TORONTO – Before the knee-jerk, hot-take solutions take over the discourse – Make him a reliever, already! Send him to the minors! Twitter, this one is yours: Release him! – let’s take a measured look at Aaron Sanchez, the most perplexing member of the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays.
The 27-year-old right-hander bedevilled by finger troubles over the past 2 1/2 years is far too talented to struggle the way he has over his past five starts, including three innings of six-run ball in Sunday’s 7-6 loss to the Kansas City Royals. He’s allowed at least five earned runs in each of those outings, has made it through four innings only twice and has looked nothing like the dominant force he’s been in the past, and shown in flashes this year.
What’s going on?
“A lot of finding out to do,” said Sanchez. “Like I’ve said in a couple of interviews before, you try to change some things in my delivery that weren’t really working, so you go back and in that time I got beat up pretty bad. It’s just going back to the basics and finding who I was in the past. Obviously the reps are what I need and I’ll continue to go out there and work and do better.”
Well, we do know that finger issues have already forced Sanchez out of three starts this season, so that’s in the background. He’s also nine months removed from surgery to repair the UCL ligament in his right index finger. Perhaps a stint on the injured list to quell any lingering finger troubles may be more logical than a rash transition to the bullpen or a demotion.
Either way, let’s get our nerd on and try to dig a little deeper.
First, velocity. Sanchez can be a fire-breathing monster with his stuff when he’s right. In 2016, when he won the American League ERA title, his sinker averaged 95.4 m.p.h. and his four-seamer 95.2 m.p.h., while regularly darting 97s and 98s into the zone. Legit ace stuff.
His 2019 averages heading into Sunday were 94.1 on the sinker and 93.9 on the two-seamer so he’s down a tick. Against the Royals, his averages were 93.1 and 92.9 and topped out at 94.8, which is still below where he was back in 2016, so there’s a substantial difference.
That’s a piece, but with as ruthless a sinker as he has, you’d think the drop-off shouldn’t be that significant.
“There are some things he can do mechanically better but with his physical situation (in recent years) it’s affected his delivery, for sure,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “The energy level, the way he’s finishing his pitches, the way he’s using his backside have all changed a bit from ’16, even ’17. It’s something we’re trying to rectify and get back to. It’s just been a battle to get back to where he needs to be.”
Second, his pitch usage. In 2016, Sanchez threw his sinker 55.9 per cent of the time, followed by his four-seamer at 19.1 per cent, curveball at 16.2 per cent and changeup at 8.8 per cent. He posted a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings, so it obviously worked.
Now, the two-seamer that was his bread and butter is his second most utilized pitch at 28.5 per cent, behind the four-seamer he uses 30.1 per cent of the time. His curveball usage is up to 22.7 per cent while his changeup is at 18.8 per cent, totals that reversed from last year.
“The sinker effectiveness at times wasn’t the same over that time period, with the action on the ball, he felt better with the four-seamer, there was some effectiveness with it,” explained Walker. “With him, there are some things that we’d like to do. In his better games this year, that curveball usage was up a bit, in that 30 per cent range. We still love his sinker, we want to get back to using that at the bottom of the zone, but obviously some finger issues over time have affected the feel for that pitch and the way it comes off his hand, so the action is diminished a little bit. It got a little side to side.”
Another factor is that over the past few years, a pitching trend around baseball has been to throw more four-seamers up in the zone, particularly for pitchers with high spin rates. As Walker put it, “there are certainly opportunities to go up on guys nowadays with the swing path against sinkers.”
Sanchez’s fastball spin rate average of 2,302 RPMs is slightly above league average, sitting in the 57th percentile. His curveball, on the other hand, at an average of 2,882 RPMs, leaves him in the 95th percentile.
Why not use the curveball more often, as Walker suggested? Well, one of the problems is that when a pitcher doesn’t establish his fastball for strikes, it becomes much harder to get to his secondary offerings. Another is that to generate the type of spin he does, there’s a lot of potential wear and tear to his troubled fingertips.
That also holds true with his two-seamer, which needs just the right rotation off the fingertips to tumble so effectively out of the zone.
He hasn’t had that this year, and his fastballs have been hit harder than they ever have in the big-leagues to this point.
Essentially, being unable to throw either of his fastballs with his usual authority has made his entire game vulnerable.
“Making sure he’s 100 per cent feeling good is a priority,” said Walker. “(As is) getting back to using that sinker as effectively as it once was at the bottom of the zone with the power sink.”
Certainly, there’s a consequence to missing as much time as he did during the 2017 and ’18 seasons, when he made a combined 28 starts and threw 141 innings. There’s also surely a carryover from experimenting with different arm slots, grips and release points to try and ease the pressures that led to the blisters and related complications.
Still, the good stuff remains in there.
Sanchez has been up to 97.46 m.p.h. this season, struck out 11 batters in a start and held good lineups in check. That’s something. But he’s also hurt himself with a league-leading 52 walks, issuing four Sunday to wrestle the top spot away from Royals counterpart Brad Keller, who’s at 50 after handing out only two on the day.
“That’s been my thing all year, the free passes always find a way to come back and haunt me,” said Sanchez.
Given all he’s been through, though, perhaps it was wishful thinking to expect Sanchez to hit the ground running as if all the tumult of the past two years didn’t exist. All that happened, and it made an impact, clearly, and he needs time to sort things out.
“You lose that much time on the mound, the consistency, the feel for your pitches (is impacted),” said Walker. “I still think we started off the year great, spring training, the early part of the season. Obviously he had a little setback physically and now it’s really a matter of getting back to that. The power was there early, the action on the ball was good early. With him, some balls have found holes and anything that can go bad, does, in his outings. They unravel quick. The walks have certainly hurt. Getting behind hitters, he gets frustrated and he’s in a place now where we’re certainly trying to figure things out. I’m 100 per cent with him. He’s going to get through it.
“He’s a competitor, he’s going to keep fighting.”
On a contending club, there isn’t the same opportunity for someone to figure things out at the big-league level. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have nothing but opportunity to offer a player who needs the time to figure out what exactly has gone wrong, and how to get himself back right again.