Let’s Be Reasonable: Aaron Sanchez Is A Reliever

Aaron Sanchez
Photo Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

What is Aaron Sanchez? Is he a reliever, or a starter? This is the only real unanswered question for the Blue Jays this spring. Where does the hard-throwing right-hander fit?

The Blue Jays front office are doing their best to keep their rotation plans under wraps. Those eager to parse Mark Shapiro’s words find ample proof — the Jays president citing Sanchez’s “unknowns” — to suggest the new front office is leaning towards using Gavin Floyd as the fifth starter, with Sanchez relegated to the bullpen.  

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One thing we do know: Aaron Sanchez has great stuff but iffy command, a problem is that isn’t uncommon and isn’t unique to Sanchez. What is unique to Sanchez is arsenal. His unusual repertoire, along with his lackluster strikeout totals, makes him so tough to predict. It could also be the single biggest barrier to him becoming a successful starter.

Drafted by the previous regime, Shapiro, Atkins, et al are able to look at Sanchez with fresh eyes. If they see breaking balls and offspeed pitches unlikely to become consistently effective weapons, that means when they look at him, they see a reliever.

This spring, much as been made of Sanchez’s attempted mastery of both his curve and the change up, with some cutters thrown in for good measure. The Grapefruit League results are good but what if the brain trust is doing more than just looking at his stat line?

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At some point, there needs to be a conversation about Sanchez’s ability — or lack thereof — to utilize those secondary offerings. There needs to be consideration given to the idea that he won’t develop not one but the two additional pitches required to take a regular turn in the rotation. Maybe wasting his bullets in minor league starts won’t accomplish much of anything, given his long history of professional instruction. What else do we expect him to learn?

We know Sanchez has been a professional baseball player for going on seven years now. We know that, despite making 97 starts between the minors, Arizona fall league, and the big leagues, he is basically a one-pitch pitcher.

To compliment his bowling ball sinker, an upper 90s two-seamer that induces copious ground balls and coaxes weak contact, Sanchez goes to the curveball as his favored breaking ball. Sinker/slider is a familiar profile, but sinker/curve? Much less common.

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There are plenty of hard-throwing starters with extreme ground ball tendencies (like former Blue Jay Henderson Alvarez, Brewers starter Wily Peralta, or former Cleveland stud and currently unemployed guy Justin Masterson), but finding a right-handed guy who can make sinker/curve work is quite tough.

Former Orioles closer Jim Johnson is one such pitcher – he got by on ground balls and home run suppression for a while. And then he didn’t. Ex-Pirates starter and aspirated Roy Halladay clone Charlie Morton boasts a similar arsenal. He’s shown flashes of competence at times but spent the last five seasons tinkering with other pitches (a cutter, change, and eventually re-introducing his four-seamer) in pursuit of consistent results.

The list goes on, and it features mostly relievers. Adding to Sanchez’s problematic pitch profile are his troubling bouts with wildness. Yesterday on Blue Jays Nation, John Lott discussed pitchers who fizzled out after bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen. Many of those hurlers have something in common, beyond mistreatment at the hands of management: they never found reliable third pitches and struggled to throw strikes. Which sounds very familiar…

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“Will Sanchez start?” is the only interesting spring question due to its perceived possible outcomes. While the arguments against placing him the rotation revolve around innings pitched and workloads, the reality for Aaron Sanchez might well be that his skills, while considerable, make him a reliever in the end.

Unless you think a guy with huge platoon splits and an on-again, off-again relationship with the strike zone can make it as a one-pitch starter, it’s time to embrace the idea of him in the bullpen. Without reliable secondary pitches, it’s better for him and for the club, both now and in the future. 

  • El Cabeza

    This reminds me of Gregg Zaun bloviating on how Stroman is destined to be a reliever because he’s too short to have the proper plane on his pitches.

    Why not give the kid a shot? He was starting to figure things out as a starter last year before the injury… he worked his ass of all offseason to get bigger and stronger and more durable. He deserves a month or two, so that if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.

    • TheStirredPot

      I agree. Let him start until he proves that he can’t, then put him in the bullpen. It worked fine last year (albeit with different motivations).

      If somebody has to get jerked around by going bullpen-to-starter I would prefer it to be be Floyd.

  • FowlofCanada

    That’s what this year’s SP depth is for: injuries and bouts of throwing crappiness.

