The official exhaustive talking point of the 2015-16 offseason was Aaron Sanchez.
His role was uncertain between the bullpen and starting rotation, and it wasn’t fully clear until the final weeks of the season that Sanchez would, in fact, pitch the entire year as a starter without a brief stint as a reliever.
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Blue Jays management proceeded cautiously with the situation and continuously kept expectations in check. In the end, this approach worked out as well as it possibly could have. Sanchez finally shook off his prospect naysayers and stepped forward as not just a legitimate starter, but one of the best young arms in Major League Baseball.
The American League ERA crown went to Aaron Sanchez, who finished the year with an even 3.00 mark over 30 starts and 192.0 innings. Had it not been for the Blue Jays staggering his workload slightly, the 24-year-old would have easily eclipsed the 200-inning plateau in the regular season. His 11.2 playoff innings brought him to a cumulative total of 203.2.
Ground balls continue to be one of Sanchez’s greatest weapons, and he forced those at a rate of 54.4% in 2016. This was aided by some much stronger control than he showed in 2015, as be brought his walks per nine innings down to 3.0. Given the raw movement he produces on pitches, maintaining a mark of 3.0 would be acceptable for Sanchez long-term.
This all led to Sanchez being valued at 3.9 Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs), good for eighth in the American League behind David Price (4.5). Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ followed closely in ninth and tenth place, showcasing the surprisingly strong Blue Jays rotation.
Sanchez’s velocity is still as eye-popping as it was in a primary relief role, regularly touching 96-97 MPH while sitting very comfortably at 95. In fact, his velocity grew slightly as the season went on. Secondary pitches are an area of great potential for him going forward, because if his curveball and changeup can become stronger, he’ll be a complete package. Both pitches saw an uptick in usage with Sanchez working as a starter.
Workload cautions did cause a summer-long conversation and some minor rotation tinkering by manager John Gibbons, but frankly, it didn’t have much impact on the on-field product. One also has to wonder if the Blue Jays would have added Francisco Liriano if it weren’t for Sanchez’s limits. Liriano stepped up after arriving in Toronto and figures to be a key piece of the 2017 rotation, so again, it’s hard to nit-pick.
Sanchez’s first playoff start against the Texas Rangers was a rare low point for him, allowing six earned runs, including two home runs, over 5.2 innings. He also walked four in that start, momentarily letting his control get away from him.
As Sanchez continues to trust the built-in power of his pitches and pound the zone with more authority, he’ll also do better at keeping himself from high pitch counts. He has the ability to produce weak, ground ball contact when necessary, and could use that more consciously down the road in his career.
The beauty of Sanchez succeeding so early is that the Blue Jays receive All-Star calibre pitching for 5% of what it would cost annually on the open market in 2017. Sanchez will hit his first arbitration year in 2018, but this affordable team control is incredibly valuable to Toronto’s roster construction.
Of Toronto’s starting five, Sanchez enters 2017 with the highest ceiling. One full year as a starter shouldn’t completely cause everyone to let their guard down, though — his velocities and mechanics will still need to be monitored going forward to ensure that Sanchez can maintain this pace. If he can, Sanchez could conceivably be a perennial Cy Young Award contender.