CH; lacked consistent movement but showed occasional dive that didn’t seem repeatable; almost always overthrown and way too firm; needs to let the grip do the work; question whether feel will ever develop enough for average third pitch; stayed away from it in tight spots; seemed to use slower curveball as change-of-pace offering instead of changeup.”"
Ventura threw his four-seam or two-seamer 64% of the time in 2014, which would ideally be the range you’d like to see Sanchez settle into as a starter. However the upper threshold for fastball percentage while still being very good is likely Lance Lynn, who shoved the heater (excluding cutters) 79% of the time in 2014.
Adding a cutter to Sanchez’s diet is another option, which would make a change almost unnecessary if he could rely on his curveball as a batting-missing, change of pace pitch. But let’s not worry about that for now.
Lynn is somewhat of a facisnating comparison as he threw his changeup barely more often than Sanchez (2.57% vs 0.87%) in 2014. Lynn’s velocity and movement aren’t nearly as pronounced as he’s somewhat more of a command pitcher, which is something that cannot be said about Sanchez.
However even without a changeup in his repetoire, Lynn was more than fine with a 2.74 ERA and 3.35 FIP while keeping his HR/FB low for the second consecutive season.
Can Sanchez do the same? The odds are likely against him – it’s probably more realistic to think he would need to mix in a changeup at least 10% of the time as a starter – but it will be interesting to see how the Jays choose to approach his development from this point forward.
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As a starter he’ll face far more situations, especially the second and third time through the order, when start to have a better read on what he’s offering. And especially playing in the division of sandboxes that is the AL East, it’s fairly unlikely he can survive as a starter throwing 80% or more fastballs.
For reference, the pitcher who threw the highest percentage of fastballs from an American League East team in 2014 was J.A. Happ who buzzed them in at a 72.9% clip. It seemed to work, at least partially. Happ wasn’t great in 2014 (although he was at times) but he was decent enough to have made a case that his name should be penciled in when camp breaks in March.
Sanchez’s fastball, especially when he locates it, is a much more dominating pitch than Happ’s so there’s no reason to think Sanchez might be able to live in the 75% fastball range as a starter. It’s not the ideal situation but if you believe his newfound command of his fastball is real, it’s not a bad situation and you could likely do much worse.
However I think what will be best for the Jays and Sanchez long term will be a return to the minors to start the season. He’s already proven himself at the major league level so he can pitch in a lower pressure environment to hopefully iron out his off-speed stuff and continue to refine his fastball command.
More than likely the same five pitchers who break camp from spring training won’t be the same five pitchers who are pitching at the end of the season or even the midway point. Injuries and attrition happen and the Jays need to have some reinforcements in Buffalo, which thankfully they seem to have plenty of at the moment. But I’m still convinced if the Jays want to get everything they can out of Sanchez a bit more time in the minors to start the season won’t hurt. Either that, or he breaks camp with the team. The bullpen, at least for now, shouldn’t be an option.
He seems ready to make the jump to full-time rotation duty as he had 133 professional innings under his belt last season, which means the Jays would likely allow him to reach 160 without hesitation. That puts in in a starter’s role for basically the entire season with the only concern being if he’d be available for the playoffs (playoffs?) if at all necessary.
Some of these innings should be spent giving Sanchez just a bit more time to develop. He might not turn into anything more than he is now. But I’d much rather take the chance at the jackpot and allow him to try and fail with a changeup at the Triple-A level (and even the major league level) before we decide that Aaron Sanchez is not a major league starting pitcher.