Blue Jays Dilemma: Does Aaron Sanchez Start, or Relieve?


The Blue Jays Need to Decide Whether Aaron Sanchez Should Start or Relieve in 2016

There’s an Alex Anthopoulos quote about Aaron Sanchez that rings in my ears to this day. He was quoting what the late Mel Queen told him about Sanchez after he first saw him pitch, stating:

“For his age, better than Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay at the same age.”

It’s one of the reasons they decided to hang onto Sanchez and dealt other prospects instead. They truly believed they had the best of the bunch still on the roster.

Spencer Redmond recently wrote about Aaron Sanchez and his 2015 year-in-review. One of the points that he brought forward, and rightfully so, is the issue of control. That’s the main reason we didn’t see Sanchez in the rotation for the duration of the 2015 season. He continues to struggle with control, and he’s done so since he was drafted by the Blue Jays as compensation for losing Marco Scutaro. Even his draft profile from 2010 mentioned his lack of control,

"“With command issues the biggest problem, he’s not very polished, but there’s bound to be a team that sees the size and arm strength and be willing to take a chance.”"

The Blue Jays were that team and I doubt they regret it. The problem is that from the time they started to have him pitch, they used him in a way that left both options open to interpretation. Sanchez began his pitching career splitting starts with other starters, including fellow MLB pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino. To say that Sanchez was treated with kitten gloves is a massive understatement, as he didn’t throw more than 100 innings in a season until his 5th season in the Jays system.

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Why did it take so long? After all, he did pitch in FULL season Lansing, and in FULL season Dunedin. Why didn’t he pitch more?

That’s the first place I look to when I see Sanchez and his full potential. If he never develops the control we’d all like to see from him there’s one clear place to put the blame: the lack of innings pitched. The Jays never let him loose to provide him the opportunity to find his way while he was in the minors.

Now in the Majors, finding his control is no easy task when he’s facing the best hitters in the world under pressure-packed situations.

Walks, Walks, Walks

While pitching in the minors, Sanchez never was able to achieve better than a 3.8 BB/9 (Bluefield 2011). Aside from that, he hovered between 4.2 BB/9 and 5.1 BB/9 in 2014 at which point he became a reliever for the Jays.

The 5.1 BB/9 was only achieved because he improved that through his 24 relief appearances when he managed a 2.5 BB/9. That total is key because it’s the lowest BB rate he’s achieved overall and was likely a major reason he became a reliever fairly quickly in 2015 when the Jays realized his control had not improved year-to-year.

Another great pitcher has similar issues with control and walks. His name is Carlos Rodon and he walked a whopping 71 batters over his 139.1 innings in 2015, good for a 4.6 BB/9. Is there any talk of making his a reliever in Chicago? Not at all. In fact, they’re just glad that he showed some progress as the season went along. Need another name? Clayton Kershaw‘s a pretty good pitcher, right? Well during his two first seasons in MLB he had 4.3 BB/9 and 4.8 BB/9 respectively. In fact, it got so bad for Kershaw at some point that Jon Heyman stated:

If it can get that bad for a future Cy young winner and ace without his team giving up on him and allowing him to go through the growing pains, I’m 100% certain the same courtesy should be provided to Aaron Sanchez, a pitcher who has a very similar ceiling if he ever puts it all together. The biggest difference, of course, is that Kershaw had already made 21 starts the previous season and was on his way to making 30 that season. Sanchez, meanwhile, has yet to be stretched out at all, something that also needs to be considered if the Jays are going to consider limiting his IP.

Considerations: Time, the Delivery, and the Doc

There are a few things we need to add when considering what to do with Sanchez. First, he’s only 23 years old, already has 65 games and over 125 IP under his belt, and he has playoff experience to go with it. In short, time is on his side, there’s no need to rush to any conclusions in 2016, and he can still be a great starter or reliever in 2016 and then wind up doing the other in 2017. Anything is possible at this point.

Second, Sanchez has one of the smoothest deliveries in Baseball. There’s nothing but silk coming out of his arm and if he could just find a way to lower his walk totals, he’d be much more effective. That likely lowers the risk of injury and allows us to dream about complete game gems that could develop if he were to become a starter long-term.

Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, we need to evaluate his arsenal and consider that at his age, with his ability, he can still learn and improve on all of his pitches. The ceiling hasn’t been reached on any of them. There’s a good reason the Jays sent Roy Halladay back to Dunedin after he had made his debut with the team in 1998 through 2000.

