TORONTO — In the fifth inning Thursday, as the Toronto Blue Jays were in the process of losing to the Oakland Athletics, 10-5, there was a plate appearance that summed up Aaron Sanchez’s night pretty well. His season, too.
Oakland second baseman Jed Lowrie was leading off the fifth, and Sanchez was on the mound with Toronto’s left field bullpen whirring behind him. Sanchez had struck out eight Athletics through his four innings. That was really good. But he’d needed 91 pitches to do it. Not so good.
Sanchez was clinging to about a fistful of rope, but he started on the right foot, getting Lowrie to foul off a first-pitch curveball. But then, a fastball missed. And another missed by even more. And a third was nowhere close, as he fell behind, 3-1.
Sanchez collected himself, and, finally, located a fastball well, running the count full with a swinging strike. But when he went back to the heater again, he just couldn’t put it in the zone.
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was up and out of his dugout before Lowrie could even take his free base. On a night when he set a season-high in swinging strikes (18), allowed only five hits (three of them singles), and surrendered an average exit velocity on balls in play of just 83.7 m.p.h., Sanchez was lifted from the game having accumulated only 12 outs.
This has been the cruel complication of Sanchez’s season thus far. He’s had nights with electric, swing-and-miss stuff. Nights just like Thursday. He’s reached double digits in swinging strikes in more than half his outings this year, three times putting up 16 or more.
But the only thing more consistent than the quality of his stuff is his propensity issuing free passes. Sanchez has yet to pitch an outing with fewer than two walks. Thursday was the fourth time in nine starts he’s walked four or more. He now has more walks this season (29) than all but two pitchers in baseball.
“I mean, when you’re ball-strike and you throw 100 pitches in four innings, it’s not going to do you any good,” Sanchez said after the game. “That ain’t cutting it.”
Yes, it’s a problem. And it’s what’s standing in the way of Sanchez pitching like he did in 2016, when he won the American League ERA title.
He still walked his share of batters that season, but not nearly to the extent that he is today. He finished 28th among 71 qualified MLB starters in 2016 with 2.95 BB/9. After Thursday’s outing, his 2018 BB/9 is nearly double that — 5.19 — and the third-highest among qualified starters.
And a closer examination of his ball and strike percentages by pitch tells a clear story: Sanchez isn’t locating his fastball the way he needs to be.
Aaron Sanchez balls and strikes (2016)
|Ball %||Strike %||Swinging Strike %|
Aaron Sanchez balls and strikes (2018)
|Ball %||Strike %||Swinging Strike %|
What’s encouraging about these numbers is that Sanchez’s stuff is just as good at inducing swing-and-miss as it’s always been. Plus, his change-up has gotten much better, developing into a legitimate weapon he can use to help neutralize left-handed hitters, who have long given him trouble.
But he’s missing with fastballs far more often than he did when he was at his best. And Thursday was no different. Of the 60 fastballs Sanchez threw against Oakland, only 60 per cent went for strikes.
Aaron Sanchez fastballs vs. Oakland Athletics (May 17, 2018)
|Four-seam||11 (50%)||11 (50%)|
|Two-seam||13 (34.2%)||25 (65.8%)|
|Total||24 (40%)||36 (60%)|
Those strike numbers simply must be higher. And one presumes that such an apparent problem would be simple to identify and correct. But it’s not that easy. Pitchers can spend their entire lives trying to hone their fastball command. And, for the first six seasons of his professional career, Sanchez did the same.
When he was coming up through the Blue Jays’ system during his late teens and early 20’s, Sanchez posted BB/9 rates of 4.2 or higher in each of his first five minor-league seasons. In 2014, the year he made his major-league debut, his BB/9 at double- and triple-A was 5.1. And in 2015, his first full season as a major leaguer, it was 4.3.
Then, 2016 — when Sanchez put it all together, had his career season, and cut that BB/9 all the way down to an even and manageable three. But, after a lost 2017 due to blister issues, it’s shot back up again.
Thursday, Sanchez threw 29 pitches in the first inning, far more than he needed to considering he retired his first two batters with only nine. A single sandwiched by a pair of walks loaded the bases from there, but Sanchez was able to sit down Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman with two well-located fastballs and a change-up to end the threat.
The second was a breeze, but there was trouble in the third. In succession, Matt Joyce singled, Lowrie doubled, and Khris Davis turned around a 3-2 fastball up and over the plate, crushing it 391 feet over the wall in right. Suddenly, Oakland had three runs. Sanchez found a way out of the inning, but needed 27 pitches to do it, running his total to 70.
He walked the leadoff man in the fourth and let him reach third, but held him there with an inning-ending strikeout of Matt Joyce. But when Sanchez led off the fifth with the Lowrie walk, Gibbons was quick to the top step of his dugout.
“I felt like when I was down, I was good. It’s just about maintaining, finding down,” Sanchez said. “But, what are you going to do, you know? You take what’s good, you flush the bad, and you just keep moving on. I’m in a spot where I’m grinding and it’s just about tinkering out all the little things in between and trying to find it when I go out there, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.
“I missed a year — it’s a long time. I hate to use excuses, but I’m still trying to get my feet underneath me. Like I said in spring training, you can do it as much as you want but until you get here, and the adrenaline’s where it’s at, you’ve got fans in the stadium — it’s just one of those things. I’ll find it. I’m not worried.”
And he’ll get plenty of time to find it, to get back in the zone. Sanchez still has tremendous stuff. He can still make hitters look foolish. And his repertoire is arguably better this year than ever, considering how far his change-up has come. But, in the face of the results, he doesn’t find much solace in that.
“I don’t really give a [expletive],” Sanchez said. “I want to [expletive] win.”