After a month-long battle with Gavin Floyd, Blue Jays Aaron Sanchez claimed the 5th spot in Toronto’s rotation
If Aaron Sanchez was not named fifth starter after the Spring Training he has had so far, I’m not quite sure what he would’ve needed to do to get it. Take this with all the grains of salt in the world, but Sanchez has pitched 20 innings, walked only 3 and struck out 19. That’s almost like a different pitcher entirely. One who doesn’t have control issues and one who is able to miss some bats. This is the pitcher who is a top prospect, and this is the pitcher that we have been waiting for.
Leading up to this decision, almost everyone chimed in on the discussion. This piece on Fangraphs from August Fagerstrom said that he should start, looking into stabilization rates of strikeouts and walks, which implies that real 25 pound changes were made. And pretty much everyone else for one reason or another wanted him in the rotation as well. Even I, who wrote that Sanchez has been tipping his curve ball thought he should be in the rotation. The only real voice of opposition came from Drew Fairservice of Blue Jays Nation who said that there are very few pitchers who throw both sinkers and curve balls are successful starting pitchers.
To address those of you who are not on board with this decision: if you recall, last year right before his injury, Sanchez was becoming a very successful starter. If you point out that he did that without striking batters out, suggesting it was lucky, you would have a fair point. But, this Spring he is striking out 8.55/9 IP, or if like me you like rate statistics, 25.3% of the batters that come up to the plate. If you point towards his historical lack of control, you would have another very fair point, but he has only walked 1.35/9 IP this Spring, or just 4% of opposing batters. To both of these, one could say that Spring doesn’t matter and everything changes once it counts, and where you wouldn’t be wrong, you would be entirely ignorant of the research gone into stabilization, the fact the Sanchez has made real changes to his body, and that Spring Training is still baseball.
Furthermore, Aaron Sanchez as a mind-boggling ratio of 3.75 GO/AO, which is the best such ratio of anyone who has yet pitched in the Spring. He has been sitting at around 96 mph with his fastball the last couple of games, regularly reaching 97-98 mph and touching higher. Sanchez has transformed himself into an absolute horse and it is paying dividends. He has been so good, that even one veteran scout said, “Sanchez is their best starter right now, not the best No. 5 candidate, but No. 1 and that includes Marcus Stroman“. Talk about high praise.
Now, there are some things that Sanchez will have to do to be successful over the course of the season. First of all, Fairservice does kind of have a point, there are very few successful starting pitchers with sinkers as their primary pitch and curve ball as their secondary.
I was actually looking into this when he put out his piece. If you isolate pitchers whose primary pitch is a sinker above 93.5 mph over the past three years, do a weighted average of all secondary pitches’ velocities, take the difference and compare it to FIP, you will find a 0.72 correlation coefficient, or an adjusted r-squared of 0.50, which means that the difference in velocity between sinkers and secondary pitches for sinker pitchers explains 50% of their success. If that wasn’t clear, the larger the difference, the higher, or worse, the FIP. And Sanchez’s difference is a big 14.0 mph (average of 10.4 mph), even higher if you account for fastball velocity gains. Coming from a playing perspective, this makes sense. The big difference in velocity is easier to pick up out of the hand, which means that batters can tell what pitch is being thrown early. Just add this to the pitch tips, and you see an issue. The other, and related reason why more sinker pitchers throw sliders is the release plane. To get curve balls to be strikes, especially curves with such big downward break, like Sanchez’s, you have to release them on a slightly higher plane. By my rough estimate, about a 5-6° difference, which isn’t much, but certainly enough to tip off a good batter.
This suggests that for Sanchez to have continued success as a starter, he’ll have to start throwing more change ups and slider/cutters.
Going back to my Aaron Sanchez Projection, if you adjust his strikeout and walk numbers to reflect his Spring’s, his FIP is about 2.80. If you decide to be more conservative and expect his K/9 to be 8 and his BB/9 to be 2.3, it gets him a FIP of 3.20. If you think he’ll throw 180 IP at these rates, it’ll get Sanchez anywhere between 3.5 and 5 WAR.
Sanchez deserved this chance and if he continues to get better, if he continues to work on the things discussed, continues striking batters out and not walking them, Aaron Sanchez could be a very scary pitcher this year, and a mainstay in the rotation for years to come. Congrats, Aaron.
*Featured Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III-flickr UNDER: CC BY-SA 2.0
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