    If Aaron can’t make it as a fifth starter, then one of the others will take over. Jays needs to know if he can do it.

  • Philbert

    With some decent options behind him in case he falters, there’s almost no downside to giving him the fifth spot if he earns it the next couple weeks. The upside is huge, regardless of his chances of reaching it.

  • Alan

    What is there behind him? Floyd is having a good spring, but if you are going to throw Sanchez’s spring stats out to look at past performance, than you have to do the same with Floyd. At his best (with the exception of one season), he was a #4, and has thrown just 92 innings over the last 3 seasons. Can he get it done? Maybe. But the same could be said of Sanchez. The thing with going with Sanchez over Floyd is that there exists a MUCH higher ceiling, while the floor for both IMO is about the same. Maybe all Sanchez turns out to be is a very good reliever, but to waste the potential and never give him the chance to be anything better is worse than trying him and failing.

  • TGreg

    He’s 23. There’s plenty of time for him to get better acquainted with the strike zone and work on his secondary pitches. Whether that should be in Toronto or Buffalo is the better question at this point (I was impressed with Floyd in his last outing & am totally okay with Sanchez getting a couple of months in with the Bisons).

  • whoispaul?

    So the million dollar question. What is the cause of his lack of secondary pitches?

    1. Bad coaching/player development?

    2. Lack of skill?

    3. Lack of effort?

  • Barry

    The most telling thing I’ve heard Shapiro say came when he reminded everyone that Sanchez has never thrown more than 130 innings. I think that’s going to be the deciding factor unless Floyd falls apart (literally or figuratively).

    Of course, my magical solution is to put Sanchez in the rotation and skip him once a month to save a whopping 30+ innings, but I have a feeling someone who actually has a clue how to handle pitchers would come along to tell me why my magical solution is stupid.

    • Farty McGee

      I’m not sure I buy the 130 pitch argument though… I mean, yes, it is a valid point, but is Floyd really that much of a better option? Dude hasn’t pitched 130+ innings in 3 years and has metal strewn about his pitching arm. I dunno, I think it makes sense to give the young guy a shot to start, he was looking good last year before his injury. I wouldn’t skip him either unless he starts to show wear. Also, I don’t have a clue either, so there’s two of us.

  • Blue Jay Rasmus

    Doug Fister throws 70% 2 seamers/curveballs from the right side, according to the baseball savant list. While that collection of comparable starters is more discouraging than encouraging, it shouldn’t be cause for despair. Especially not with the changeup coming along. Sanchez would only use that pitch against lefties, only the second time through the order (and third time if he is allowed to face a good left a third time …), so he probably only needs to toss four or five a game.

    I will also blindly speculate that Estrada is helping him with that pitch, the way that Shaun Marcum helped the rest of the staff a few years ago (while also force-funneling Canadian Club down the throats of all in his vicinity, or so we are to believe).

    Also, let’s be even more reasonable: he is a starter, or he is mediocre. He pitches to contact and relies on his defense. That’s a middling, not elite, reliever. Relievers need to strike people out. Plus, he would need secondary pitches against lefties out of the pen just as much as he would as a starter (unless you want him to become a ROOGY).

  • JustinTet

    “We know Sanchez has been a professional baseball player for going on seven years now.”

    He’s 23 years old. That math can’t be right.

    Basically your argument boils down to: Sanchez might fail so the Jays shouldn’t even try.

    EDIT: His pro debut was July 16, 2010.

    • Blue Jay Rasmus

      Well, the argument is much more specific. Anyone might fail. But is it unlikely that a pitcher will be able to add two new pitches to his arsenal in one offseason – especially when those pitches will need to be a fundamental part of the pitcher’s arsenal? Yes. That is unlikely.

      That argument is certainly “reasonable”. It’s also not unreasonable to argue that the deuce isn’t a new pitch, just one that he didn’t need for most of last year, and that the changeup is allowed to be his weakest offering and operate more as a show-me pitch than as an out pitch. In other words, what Sanchez is trying to do can be done.

        • Blue Jay Rasmus

          He has said it’s not effective early in counts yet, so my assumption is that he still isn’t commanding it like he wants (players have to fish for it later in counts, but early in the count, when they are taking the hook all the way, he is sometimes just wasting balls). I don’t know, though – didn’t watch his last start. I’ve reasoned my way to this conclusion based on basically one quotation from Sanchez.