The Ridiculousness of Aaron Sanchez’s Sinker

Aaron Sanchez was optioned to High-A Dunedin over the weekend, though of course that’s not indicative of his performance at work. Sanchez is a legitimate Cy Young contender this year, maybe even the frontrunner in the eyes of some, and while players typically get sent down to the minors because their organization doesn’t care much for what they’ve done on the field, Sanchez was optioned because the Blue Jays care too much. He just turned 24, and he’s a massive part of the organization’s future, and the move was simply made to skip one of his turns in the rotation in an effort to limit the workload of Toronto’s prized, young arm.

That workload requires monitoring, of course, because no one expected Sanchez to do what he’s done this year. You likely know the Aaron Sanchez story by now. You know he spent the majority of his first two seasons in the majors working out of relief, and now that he suddenly looks like an ace, that he’s already exceeded his previous season-high in innings by more than 20. And if you know about that, then you know about the sinker that leads Sanchez’s arsenal.

You and I know about the sinker, and hitters certainly know about the sinker. In 2015, Baseball America profiled the pitch as having “plus-plus life with bat-breaking armside run and sink.” When our own Jeff Sullivan looked for a comparison to Zach Britton’s otherworldly sinker last season, the first name he mentioned was Sanchez, noting that the key difference between the two is Britton generated more downward plane due to his delivery. Sanchez’s release point is slightly higher this year compared to last, so a pitch that was already nearly Britton’s sinker last year is now slightly closer. It’s thrown harder than 95 mph on average, making it the third-fastest sinker thrown by a starting pitcher with at least 500 thrown this season. It generates nine inches of horizontal break, on average, and none of the five pitchers who get more movement to the arm side with their sinker also generate more vertical drop on the pitch:

Sanchez’s combination of velocity and two-plane movement makes his sinker truly unlike any other offering in the game. It’s got a top-five spin rate by a starter, it’s a plus pitch by velocity and movement, it’s a plus pitch by whiff rate, it’s a plus pitch by ground-ball rate, and according to the PITCHf/x run values we host here on the site, only the sinkers thrown by Jake Arrieta and Chris Sale have been more valuable than Sanchez’s this season.

But I want to take this a step further in an attempt to illustrate just how tough it’s been for batters to square up Sanchez’s sinker, inspired by an off-hand remark made by Indians manager Terry Francona in his pre-game media availability session before Sanchez’s recent August 20 start in Cleveland.

“He’s got some of the best sink in the game,” Francona said of Sanchez. “It’s hard at times to pull that fastball in the air because it’s just got so much two-seam sink. You’ve got to stay through the middle of the field. A lot of times, the only way he gives up his runs is when you’re driving the ball the other way.”

Here at FanGraphs, we love to get down to the specific, unique details, and so when Francona mentioned that Sanchez’s sinker is “tough to pull in the air,” my ears immediately perked up. We now go from the pre-game media session to the Baseball-Reference Play Index. Using the split finder, we can search for OPS allowed, dependent on which part of the field the batter used. The following leaderboard is OPS allowed to the pull field against right-handed batters. It’s truly a staggering leaderboard, and I presume Francona saw a very similar one in his advanced scouting report to inspire his comment:

Lowest OPS allowed to the pull field vs. RHB, 2016

  1. Aaron Sanchez, .449
  2. Johnny Cueto, .606
  3. Noah Syndergaard, .724

I don’t need to explain to you all the ways that leaderboard is ridiculous. You see the two names Sanchez is ahead of, and you certainly see the laughable gap between Sanchez and the field. What I can do is provide a little more context in this way: Syndergaard has suppressed pull-field production against righties better than all but two pitchers in baseball this season, and his OPS allowed in that way is the same as Yadier Molina’s OPS this season. Cueto’s been the second-best, and his OPS allowed in that way is the same as Alcides Escobar, who is the worst qualified hitter in baseball this year. Sanchez’s OPS allowed in that way is 157 points lower than the worst qualified hitter. It’s the same OPS that Steven Matz, the pitcher, has as a hitter. When Sanchez gets a righty to pull the ball, he’s essentially turned them into a pitcher.

Francona mentioned the sinker, specifically, so let’s go one step further. Batters have slugged just .374 against the pitch this season, and righties have slugged just .304. Both figures rank among the best in the league, and Sanchez again makes his company with Britton and Arrieta. To hone in even further on Francona’s comment, I present a spray chart showing every batted ball by a righty against the Sanchez sink this season:

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 10.41.57 AM

Not only was Francona’s remark spot-on, but saying it’s “hard at times to pull that fastball in the air” looks like a massive understatement. When a righty pulls Sanchez’s sinker, it’s going on the ground; there’s a reason his 57% ground-ball rate is top-three in the league.

Ian Kinsler is the only righty even to remotely conquer the Sanchez sinker to the pull field this year, and it came in the ninth inning when Sanchez was nearly 100 pitches deep:

After Kinsler, this is literally the second-furthest hit air ball by a righty to the pull field against Sanchez’s sinker all season:

And this is the third, and also the only other one:

That’s it. Those three clips comprise the entirety of righties pulling Sanchez’s sinker in the air this season. One double to the power alley and two quiet outs by Dustin Pedroia and Mookie Betts — two of the best pull hitters in the game.

And while I fully understand the many layers of qualifiers present — “sinkers,” “righties,” “pulled,” “air balls” — make this all more “fun fact” than anything else, it does highlight a very fundamental quality of what’s made Aaron Sanchez so successful this year: his primary pitch makes same-handed batters utterly uncomfortable. Plenty of guys go up to the plate looking to pull the ball in the air, yet righties essentially have no chance to do so against Sanchez’s leading pitch. With improved command to the outer-half — as seen in the first .gif against Wil Myers — Sanchez is forcing even the game’s best right-handed hitters to choose between altering their approach or pounding a grounder into the dirt, directed at Josh Donaldson or Troy Tulowitzki. Not everyone has a pitch that can do that. Not everyone has a sinker like Aaron Sanchez.





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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I’d love to see Toronto get creative with their OF shifting… move LF into Left-Center.