Blue Jays have plenty of options with Sanchez in the bullpen
Following Sunday’s victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons announced that Aaron Sanchez would be placed in the bullpen upon activation later this week.
The move presents a few questions in Blue Jays land: mainly, is Sanchez’s move to the pen representative of a further move to bring in a starter? Or rather does it represent a real effort to halt the bullpen woes that have plagued them since opening day?
No one can say for certain. What’s blatantly obvious is that, with the addition of Sanchez, Gibbons is going to have the luxury of restructuring his bullpen in such a way that bleeds confidence on his many timely mid-game trips to the mound.
Despite his outward expression for sending Sanchez back to the pen, Gibbons has yet to definitively determine where and when he will be used. It’s likely they will hold off on throwing him in the thick of stressful situations until he’s gotten his feet under him. When that happens however, it’s of this writer’s mind that Sanchez take on the closer’s role, sending the current closer, Roberto Osuna, to the ace-reliever spot to be employed in the highest leverage situation in a given game.
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To date, Osuna has been the best pitcher in the Jays’ bullpen. In 40 appearances, pitching 42.0 innings, Osuna holds a 2.14 ERA with a reassuring 2.18 FIP backed by a 10.29 K/9 ratio. He’s been worth 1.2 WAR putting him in a tie for second on the Jays’ pitching staff (behind Mark Buerhle, tied with Marco Estrada) which is remarkable as a reliever to put it lightly. That’s also the 9th best WAR across the majors for relievers. Yeah, he’s been good.
To give you some perspective, Sanchez’s WAR last season in his 33 innings as a reliever was only 0.5. It’s hard to imagine him topping Osuna’s value in a mere 10 more innings pitched.
The main reason that Sanchez should be the closer however isn’t that he’s an inferior pitcher but rather that, when the game is at it’s highest leverage–typically not a save situation– Osuna has demonstrated superior control with exceptional strikeout ability. Sanchez on the other hand has not.
This season Osuna has demonstrated exceptional command with his arsenal demonstrated by his 2.14 BB/9 ratio. In comparison, Sanchez maintained a slightly higher walk ratio as a reliever last season at 2.45 but had that balloon to 5.05 this season as a starter. It’s possible that Sanchez could see that return to his reliever rate but that’s no guarantee given the way he’s pitched thus far in the season and in his brief rehab stint at Triple-A Buffalo.
If Sanchez is given the reins as the closer, he’s typically going to be given the opportunity to start the inning fresh, with no one on base and alas provided the chance to surrender a walk or two without forfeiting the game. It’s also fortuitous that Sanchez is a ground ball pitcher with a heavy sinker, built to induce double plays.
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More than that, Osuna has been a slightly more polished pitcher in higher leverage situations. His gmLI (metric measuring the average leverage situation when entering the game) of 1.48 is slightly higher than Sanchez’s 1.31 manifesting that Osuna has been tested more often when entering the game as a reliever. His slash line (.256/.300/.472) in high leverage situations is slightly similar to Sanchez’s (.250/.316/.278) outside of a higher slugging percentage that unfortunately could burn Osuna at the least opportune of moments.
The Jays desperately need a stopper to high leverage situations occurring in the 6th to 9th innings. Of the Jays 15 blown saves this season, nine have occurred in the sixth or seventh innings and 12 have come when the reliever was brought in with only a one run lead (almost surely a high leverage situation).
Whether it be Osuna, Sanchez or even newcomer Bo Schultz, the Jays need to address the innings building up to the ninth inning to give the closer a chance to do his job. To put it in perspective, the Jays have only blown two saves when leading in the ninth inning or later, exhibiting confidence if the relief core can merely get them there.
The dominant trio should provide the Jays with a number of options in high leverage situations with colleagues Steve Delabar, Liam Hendriks, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil well able to clean up in low and medium leverage situations.
Let’s hope Gibbons and company implement this strategy properly to make what was the Jays’ biggest weakness into one of their assets during the 2015 pennant race.