The Toronto Blue Jays have every reason to expect big things from 2010 first-round pick Aaron Sanchez. He has the stuff to succeed against big-league hitters and a strong track record in the minors. Baseball America recently ranked him 32nd among all MLB prospects.
So far the Blue Jays have been relatively cautious with the 21-year-old. He pitched at Class A Dunedin in 2013 before competing in the Arizona Fall League. He’s expected to get his first chance against hitters in the upper minors within weeks.
But Buck Martinez says Sanchez is already good enough to be Blue Jays’ fourth starter. The Sportsnet play-by-play announcer has experience catching and managing countless big league pitchers, so he generated some healthy discussion Monday when he made the case for breaking camp with Sanchez. While it’s a longshot, Sanchez has been sharp this spring, avoiding the ugly outings that plagued Ricky Romero and Marcus Stroman Tuesday.
Few pitchers jump from the lower minors to the big leagues and stay there. It’s only about once per year that a 20 or 21-year-old pitcher with fewer than 10 outings in the upper minors (double-A or triple-A) gets promoted to the MLB level and lasts long enough to make ten starts.
It has happened 11 times since 2000. Here’s a look at how those pitchers fared as rookies:
Some of the pitchers enjoyed immediate success. Inexperienced or not, Dontrelle Willis and Jose Fernandez were named Rookie of the Year. Rick Porcello, Brett Anderson and Mark Prior were all excellent in their own right. Drew Hutchison showed promise when he debuted for Toronto in 2012.
Others faltered. Jeremy Bonderman lost 19 games while posting a 5.56 ERA. Miguel Asencio wasn't particularly effective, either.
Overall the group fared well as rookies, posting a 4.01 ERA during a 15-year period where the league ERA has been 4.30. They were tough to hit, with less than one base hit allowed per inning, which makes sense considering that these pitchers generally got promoted because of their electric stuff rather than their experience.
The group that reached MLB with zero experience in the upper minors (Fernandez, Porcello, Bonderman, Asencio) fared a little worse than those who had a handful of starts at double-A or triple-A, posting a higher ERA (4.11), and allowing more baserunners per inning (1.35 WHIP) while generating fewer strikeouts (6.3 K/9).
Despite their success as rookies, many of those 11 starters had trouble later in their careers. The five pitchers who debuted in 2002-03 were unable to sustain their early-career success due to injuries and dropoffs in performance. Willis, Prior, Perez and Asencio never started games after turning 30, while Bonderman started just seven games after age 30.
MLB franchises and colleges have treated young pitchers more cautiously in recent years, so many of the active starters on this list have promising careers ahead (Hutchison and Anderson are veterans of Tommy John surgery, however).
A cautious enough approach could allow Sanchez to make an impact at the MLB level in 2014 and beyond. It worked for Porcello and Fernandez. But it’d be a lot to ask of Sanchez, as Adam Lind recently pointed out to the Toronto Sun’s Bob Elliott. “He’s two years away from being in the rotation here,” Lind told the Sun, pointing to Sanchez’s modest 2013 innings total.
By all accounts it’s likely to be a moot point. Hutchison and J.A. Happ seem likely to round out the rotation when they break camp later this month, and Sanchez will get his chance in the upper minors of the Blue Jays' system despite the recommendation of their former manager.
It's easy to see why Sanchez's talent tempts Martinez and others around the club. Yet Toronto's caution is ultimately justified given how quickly some of the pitchers on this list flamed out.
Graphic by David Chau.