Few remember it but the Jays did have Doc pitching out of the pen for a good portion of 1999 and 2000 because just like Sanchez, he struggled with control. In 1999, his BB rate in MLB was 4.8 BB/9. In 2000 it was worse at 5.6 BB/9. That’s what forced the Jays hand and made them press the reset button, realizing that they may have rushed things with the Doc, not allowing him the time needed to develop all of his pitches.

Where would Doc stand in Jays history if they had kept him on in 2001 as a relieve and never sent him back down to Dunedin? He, just like Sanchez, could definitely handle the closer’s role. Can you imagine how different the team’s history would have been?

Just for good measure, Doc was 24 years old when they sent him down while Sanchez just turned 23. This isn’t to say that if the Jays decide to have Sanchez start he’ll become the next Doc Halladay, that’s too steep an expectation for now. But there’s something to be said for giving him the best chance to see if he can do it. If he can, that’s 200 innings of a dominant Sanchez vice 70 to 80 innings.

Velocity and Arsenal

As a RP over 24 games in 2014, Sanchez managed a 1.09 ERA and 0.697 Whip. Those are eye popping stats that gave rise to dreams of him as a closer. In 2015, once the starting issue was resolved, he threw in 30 games as a reliever and saw his ERA jump to 2.36 and Whip to 0.87. Part of the issue can be seen in the change in velocity from 2014 to 2015. While he was able to reach the upper 90s when he had to in 2014, that didn’t seem to be a possibility in 2015.

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The other major difference is that in 2014, he only threw 3 pitches while in 2015 he threw 5 pitches, adding a change up and slider to his arsenal. He didn’t throw them much (18 for the change up and 10 for the slider) but they were options nonetheless.

There’s a chart which examines his performance in 2015, it’s available here, and represents the swings Sanchez induced based on location. You can see that his best swing inducing area is in the low corner of the plate. Simultaneously, hitters have a hard time making contact with pitches in the same area, chart available here. That, incidentally, was the area Roy Halladay loved to hammer so successfully.

With that in mind, listen to Sanchez speak about the pitch he added to his arsenal before the 2015 season, which was the cutter with depth and minimal lateral movement. There’s no doubt that just from listening to him speak about what the coaches were telling him, they all knew that if Sanchez is going to be a starter, he needs more tools in his shed. The thing that they forgot was that he also needed the time in the minors to develop the new pitches and shouldn’t have been thrown into the fire ill equipped to have success from the beginning.

WAR, What is it good for? Wins, actually

Here’s why I believe Sanchez should get a fair shot at becoming a starter. If we look at the reliever WAR rankings from the last 2 seasons (courtesy of Fangraphs), we can see that Dellin Betances and Wade Davis were tops in 2014 at 3.1 and 3.0 respectively, while Betances beat that with 5.6 in 2015 and Aroldis Chapman managed a 5.2. In 2015, there were more than 35 pitchers who had WAR ratings equal to or above Betances and in 2014 there were 27 who had a better rating than 3.1.

Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The value in terms of wins above replacement for quality SP is simply greater than the value of a pitcher who dominates as a reliever. The reason is simple, they just don’t have as many chances to impact the games as starters do. A reliever has to come out 7 times to impact the game as much as a SP would in one 7 inning start. When you consider that over a season, it would only be even if starters had 10 or 11 starts on the season.

Overall, I know WAR isn’t the only thing to consider when we look at the overall value of a pitcher or player, but it does go a long way to pointing out their strengths and value to the team. It’s a great stat if you take it as a broad measure of what a player or pitcher provided his team. And many people will argue that if you have a ton of players adding above-average WAR to your team’s totals, you’re going to build a strong team.

Options for Sanchez and the Blue Jays

The way we can look at the situation Sanchez and the Blue Jays find themselves in includes evaluating the following options:

1.Decide that Sanchez is a reliever and develop him into a dominant setup reliever and/or closer.

  • Pros: Sanchez can be a reliever for 20 more years if he wants and provide the Jays with a steady force in the pen so long as he pitches for them. He’s more likely to remain healthy, possibly avoiding surgery for the duration of his career.
  • Cons: He has a limited impact on the outcome of games and may be bypassing his future as a starter which could be much brighter. The amount of money he’d be looking at as a reliever would also pale to what he could earn if he became a middle-of-the-pack starter.

