Aaron Sanchez’s Place in Toronto’s Rotation

Aaron Sanchez wants to be a starter. Most pitchers want to be a starter. Jesse Chavez and Gavin Floyd want to be starters, too, and they all might deserve it, which is the current conundrum in Toronto. Not that having too many qualified starters is a bad thing, per se, but it presents the team with some tough choices, choices that could complicate things down the line.

At the very least, Toronto can feel good about their depth. The top of their rotation might not match the firepower of their contending peers, but they’ll be sending two seemingly competent starters to the bullpen at the end of Spring Training, with Drew Hutchison heading to the minors as perhaps the eighth starter on the depth chart.

As I’m writing this, I’ve come upon a tweet by Jon Heyman who was present in Blue Jays camp the other day and reported that Chavez is set to the head to the bullpen, so in fact it looks like the last rotation spot is down to two. And Chavez to the pen makes sense anyway; he’s had the worst spring of the three, for what it’s worth, but more importantly, he’s done the swingman thing in the past. Each of the last two years, he’s seamlessly shuffled between relieving and starting — not something everyone can do — and so he doesn’t necessarily need to be stretched out right now to be able to contribute to the rotation later down the line. And Chavez will need to contribute to the rotation later down the line. Pitching is fickle.

So we’ve got Gavin Floyd and Aaron Sanchez, and in that same Heyman tweet I linked, he seemed to suggest Floyd has the leg up on the last spot. Sometimes with Twitter, it’s hard to tell what’s being reported and what’s being speculated, but there’s clearly some sort of sense that Floyd could be the leader in the clubhouse.

It could be as simple as this: Floyd has been superb thus far in Spring Training, and Sanchez was superb in the bullpen last year after bombing as a starter. Floyd also has proven the ability to turn over lineups in the past, albeit four years ago. After appearing in seven games out of the bullpen for the Indians last year, the club was willing to bring him back as a reliever, but Floyd expressed a strong desire to return to a rotation, so he hit free agency in search of a club willing to give him an opportunity to start again.

But while Floyd has been great this spring — 2.19 ERA with 11 strikeouts and three walks in a measly 12 innings — Sanchez has been better. Now, we all know about the conventional wisdom regarding spring stats, and so we know that Sanchez’s 1.35 ERA, while impressive, is mostly meaningless. But strikeout and walk rates stabilize the quickest of any pitcher stats, and Dan Rosenheck’s work in The Economist last year showed that, for the guys at the extreme ends of the spectrum, they can matter a little.

Well, Sanchez has struck out a quarter of all the batters he’s faced this spring. He’s walked just three of 78. Not only does Sanchez have the second-largest sample of any pitcher this spring, he’s got some of the most extreme numbers, and that 3.8% walk rate feels even more significant, given what we know about Sanchez. The problem with Sanchez has never been the stuff, it’s been the command. The fastball, even as a starter, can touch 98. The amount of run he gets on the sinker is sometimes silly. The curveball flashes plus. The problem is that he hasn’t been able to put it over the plate; as a starter last year, Sanchez had a 13% walk rate.

If you can’t throw strikes, you can’t throw strikes. This spring, Sanchez has thrown strikes, and there’s no real way to fake that. The once-lanky hurler, who checked in at 6-4, 200 pounds last year, put on 25 pounds in the offseason in an effort to smooth out his mechanics, and he claims the weight has done wonders. He’s spent the spring focusing on improving his curveball command and developing his third pitch, his changeup, which makes the minuscule walk figure even more impressive — if he’s throwing more breaking and offspeed stuff than usual, you’d probably expect the walk rate to go up before you’d expect it to go down.

Beyond all the spring stuff is the more important consideration, and that’s future role. What is Gavin Floyd’s future role with the Blue Jays? There probably isn’t one. Sanchez is 23, and was just rated the organization’s top prospect by Baseball America two years ago, as a starter. The stuff is undeniable. If Sanchez can stick in a rotation, he’ll provide Toronto with tremendous present and future value. It’s far more important to the organization to know whether Sanchez can stick as a starter than it is to know whether Floyd can stick as a starter. Either could fail in April and put the team in a hole. Either could continue to pitch well. The information on Sanchez is just worth more.

And an Opening Day bullpen assignment for Sanchez feels like a season-long sentence. At that point, it’s tough to go back, unless the team’s comfortable sending one of their most talented pitchers down to the minors during a contending season to get him stretched out to start. He’s stretched out now. Anyone can transition to fewer innings if they struggle. And if that happens, Chavez has proven he can be ready to start on a moment’s notice. Hutchison will be around. Floyd doesn’t have to be a factor in this.

