Before his promotion to AAA Buffalo, the Toronto Blue Jays’ top prospect Aaron Sanchez was viewed as a future number one starter for years to come. But after starting six games, a shift to the bullpen was announced for Sanchez, in what many viewed as a move to continue his accelerated progression to the big leagues.
But was this move really based on what would help the Toronto Blue Jays now; or was it based off of something they saw in Sanchez development?
After doing some digging through the numbers, I think it was a move justified by both factors.
Throughout much of Sanchez’s minor league career, he has been a blue chip prospect that possesses excellent movement on his pitches, but at times can show erratic control. Statistically, his strikeouts were always high – posting a career K/9 rate of 8.8 in the minors, but again, metrics like his walks, FIP, and average innings pitched per start (4.62 IP/GS) always left reason for concern.
As a young developing pitcher in the early part of his 20s, organizations tend to overlook statistical concerns, since development is the most important aspect during this time. In the case of Sanchez, this appears to be true. The Blue Jays have accelerated Sanchez through the ranks this year, moving him from AA New Hampshire, all the way up to the big club in Toronto.
But Sanchez’s promotion came through the bullpen, not the starting rotation.
So what changed with Sanchez that sparked a sudden shift in his development?
Initially, you would say that the Blue Jays desperately needed bullpen help with their recent inconsistencies on the back end. But when you break down Sanchez’s development, I think it has a lot more to do with him than it does with the Blue Jays’ inconsistencies in the bullpen.
During Sanchez’s time in the minors this year, he had a propensity to follow the same actions game-in-and-game-out. Sanchez would mow batters down early in ball games, but come the second and third time time around the lineup, it was a different story.
Although Sanchez pitched well in AA New Hampshire, there was a stretch from May 3rd to May 29th that saw his issues of facing the lineup a second and third time around come to the forefront.
During this stretch, Sanchez allowed two or more runs in the 4th inning or later, in four of his six starts (one of the starts he got shelled for 6 runs in the first inning). While this just looked like a bad stretch, Sanchez followed suit in AAA where he would allow three or more runs in the fourth inning or later, in four of his six starts. Clearly, the second and third time through a lineup, hitters would adjust to Sanchez very well.
Sanchez’s numbers show these struggles even further, as they have been regressing over the past two seasons in terms of his strikeouts per nine innings, strikeout rate and walk rate. What’s in common with the regression? The fact that he has climbed the ranks of the minor leagues and faced smarter hitters throughout each rank. The hitters in these ranks adjust very well to pitchers the more frequently they see them – just like in the big leagues.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think Sanchez is a fantastic talent who has electrifying stuff, but when you really break him down, he projects to be the Blue Jays’ next closer in my eyes. Given the Blue Jays abrupt choice to move him to the bullpen, I don’t think I’m alone either.
One of the biggest knocks on Sanchez is his inability to develop a true third pitch that most top-end starters develop. His ball moves a ton, but controlling it to consistently throw strikes has been a problem for him. Equipped with a lively two seam and cut fastball, Sanchez could easily become an effective arm coming out of the bullpen.
The jump from being a full-time starting pitcher in the minor leagues to a closer in the major leagues is not uncommon by any means either. Take a look at some of the names who were once starters in the minor leagues, but later become closers at the big league level: Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Trevor Rosenthal, Aroldis Chapman and the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.
All of these players were projected to be starters in the minor leagues, but much like Sanchez, their questionable third pitch gave teams a change of heart at the next level.
Now don’t think I am anointing Aaron Sanchez as the next Mariano Rivera here, because for every success story, there are transitional horror stories like Carlos Marmol, John Rocker – and to some extent – former Blue Jay Billy Koch.
But when you really breakdown Sanchez, he could easily pan out as the Blue Jays’ future closer. While most 22-year-old blue chip prospects “pitch until they fail” as a starter, take the current situation in St. Louis with Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal as an example. I’d say that hasn’t worked out too bad thus far. Why couldn’t Aaron Sanchez make the same kind of transition as Trevor Rosenthal?
With Casey Janssen’s contract up at year’s end, I would not be surprised one bit if the Blue Jays decided to bring Janssen back as the set-up man for Sanchez next year. After all, most of the game’s best closers passed the torch on to a young phenom at one point in their career. Why not Janssen to Sanchez in 2015?