Blue Jays: How high is Aaron Sanchez’s ceiling?

May 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) watches play against the New York Yankees wearing a military camouflage cap as part of Memorial Day observations at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
May 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) watches play against the New York Yankees wearing a military camouflage cap as part of Memorial Day observations at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

Aaron Sanchez put together a fantastic 2016 campaign, but if he can make some key adjustments, how much better can he be?

The development of Aaron Sanchez before the 2016 season was, to say the least, a little bit bizarre. The bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation isn’t a prototypical way to develop a young starter, especially one who had control issues and relied so heavily on two pitches.

Even as recent as Spring Training last year, one the biggest talking points in Dunedin was the fact that there was serious consideration to have Sanchez back in the bullpen to start the year. It’s truly hard to believe that was the case after seeing what he did during the regular season.

This is old-news, but the fact that he didn’t have a “prototypical” development path could have something to do with his repertoire, that in my opinion, has yet to develop into what you would like to see from a top-of-the-line major league starting pitcher.

His arm speed creates elite velocity and movement on both the sinker and four-seam fastball. The four-seamer has become a more important aspect of his repertoire, as it’s become a weapon up in the zone to garner swings and misses. But, it’s not important to delve too far into those offerings, they speak for themselves.

The curveball is an absolute hammer, and it’s effectiveness is nearly equal to both lefties and righties. No issue to speak of there.

What had me originally thinking about Sanchez’s repertoire, and subsequently his ceiling, was a tweet from Rob Friedman that showed a three pitch sequence that embarrassed a left-handed hitter.

That’s nasty. That changeup will get a ton of whiffs if he can sequence it well, and keep it down in the zone. However, that changeup wasn’t in Sanchez’s arsenal every single start. Every single pitcher won’t have his best stuff every time out, but if Sanchez can gain a larger control over the pitch, and lessen the margin of error he has with it much like he’s done with his sinker and curveball, then the sky’s the limit for the young right-hander.

In terms of usage, the chart from Brooks Baseball below shows that Sanchez wasn’t consistently comfortable with throwing the changeup on a month-to-month basis. The difference isn’t major, but it still hints at a pitcher that hasn’t found 100% confidence with a particular pitch.

In terms of effectiveness, I’ve used whiff percentage to look at how effective the pitch is from month-to-month. Of course, how many whiffs a pitcher gets with a certain pitch isn’t the only way to determine it’s overall effectiveness, but it gives you a good idea of both the location and movement of the pitch based on how hitters are reacting.

As you can see in the chart, Sanchez had two different stretches when he had a whiff percentage north of 14%, which is excellent to see. If his season long whiff percentage were 14% in 2017, you’d have to be very impressed (2016 season long whiff rate was 10%). On the opposite side, the 14+ months were the ones that dipped below 10%, once again highlighting the inconsistency that he has with the pitch.

Like I said earlier, every player is going to have ups and down, it’s an inherent part of the game. However, the best players in the game are constantly making adjustments to make those stretches of poor performance as small as possible. A part of Sanchez’s game that could use an aforementioned adjustment would be his changeup.

This gets back to the original question: what is Sanchez’s ultimate ceiling?

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The way I look at it, he put up a 3.00 ERA through 192 IP, with a 3.55 FIP and 3.9 fWAR in 2016. I believe he did that with a repertoire that can be vastly improved with a changeup that Sanchez has a greater degree of control over. Not only will the changeup continue to get more whiffs as it’s thrown with more consistency, but it will also make his other pitchers better. It would have a positive effect throughout the rest of his repertoire.

Due to his elite sinker-curve combination, and ability to get ground balls and keep the ball in the park, I see Sanchez as a pitcher with a fairly high floor. Barring any Romero-esque collapses, I think it’s fairly safe to say that his 2016 FIP of 3.55 is a realistic baseline for his ERA in 2017.

If he were to develop the change-up to the point where it becomes a viable, consistent third weapon, then you’ll see the effectiveness of his fastball also increase. I’m confident in saying that if that’s the case, his K/9 would have the chance to get at or near 9.00. With a K/9 bump like that, you could very well see him shave off half a run off both his ERA and FIP. That puts him among the league’s elite. 

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Sanchez made great strides with the changeup in 2016, especially considering he barely threw it at all while he was working out of the bullpen. To think he could further improve the pitch in 2017 isn’t a large stretch of the imagination. If he can do that, chalk him up as a yearly Cy Young candidate. 

Perhaps that’s putting too high of expectations on the kid, but he is legitimately unique and has the ability to do so. The reports about his work ethic and makeup are only good, and we saw what kind of competitor he is.

Another part of his repertoire that would undoubtedly push him into the league’s elite, but is more likely to be a project for further down his career, would be the cutter/slider that he toyed with from time-to-time. This was something he brought into his game back in Spring Training in 2015, and according to Brooks Baseball, he mixed it in 3.11% of the time in the 2015 season. Obviously not a large number, and he abandoned it in 2016, but he’s shown a penchant for attempting to throw it in the past, and if he were to ever attempt it again, it could make him nearly unhittable.

If he were to pair his 95+ mph sinker with a pitch at 92+ moving towards a left-handed hitter’s hands, he would be an absolute nightmare to hit. This is looking much further down the line, and it’s probably not likely to happen in 2017, but man, it’s fun to think about his ability to attack hitters if he added a cutter.

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The bottom line is that Sanchez has already vaulted himself into the game’s upper echelon of starting pitchers, and he’s yet to make big adjustments that could push him even further. Once he does, look out.