Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Sanchez might be turning the corner

Don’t feel bad if you missed it, but Aaron Sanchez struck out 11 batters in his last outing this past Sunday. Yes, 11. It was the second-most strikeouts in a single start in his entire career. Due to the lack of fanfare, Sanchez’ 11-K effort might’ve been the least-publicized high strikeout game in recent memory.

It’s been nearly two years since a Blue Jays starter struck out 11 or more batters in a game (Marco Estrada was the last to do it on May 21st, 2017). For Sanchez to suddenly strike out 11 batters in a single game is surprising, but then again, it’s not all that unsurprising. After all, this is a pitcher who’s always possessed swing-and-miss stuff.

On Sunday against the White Sox, Sanchez tied his career high for the most swings and misses in a game with 18 whiffs. Strikeouts and swinging strikes aside, Sanchez was knocked around the White Sox. But that sudden uptick in strikeouts got me wondering … has Sanchez finally figured it out? Or is he on the right path, at least?

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Sanchez is nearly three seasons removed from his breakout 2016 campaign and the Blue Jays have been waiting patiently for him to return to his 2016-self again. The latest iteration of Sanchez is a little different than the 2016 model; his ground ball rate isn’t quite as high this year and he’s allowing more fly balls this season. Sanchez’ swinging strike rate is slightly higher this year (9.9%) than 2016 (8.2%).

The last two starts, his pitch mix has been evenly split between his four-seamer, curveball and changeup. Whereas earlier in the season, he was leaning a little more on his four-seam and two-seam fastball. Nine starts into the 2019 season, Sanchez seems to have found the perfect pitch mix.

4-Seam 2-Seam Curve Change 
First 4 starts 32.6% 30.4% 20.9% 16%
Last 5 starts 30.2% 26% 26% 17.7%

When Sanchez was at his best in 2016, his curveball was a tremendous secondary pitch. It was the perfect counter to his fastball, which was measured as the sixth best fastball in baseball that season according to FanGraphs pitch value metric. This year, Sanchez’ curveball ranks as the 11th best in baseball (Stroman’s ranks fourth, oddly enough).

Sanchez’ velocity has dipped a bit this year and his fastball could use some work, but he’s wisely throwing his curveball more frequently than ever before in his career. To me, this is indicative of two things. One, his finger is strong enough to throw that pitch with regularity. Second, Sanchez trusts that pitch again.

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Similar to Stroman, 2019 feels like a “make or break” year for Sanchez. These two could be among some of the hottest commodities in the trade market this summer, or the Blue Jays could sign one or the other (very likely not both of them) to a contract extension.

Everyone wants to see Sanchez return to his 2016 form again, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. Sanchez is a different pitcher now; he altered his repertoire and is striking out batters with regularity. Does that remind you of any other former Blue Jays pitcher turned starting pitcher?

Nick Ashbourne and Andrew Zuber mentioned this during a Yahoo Sports Canada segment a few weeks ago, but they said Sanchez could become the next Brandon Morrow 2.0. Those high-strikeout games are thoroughly entertaining to watch, but that pushes the pitch count higher and as a result, the innings pitched often suffer.

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Morrow had a very similar career arc to Sanchez. Morrow could put strike out 10-plus batters in a game, but his pitch counts regularly crept into the 100 mark in the fifth or sixth inning. Morrow didn’t pitch to contact … remember in 2011 when he induced one double play the ENTIRE SEASON?

Not to say that Sanchez is destined for the same fate as Morrow, but as the Zubes pointed out, the parallels are interesting. Morrow ultimately went back to the bullpen, became a shutdown reliever for the Dodgers, but he’s been sidelined since last July.

Sanchez’ 11 strikeout outing against the White Sox still has me wondering, though. Was it just an anomaly, or is Sanchez on the cusp of unlocking something special? He’ll face the White Sox again tonight, so the control in this experiment (the opponent) will remain the same.

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It’s going to take more than one game to convince people that Sanchez has the potential to become a top 10 pitcher in the American League again. After losing the last two seasons due to injuries, any contributions from Sanchez thus far have been a bonus for the Blue Jays.

At this point in Sanchez’ career, the Blue Jays would happily take some of that short-lived Morrow magic circa 2011 in the form of Sanchez.

  • Treylum

    It’s this articles fault that Sanchez left today’s game with a blister.

    You don’t mention that a pitcher is throwing a perfect game in the 6th inning. You don’t mention a goalie has a shutout with 10 minutes to go in the third. You don’t mention that Sanchez is doing anything positive until after the season is over.