2. Keep Sanchez with the Jays as a 4th or 5th starter and hope he improves enough to begin showing consistent results in 2016.

  • Pros: This option keeps Sanchez with the team and provides the Jays with his live arm right away. If they can’t sign or trade for another starter, he may be the best option they have going forward.
  • Cons: If he fails and can’t find his control against stiff competition, it leaves the Jays with 2 options: decide that he’s still a starter and send him down to AAA or AA to iron things out, or send him to the pen – again – to return to his setup role and hope for the best.

3 – Have Sanchez begin the season as a starter in Buffalo or New Hampshire in order to increase his confidence and to allow him to sharpen all of his pitches. He’s go the options remaining, and once he’s ready, the Jays can make the changes needed to get him into the rotation, although more often than not, something happens that magically opens up a spot at some point early on in the season.

  • Pros: He can hammer things out as a starter without facing the best competition and can tweak his approach as required. This version won’t impact the chances of the Jays making the playoffs and it can actually enhance it as he arrives in Toronto ready to start winning games. Also, he can get stretched out and come into MLB ready to last 6-7 innings.
  • Cons: If it doesn’t work out in Buffalo, he may still get promoted but with the knowledge that he failed as a starter and is forced to return to the pen. Also, he’s throwing innings in the minors instead of MLB, which does hurt the big club. However, if the Jays know this in advance, they can plan around it. Now’s the time for that!

What Sanchez Wants

Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody but Aaron Sanchez himself knows what he’d like to do most, start or relieve. But from the very time he became a Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, he’s done whatever the team needed and never once spoke ill about the way he was developed as a pitcher. Whether it was splitting games, relieving, or starting, he did as he was asked and performed as best he could.

The Jays should sit down with Sanchez as some point and go through the options he has with him. Together, they can decide what’s best for him and what he wants most. If he’s willing to put in the work and develop himself as a starter, make the investment in the form of time, whether it includes some time in the minors or not. Go into it knowing there will be bumps along the road, but that the rewards vastly outweigh the risks.

After all, if he can ever come close to matching the totals Roy Halladay put up, we’re all going to benefit in watching him dominate hitters for years to come. He did show us 2 glimpses of what he’s capable of in 2015.

  • May 8th vs Red Sox: 7 IP / 2 H / 5 BB / 3 SO / 13 GB / 6 Fly Balls / 71 GSc / 0.287 WPA
  • Jun 5th vs Astros: 8 IP / 6 H / 0 BB / 3 SO / 15 GB / 10 Fly balls / 67 GSc / 0.197 WPA

After the May 8th start, John Gibbons stated “That’s what he’s capable of,” and I thought he was on his way to being a starter for good. Those are two impressive starts against 2 great hitting teams. It’s also funny how quickly people forget that he went at least 6 innings in 5 of his last 6 starts in 2015. Over that span, he went from walking 5, to walking 4, then 3 or fewer in each of his last 4 starts. If that doesn’t sell you on his potential, I don’t know what will.

The highlights of the Jun 5th start, possibly his best yet, are available here.

Final Thoughts

The Blue Jays dilemma about whether Aaron Sanchez starts or relieves is nothing new. they’ve both gone through this before the 2015 season. They made the right decision then, they just didn’t commit to it as they should have and the lack of investment in the bullpen – one of the team’s biggest mistakes in 2015 – forced their hand into moving Sanchez to the pen.

Next: Blue Jays Need Full Commitment to Aaron Sanchez Decision

For once, I’d like to see the Jays make the innings investment they need to make to get Sanchez comfortable with as many of his pitches as possible, including the cutter he recently introduced and perhaps most importantly, his change up. With his skill set, there reason to believe he could become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. That in itself should be enticing enough to have him and the Blue Jays give it a shot in 2016.

Aaron Sanchez should be a starter in 2016. He’s worth the investment in that form because the ceiling is much higher than what he’s shown us so far.

Caveat: Our staff at Jays Journal is split on what he should do, start or relieve, and it seems the Jays may be feeling the same way. The one thing we all agreed on is that the Jays need to decide what course they will take with him and commit to it. Anything less who be selling both sides short, and may result in the loss of a Roy Halladay type of career, or worse if it results in a long-term injury.