Blue Jays’ Sanchez looking for change-up to lift him to even greater heights

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez talks about the strength of the Jays' rotation, the relationship he has with Marcus Stroman and the team's World Series aspirations.

•Sanchez feels like he’s just scratching the surface
•The change-up has become a focus this spring
•Blue Jays to build up Sanchez at a slower pace before the season

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Last year’s brilliant breakout wasn’t the peak for Aaron Sanchez, but rather a stop on his way there. Sure, the 192 innings he logged during the regular season are something to be proud of, and the earned-run average title he earned with a tidy mark of 3.00 is an enduring accolade. But blowing through the internal expectations for him and forcibly taking his rightful place in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation only left him more eager for what lies ahead. There’s no lasting satisfaction to be found in 2016.

"I feel like I’m just scratching the surface with what I’m capable to do," Sanchez, sweat still dripping from his brow, said in an interview after his team’s first official workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday. "There’s so much more I can get better at and it’s just about sitting down and being real with yourself, understanding what you’re trying to accomplish, what you need to get better at and that’s how I approach this."

Don’t dismiss his comments as the typical spring training fare. A lat injury suffered in June 2015 impressed upon the 24-year-old how fleeting the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues can be, and ever since then he’s been obsessively dedicated to preparing his body for the rigours of a full season as a starter.

The hard work paid off for him last year, as an off-season of meticulously planned diets and two-a-day workouts helped him bulk up to 225 pounds, allowing him to not only survive a workload jump of 70.2 innings over his previous career high, but thrive.

This past off-season he employed the same regimen, needing to regain some weight after finishing 2016 at 205 pounds. Sanchez is back up to 221 pounds now, in the physical place he needs to be, allowing him, in his words, to be real with himself about how to push his game to the next level.

“I feel like I’m just scratching the surface with what I’m capable to do…There’s so much more I can get better at.”

That introspection has made improving his infrequently used "change-up one of my most emphasized things coming into camp," although he won’t do it at the expense "of being able to spin the ball and being able to elevate and do the things I had success with last year."

How will he balance the two?

No longer in a position where he must make the team, Sanchez won’t need to worry as much about results in his Grapefruit League outings, so he can throw more change-ups without fear of the consequences. The competitive reps with the pitch may help him develop more trust in the offering since he feels "it’s a great pitch, but finding that arm slot, finding that release, finding those little things that are hard to take from the bullpen to the game when there are people in the stands and it matters, that’s the part you have to get past."

The trust aspect was a significant factor for him last year, when he threw it 9.1 per cent of the time, up from five per cent in 2015 when he finished the year as a reliever. That’s a paltry amount when compared to his two- and four-seam fastballs (74.3 per cent) and curveball (16.2 per cent), but more important than the frequency of the pitch’s use is when he uses it.

"It was always hit or miss," said Sanchez. "If it wasn’t a good one, I felt like it stayed flat, 89-91 [mph] right over the plate. In a situation where I felt like that might happen, I may not have went to it. I wouldn’t say I was timid with me trying to go to it, it was more of picking the right spots, knowing if I do get hurt, nothing is going to come of it. This year it’s emphasizing it down in the zone, emphasizing trying to throw it down around the plate."

Late in the season, when Sanchez started seeing American League East rivals for the third, fourth or fifth time, he used the change-up a bit more often his second or third time through the lineup, and was impressed with the results.

"They’re all geared up for heaters so for me to be able to go to that, it played into my hands," he said.

For that reason, pitching coach Pete Walker believes honing the pitch needs to be a point of priority.

"He still has a lot of upside," said Walker. "He’s relatively young, still learning, he’s a workhorse and he’s become a student of the game. If he can develop that changeup to where we think it can become a very effective pitch, it’s going to make him that much tougher."

(Nathan Denette/CP)

(Nathan Denette/CP)

Aaron Sanchez feels like he’s just scratching the surface with what he’s capable of (Nathan Denette/CP)

Also making him tougher was Sanchez’s increased use of elevated four-seamers later in the campaign. As a reliever in 2014 and the latter half of 2015, he lived nearly exclusively on his two-seamer, pounding the pitch down in the zone over and over and over to great effect.

For a while last year, he did the same thing as a starter, but as hitters became more familiar with him and the action on his pitches, he mixed in more curveballs and, eventually, more fastballs up. The results offered an as-it-happens tutorial on the subtleties of pitching.

"I’m sure guys see reports on me saying sinker hard, sinker down so when batters get in the box, they’re looking down," said Sanchez. "If I can get the ball up and then go back down, spin my curveball off that, it opens up so many avenues that I really didn’t know until I went through it. That’s the part I’m looking forward to, being able to throw off pitches, to elevate back-to-back and to throw the sinker and the curveball. There are just so many options after you change their eye levels up. That’s exciting to me."

It’s exciting for the Blue Jays, too, who would love nothing more than an even better Sanchez fronting their rotation for 2017. Manager John Gibbons noted Wednesday that Sanchez will be built up at a bit of a slower place during a spring training extended by the World Baseball Classic, and he won’t make his first Grapefruit League start until March 9. The rest of the rotation will be similarly pushed back into the beginning of March, although not quite as far as Sanchez.

"We’re going to be smart with our core guys right now and make sure they’re ready to endure another long season," explained Walker.

Sanchez is down with the plan, having developed a strong appreciation of the Blue Jays’ handling of him last year. Now that the concerns over his workload will be in the past, giving way to the usual check-ins on how he’s feeling, Sanchez can focus on trying to take his next steps, with the gains of 2016 to lean on.

"That’s such a good foundation for myself going forward in this role," he said. "I can always go back to last year in terms of what was I doing, how was I doing it, so on and so forth. I got an understanding of how to elevate the baseball. I got an understanding of how to sink the baseball. How to throw the heater straight away. How to use my curveball in situations, throw a curveball to get ahead and get guys off my heater. The understanding of how to pitch is something I gradually started learning as the season got on. I’m so excited to start this year in terms of what I did late last year for a full year this year, and constantly trying to get better."

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