Sanchez a tempting but risky rotation candidate for Blue Jays

Right-hander Aaron Sanchez proved himself to be a very effective reliever last season for the Blue Jays. (Nathan Denette/CP)

With a roster that’s almost complete the Toronto Blue Jays begin 2016 with relatively few questions about who will make up their team, but a lack of clarity about how all the pieces fit together.

Ben Revere is the presumed starter in left field, but there are a glut of outfielders who could play that position. Six starting candidates are in place yet only five can break camp in the rotation. The bullpen appears set for the late innings, but there are at least three spots in middle relief that seem up for grabs.

Throwing a sizable monkey wrench into the proceedings is the question of what to do with Aaron Sanchez; a question John Gibbons addressed speaking to reporters at the Winter Meetings.

“I think [Sanchez] could be a cornerstone player for this organization,” he said. “So we need to make that right decision. It’s tough because, if he’s in the bullpen this year, it’s tough to turn him back into a starter because he’s really still developing his secondary pitches.”

A cursory glance at the Blue Jays roster makes it difficult to see where the dilemma lies. The team has a stable of six viable rotation hopefuls and a couple of glaring holes in their relief corps. Sanchez has already shown himself to be a very effective reliever while his ability to start remains in question. He could easily slot into the bullpen where he is a proven commodity and fills an obvious need.

It’s also not as if Sanchez’s foray into life as a starter was that fruitful last year. His 5-4 record and 3.55 ERA look solid, but they were built on a dangerously shaky foundation. The chart below shows where he ranked among the 173 starters who threw 60 or more innings last season in a number of important peripherals.

K/9 Rank BB/9 Rank K/BB Rank FIP Rank xFIP Rank
5.73 142 5.05 173 1.14 171 5.21 165 4.64 147

Those numbers come from only 11 starts, but they are undoubtedly discouraging. Sanchez continually put men on base and had to lean heavily on his fielders to get opposing hitters out; a problematic combination.

Despite his questionable results as a starter, the temptation to use him as one persists. The simple logic is that 200 good innings in the rotation trumps 60 great innings in relief. If Sanchez can even be an average starter he’ll carry more value than he does pitching late in games.

Sanchez’s first rotation audition may not have inspired the most confidence, but his abilities are tantalizing in that he has great velocity and induces a tonne of ground balls.

There was no starter in baseball with both a higher fastball velocity and ground ball rate than Sanchez last year and just 11 pitchers averaged 94 mph or more on their fastball and kept the ball on the ground more than 50 per cent of the time.

Pitcher Average Fastball Velocity Ground Ball Percentage 2015 WAR
Aaron Sanchez 94.5 mph 58.10% 0.0
Jake Arrieta 94.6 mph 56.00% 7.3
Jared Cosart 94.0 mph 55.50% -0.3
Carlos Frias 94.3 mph 55.10% 0.4
Garrett Richards 95.5 mph 54.90% 2.5
Carlos Martinez 95.3 mph 54.50% 3.4
Yordano Ventura 96.3 mph 52.20% 2.7
Nathan Eovaldi 96.7 mph 52.20% 3.2
Wily Peralta 94.3 mph 51.60% 0.4
Carlos Carrasco 94.5 mph 51.20% 4.8
Luis Severino 95.3 mph 50.90% 0.7

More of these pitchers are above-average than not, but they’re not uniformly successful. That’s because this rare skill set is simply a means to an end.

Elite velocity usually leads to strong strikeout rates, but that doesn’t happen without swing-and-miss secondary pitches like Arrieta’s devastating slider or Ventura’s deadly curveball. Even a high ground ball rate can be nullified if a pitcher allows home runs on a disproportionately high rate of fly balls like Sanchez did last season.

While Sanchez shares characteristics with some elite starters it’s no guarantee that he’ll ever become one. At the moment subpar command and underdeveloped offspeed stuff make him far closer to Cosart than Arrieta.

If the Blue Jays had to choose between getting a full season of quality innings out of Sanchez as a starter or a reliever they would clearly be wise to plug him in their rotation, but that’s not the decision they face for 2016. Their choice is between wedging a relative unknown into a seemingly full rotation or solidifying their bullpen with a top-notch setup man.

The Blue Jays are justified in dreaming on a 23-year-old with some extraordinary tools, but for a team defending a division title, certainty might be more valuable than potential.

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