Blue Jays need to be watching, and maybe even learning

TORONTO, ONTARIO - JULY 28: Aaron Sanchez #41 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on July 28, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ONTARIO - JULY 28: Aaron Sanchez #41 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on July 28, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) /

It will be interesting to see if Aaron Sanchez can find his All-Star form again in Houston, especially after adjustments he made in his first start as an Astro.

As much as it made me shake my head to see Aaron Sanchez throw six no-hit innings in his Houston Astro debut, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

There’s no disputing that Sanchez has had another difficult season, as he left the Blue Jays with a 3-14 record and a 6.07 ERA. However, most of us know that he’s capable of much more, and he’d shown some positive signs in his last two starts as a Blue Jay as well. Add in the excitement of a debut for a new team, and one that should compete for a World Series title, and the amped-up Californian made a pretty incredible first impression.

While one start really shouldn’t be cause for too much frustration (can’t we also be happy for the guy?), it was interesting to see how Sanchez got the job done, and how it differed from the way he approached things prior to the trade. He was working with a new catcher, a new coaching staff, and with a different defence playing behind him, but it was the choice of weapons that will be of particular interest to me for the rest of this season, as well as his health and performance.

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The Astros are well known for tinkering with pitchers after they’ve been acquired, and usually it ends well for everyone involved except the team that traded them. Justin Verlander had a career renaissance after coming to Houston, and Gerrit Cole has emerged as a legitimate ace. The Astros are likely hoping to have similar success with Sanchez, who lead the American League in ERA as recently as 2016, but unfortunately has battled injuries and inconsistency since.

Their solution was pretty obvious in his first appearance, as he threw 34.7% of his pitches as fastballs, compared to just 21.3% when he was in Toronto. He cut down significantly on his sinker, going from 37% to 17.9% usage, and ramped up his curveball 22.1% to 24.8%. He also threw the ball up in the zone a lot more with his fastball, all of which are common strategies that the Astros have used to help their pitchers in the past. It’s all summarized nicely in this article from Mike Axisa of if you care to have a look for yourself. Also, a hat tip to former Jays Journal writer Richer Birfer, who basically predicted that Sanchez would use this exact approach after being traded to Houston.

The Astros have literally become known for this in recent years, so it’s surprising to me that we don’t hear more about how they milk the most talent out of their arms. Maybe rival MLB offices have been studying them closely, but for the Blue Jays this could be an important lesson. I’ve already griped about the 3-1 trade enough, but it’s only going to get worse if the Astros can turn Sanchez back into a near-elite starter again.

What’s done is already done, but what the Blue Jays do need to pay attention to is whether the Astros’ tweaks for Sanchez help him in the long run. There’s no doubt that some of Sanchez’s approach was catered toward keeping him healthy after his fingernail/blister/tendon issues two more than two seasons, and that will be a key factor in whether Houston can get the most out of him too. We’ll see if increasing his curveball usage, for example, will result in more blister issues for the right-hander.

Next. Looking at the catching ranks throughout the system. dark

For the Blue Jays’ front office, it’ll be an opportunity to study how another organization handles the once-elite arm, and if their different approach ends up working, they maybe it presents a need for a change of thinking somewhere along the way. Or, maybe the Astros’ fan base is about to get a first-hand window into why Sanchez is so frustrating. The talent is definitely there, and even in another uniform, I’ll be rooting for him to succeed. I just hope that if he does, the Blue Jays are watching and taking some notes.