Handling Aaron Sanchez in September: Two paths, one goal

Aaron Sanchez is set to rejoin the Toronto Blue Jays on August 31st in Baltimore, and with him, he’ll be bringing back the workload debate.

The 24-year-old has already comfortably surpassed his previous career high and now sits at 156.1 innings pitched. With a 2.99 ERA, a 12-2 record, and an All-Star appearance under his belt, Sanchez is on the fringes of the American League Cy Young conversation.

His recent demotion to Dunedin was made — and logically so — in an effort to manage his workload and give the Blue Jays the most roster flexibility possible with Sanchez already scheduled to skip his following start. Beginning on August 31st, that effort doesn’t just end.

Creativity could be king when it comes to Sanchez in September, from shorter outings to rotation juggling, but his specific return date presents the Blue Jays with two more straightforward options should they so choose.

By the numbers

Total IP:  156.1
Average IP:  ~6.2 per start

— 4 days rest:  11GS, 3.04 ERA     AVG: .245     OPS: .668
— 5 days rest:  5GS, 3.63 ERA        AVG: .210     OPS: .573
— 6 days rest:  8GS, 2.49 ERA        AVG: .222     OPS: .608

These sample sizes are not large enough to draw hard truths or career trends from by any means. They do, however, suggest that the time between Sanchez’s starts has not significantly improved or devalued his performances.

Path One:  Six-pitcher rotation

Expanded rosters will allow Toronto to carry on with the six-pitcher rotation if they deem that to be valuable, and Sanchez would be a primary benefactor.

The Blue Jays also have the advantage of three off days in September — three of the first four Thursdays — so even if Toronto chooses to scale back to a five-pitcher rotation, some tinkering could keep Sanchez on a “six-pitcher schedule” regardless of who works around him. In doing so, Sanchez would line up with the following starts:  (Blue = Home        Black = Road)

Wednesday, August 31st (BAL) — Wednesday, September 7th (NYY) — Wednesday, September 14th  (TBR)– Tuesday, September 20th (SEA) — Tuesday, September 27th (BAL) 

If Sanchez were to pitch near his average of 6.2 innings per start in these five outings, his regular season total would land at 189.2.

Path Two:  Five-pitcher rotation

Should the Blue Jays decide to shrink their starting rotation to five and keep Sanchez on that regular schedule, they will effectively be adding one start to his regular season.

Sanchez’s handling over the past two weeks signals that the Blue Jays fully intend to push him as far as possible in the starting rotation, and hopefully into playoff games. Given that R.A. Dickey‘s knuckleball does not align well with coming out of the bullpen, this could push Francisco Liriano back into a bullpen role.

That’s not a bad thing, either. Liriano does possess the fastball-slider combination, and simply the raw “stuff”, to succeed in short bursts. Being a left-hander has some obvious appeal, too, because beyond the struggling Brett Cecil, Toronto is very thin in that area.

Returning to Sanchez: This path may not be ideal if Toronto’s schedule were thick, but those built-in off days could allow for it to work while still keeping his arm relatively fresh. Making six starts instead of five, his schedule would line up as such:

Wednesday, August 31st (BAL) — Tuesday, September 6th (NYY) — Monday, September 12th (TBR) — Saturday, September 17th (LAA) — Friday, September 23rd (SEA)Wednesday, September 28th (BAL) 

In adding this one extra start, which would come against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Sanchez’s regular season innings total could climb to 196.1. Again, that’s working with his average length of start — 6.2 innings — as an educated projection.

Where do these paths meet?

At the end of Path One and Path Two is October 3rd, which under both approaches would be Sanchez’s next scheduled start.

With Toronto’s final game of the season on the afternoon of October 2nd in Boston, this means that Sanchez would be lined up to start a Wild Card play-in or game one of the American League Division series on October 6th. Sanchez’s eight starts on six or more days of rest this season have shown he’s capable of doing that without “rust” factoring in as heavily as some expected.

Between August 31st and that first playoff game, these two paths differ just by one outing and six to seven innings before ending in the exact same place. Therein lies the decision for the Toronto Blue Jays.