The decision, to me, seems easy, though it appears, at least according to Heyman’s report, that it might not be for the Blue Jays. Between Sanchez and Floyd, Sanchez inarguably has the higher ceiling. Both ought to have similarly low floors. Doesn’t Sanchez deserve the chance? Don’t the Blue Jays have more to gain from knowing what they have in Sanchez before knowing what they have in Floyd? Doesn’t condemning Sanchez to a sixth-inning role in the bullpen complicate matters further by making an in-season return to the rotation exceedingly strenuous? This doesn’t have to be difficult. Just put Aaron Sanchez in the rotation.

We hoped you liked reading Aaron Sanchez’s Place in Toronto’s Rotation by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Damaso
Member
Damaso

My druthers would be to put both in the rotation, and move Happ to the pen aka never have signed him in the first place.

but I’d agree with your choice of the two – take a looksee at the higher upside option to start, if he falters you can go with one of the safer options.

Brownie19
Member
Brownie19

Happ was the 28th best starting pitcher in the majors last year and this guy wants him in the pen. Clueless.

Powder Blues
Member
Powder Blues

Clueless would be assuming 11 Pittsburgh sets a new ability standard. Jays fans have good reason to doubt Happ.

Damaso
Member
Damaso

Career WAR by season:

1.7
1.0
0.6
1.9
1.1
1.0
3.3 (1.2 in 108ip inAL, 2.1 in 63ip in NL)

Somehow I doubt this guy just figured out how to pitch at age 33.

Keyser Soze
Member
Keyser Soze

Why not? I find it interesting how skeptical people still are about players improving themselves these days.

The game has come a long way in just the last ten years, players have so much more information and analysis available to them while training/diet regimens are aggressive and tailored. Sanchez adding 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason is just one recent example of a change that could have meaningful impact on his numbers, Stroman’s determined rehab last season which got him back as a significant contributor before the playoffs is another. Almost everyone wrote him off.

In the past – just going back to the eighties – any 25 pound gains would almost certainly not have been muscle, at least not until the late eighties and the prevalence of steroids. Players didn’t really look to change their approach, if anything most were afraid of changing something and screwing up their game.

That is no longer the case today, a lot of guys are constantly looking for an edge and using whatever tools they can find to improve. So why is it as hard to believe Happ could make a change that sticks?

No one knows whether what Happ did late last season will stick or not, he looks good so far but we’ll find out for sure soon. I don’t expect the same results as he put up with Pittsburgh but also don’t see it as so implausible that he could be a very respectable starting pitcher this season.

Positive long term improvements from players are what I love about baseball, something the Jays have been fortunate to experience often lately with guys like Bautista, Encarnacion, Hendriks, Cecil and even Donaldson to some extent. Perhaps now we will be experiencing it with Goins, Sanchez and yes even Happ.

Damaso
Member
Damaso

Well, it’s one thing for guys in their 27-28yr old prime to take a step forward with their first real shot at playing time, and quite another for a guy with a long track record of inconsistency to suddenly figure out something new at age 33.

Happ had a nice streak in against NL lineups and weak offensive teams in general, and still was averaging well under 6ip per start. 10 games of that kind of protected performance isn’t going to make me believe he’s suddenly a different guy than the one I saw for 2 years as a Jay already.

And where did you see that he’s looking good so far? he’s barely pitched against MLBers this spring and when he has he’s been letting guys on base frequently and not getting the Ks. I think he had one game on TV so far, and it was familiar old Happ – get 2 quick outs and then nibble your way into trouble every inning.

Unfortunately for my Jays, I’m guessing Happ is the same 1war pitcher this year that he was his last 2 years with the Jays.

Keyser Soze
Member
Keyser Soze

Well unlike you apparently I am not expecting Happ to be an all star, just a solid respectable starter. Kind of like a number four or five starter should be!

I’m not focusing on overall numbers much at the moment, it is spring training after all, but he is controlling walks well and doesn’t appear to be getting hit hard at all. Those are the main concerns with Happ, if he controls those areas he will have success. He will not be a strikeout machine and should not be expected to be, and that’s ok.

Maybe we just agree that we have differing viewpoints here and that’s ok too, but Happ will also be pitching with the benefit of a far superior catcher and defense this season than he had in his last stint with the Jays. I expect this will have no small impact on his numbers for the coming season.