Blue Jays Series Preview: Can Jays continue run of success against AL East?

May 28, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) runs onto the field to celebrate after the Jays Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
May 28, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) runs onto the field to celebrate after the Jays Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /
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Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports /

Game 3: June 1 – 7:07 ET

Masahiro Tanaka (3-0, 2.89 ERA, 3.22 FIP) vs.
Aaron Sanchez (4-1, 3.29 ERA, 3.24 FIP)

Sanchez’s latest start was an excellent example of a young starter maturing and growing as a major leaguer. He didn’t have his best command, his changeup wasn’t there, making him a two-pitch pitcher, but he managed to escape jams and grind through 6.2 innings against the best lineup in the league.

His line of 6.2 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 6 K might not look like one of his better starts of the year, but against a lineup that has been the best in the league by a wide margin, you’ll take that every single time.

It’s not that his command was poor, not by any means, but he didn’t seem to be locating within the zone like he has in other starts this year. He was able to get away with it because his stuff is so good, and in particular, his curveball was ridiculous. That’s probably the best curve we’ve seen from Sanchez all year.

He heavily relied on it, throwing it 28 times in the start, which was a season high, and he got 7 whiffs, also a season high. He used it with two strikes to get strikeouts, and he used it early in the count to keep hitters off the sinker. He was basically a two-pitch pitcher in this one, but since his stuff is so dynamite, he was able to generate weak contact, get the ball on the ground, get swing and misses, and avoid the home run ball.

His current fWAR sits at 1.4, which is a testament to how he’s performed and how important he’s been for the Jays. That 1.4 mark is tied for 20th in all of the baseball, out of 103 qualified starters. His strong 3.29 ERA is supported by a good FIP of 3.24, very good peripherals and encouraging batted ball data.

He’s made big strides with regards to his walk rate, as it sits at 3.15, nearly two walks better than the 5.05 mark he posted last year as a starter. His K/9 has also improved from 5.73 to 7.95, and I think there’s room to grow in that regard. His 59.7 GB% is excellent, third in the entire league, only behind Marcus Stroman and Jaime Garcia, and his 18.8 FB% is the lowest of all qualified starters.

He was skipped over in his last start in an effort to give him some more rest between starts, but I think it was fairly obvious that the Jays brass was avoiding him against the lefty heavy Yankee lineup. Despite that decision, If he continues to keep the ball down and mix in off-speed pitches enough, he shouldn’t have any trouble with the Yankees lineup that has struggled to score runs.

Next: Blue Jays Minor League Standouts from last week

Tanaka enters this game on quite a roll himself. His last two starts have stretched over 14 IP, and he’s only allowed 1 ER while walking 2 and striking out 8. After his elbow injury, he’s become more of a command expert than a guy who can strike out the whole lineup.

His command is excellent, as his 1.65 BB/9 sits 10th in all of baseball. He uses an array of pitches in any situation or count, and he turns to his splitter in two strike counts. What he’s done since joining the Yankees in 2014, is that he’s been able to get the ball on ground with more frequency and control contact as opposed to blowing away hitters with his premium stuff.

The Jays hitters will have to attack his fastball when he throws in the middle third of the plate. His cutter, splitter, and slider are all getting whiff rates around 20%, which gives him plenty of options to keep hitters off balance and get ahead in counts. It’s easy to say they should attack fastballs in the zone, but it’s especially important against a pitcher who nibbles on the edge of the zone with a multitude of pitches.