TORONTO – At this point, the ERA title from that brilliant 2016 season is almost like an anvil around Aaron Sanchez’s neck, an unfair marker through which his current performance is viewed. Inevitably, every struggle comes down to, if he was that then, why isn’t he that now?
That’s tough terrain to navigate, even without layering atop it the finger issues that cost him nearly two full seasons, the need to rediscover an effective arm slot and release point, and the Toronto Blue Jays’ hopes to trade him for younger arms to fuel their rebuild. Go be great, dude, so we can flip you, isn’t a motivating rally cry for a pitcher who did big things here.
Then, hovering above it all, is that ace-calibre 2016, that dominant outing on the final day of the season at Fenway Park to help secure a wild-card berth. That is his ceiling, and damn, everyone always wants that ceiling.
Hence, the timeout offered by the all-star break is ideally timed for Sanchez, who had the type of outing that suggests progress after his past two months of frustration in Friday night’s 4-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
There were flashes of what Sanchez can be, like when he struck out two and induced a weak groundball from Trey Mancini in the first inning. And there were flashes of what he is grinding through at this moment, like in the second when Chris Davis pounded a middle-middle sinker over the wall in centre, Rio Ruiz and Richie Martin worked consecutive walks and Jonathan Villar ripped an RBI single off a leaping Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s glove.
Still, in all, he logged five innings, allowing two runs on three hits and four walks with five strikeouts, riding an adjustment with his landing foot to a feeling that’s long endured him, taking good vibes into the break after a long, hard slog.
“Tonight’s probably the first time I’ve felt like myself in two-and-a-half years,” said Sanchez. “If I continue to throw the ball the way I did tonight, there are going to be a lot of good things that happen in the second half.”
Causes for optimism included that he ended a streak of five starts in which he’d allowed at least five runs; his velocity climbed as high as 96.3 m.p.h.; his averages of 94.3 m.p.h. on his sinker and 93.9 m.p.h. on his four-seamer were both minutely above his season average; he showed steadfastness in fighting through adversity to limit damage.
“He was actually throwing 95 and 96, he was throwing harder,” said manager Charlie Montoyo.
Causes for caution include that he needed 78 pitches to get through the first three innings; he lost two m.p.h. on his heater average from the first inning, at 95, to the fifth, 93.1; six plate appearances lasted at least six pitches, including two 10-pitch trips by Anthony Santander; it was against the Orioles, the worst team in the majors.
Perhaps more telling about where he’s going from here is that Sanchez flipped his pitch usage on its ear, throwing his sinker 51 per cent of the time and his four-seamer just 17 per cent, a pitch mix nearly identical to his 2016 approach rather than the near even split this season.
“That’s how I felt,” Sanchez said of using the 2016 pitch mix.
“No,” he replied. “But when everything that you’ve done, your body responds to it, you have that extra confidence. Today I knew velocity was going to be there. I felt strong in my body and that’s my game.”
The Blue Jays had been trying to help Sanchez generate more energy in his delivery as a way counter a velocity dip. In 2016, there was far extension through his delivery and more power through his finish, his momentum often carrying him off the mound with an extra hop.
An adjustment with his plant leg, allowing for a better path to the plate, helped create what he described as better tempo, through which “you hit all your checkpoints inside your delivery.”
“Once you’re stable and confident in those areas, everything else takes care of itself,” Sanchez continued. “Granted I came out on the opposite side tonight, but there were a lot of good things I can take with me into the second half. I’m excited to work.”
For much of this season, Sanchez had tried to follow the current baseball trends in throwing more four-seamers up in the zone, along with more curveballs. Instead, he went back to his roots, even though his sinker hasn’t been what it used to be this year.
On the surface, the cold data on his sinker is curious, as the pitch is dropping 1.2 inches below league average for sinkers of similar velocities at similar release points, a figure that’s declined from the 0.2 inches above average his sinker was at in 2016.
Not good, but oddly, once when gravity is factored in, his two-seamer actually features more vertical drop now – 19.9 inches – than it did three years ago – 17.6 inches.
Intuitively, you’d think that’s better but all vertical drops aren’t created equal and that’s where the loss in average velocity – from 95.4 m.p.h. to 94.0 m.p.h. – factors in. Gravity-aided break isn’t as effective as hard-ball-rotation break, which is what makes the figures above or below league average relevant.
The slight dip in velocity means that roll-over grounders more often find holes to sneak through and long fly balls sometimes find green, or clear the wall altogether.
In concert with spotty location, that’s how innings unravel.
“When velocity is there, everything just plays up,” said Sanchez. “Having that extra velocity helps me navigate lineups a little better.”
Perhaps in that vein, Friday was a beginning, something to build off after a perplexing run that prompted the Blue Jays to begin considering contingencies like using an opener ahead of Sanchez, or perhaps scaling back his workload by piggybacking a long reliever with him.
“It was closer and closer to the old Sanchez, the Sanchez he still has in him,” said catcher Danny Jansen. “He’s a stud. There was so much life on it, bumping some 96s. It was moving like crazy. Down too – it was tough for me to catch sometimes. It was a power sinker today, and I thought he threw the ball well. Still trying to keep him on the plate more but it was really good to see him letting that thing eat, letting that thing work. It was heavy.”
Extreme scenarios such as optioning him to the minors were curiously floated, in these two tweets from Ken Rosenthal, but that’s not going to happen.
A shift to the bullpen is the extreme-case fallback at this point, both Sanchez and the Blue Jays losing too much value if that’s how it all plays out. After all, even for them, thoughts of that 2016 upside linger, no matter that for now, healthy and productive is a good place to restart.