To Start Or Not To Start….


Just as baseball players have taken a winter vacation, so, it seems, has 500 Level Fan.  Posts on this site have been few and far between since the Jays were knocked out of the ALCS by the pesky KC Royals, but have no fear my fans – things are going to start picking up around here.

Because, and this may seem hard to believe, it’s nearly time to get the 2016 season started.

Pitchers and catchers will begin reporting to Spring Training in only two weeks, which means it’s time to stop looking back at what happened in 2015 and start looking ahead at what is in store for 2016.

For the first time since 1994, the Blue Jays enter a baseball season as defending division champions, and despite a fairly tumultuous winter off-the-field, they seem well positioned for a chance to challenge again.

But there are still a few question marks, including who will play left field, who will lead-off, who will act as the closer, and most importantly who will earn the fifth spot in the rotation?

Without a doubt Toronto’s rotation took a hit this winter, with the departure of Mark Buehrle and David Price.  But the situation isn’t as dire as many would have you believe, not with a full season expected out of Marcus Stroman, the re-signing of Marco Estrada, and the acquisitions of J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez.  The top-4 looks set with R.A. Dickey joining Stroman, Estrada, and Happ, leaving the fifth spot open for a battle seemingly between Chavez and Drew Hutchison.  Based on recent performance history, Chavez would seem to have the edge; based on potential, Hutchison gets the nod.

But there is one other man who could, and should, beat those guys out: Aaron Sanchez.

Sanchez has been a bit of an enigma since being called up in 2014.  He went from outstanding reliever (1.09 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 33 IP in 2014), to inconsistent starter (3.55 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 11 starts at the beginning of 2015), to the disabled list, and then back to outstanding reliever (2.39 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in 26.1 IP).

The 23-year old Sanchez inspires two schools of thought – those who believe he should be a reliever, and those who are adamant that he move to the rotation.  To be honest, it’s hard to argue with either side.

Those who think he should stay in the bullpen can state the following:

1. He has proven, at least statistically, to be a much better reliever than starter.

2. Once he returned from injury and joined the bullpen last season, Toronto’s relief corps improved drastically.  His presence cemented set roles for the 7th (Cecil), 8th (Sanchez), and 9th (Osuna) innings, that brought stability and overwhelmed opposing hitters.  From July onward, the Jays bullpen was one of the best in baseball.  Why mess with a good thing?

3. Look at the Kansas City Royals.  They won the World Series with a rather pedestrian starting rotation, but a lights-out bullpen.  They needed a starter to get through 5 or 6 innings, and then the game was essentially over.  Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, and Wade Davis shut the door almost every time.

But I tend to side with the other camp, that Sanchez should be a starter, and there are two key reasons why: innings and development.

First let’s discuss innings.  Here are two numbers: 227 and 72.  The first represents the average number of innings pitched for five of baseball’s top starters last season (Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Dallas Keuchel).  The second represents the average number of innings pitched for five of baseball’s best relievers last season (Dellin Betances, Wade Davis, Darren O’Day, Aroldis Chapman, and Jeurys Familia).  Obviously each of those 10 pitchers are outstanding and any major league team would want them.  But the difference between the number of innings that a guy from the first group can provide over a guy from the second is staggering.  On average, a top starter threw 155 more innings than a top reliever!  That is the equivalent of over 17 full games!

Now obviously there are many assumptions baked into those numbers.  Top relievers pitch in high leverage situations so their innings might be considered more important.  Starting pitchers can hit rough patches and the accumulation of innings can’t be expected to be equivalent on a per-start basis.  But the premise still sticks: over the course of a full season a starter can contribute more than three times what a reliever can contribute.

But to have a pitcher contribute 200+ innings instead of 60 innings is only worthwhile if those innings are high quality, which brings us to the second point – development.

It’s very true that Sanchez was inconsistent last year as a starter.  He walked a lot of hitters, had difficulty finishing batters off, and generally didn’t pitch long into games.  But there were many explanations, not the least of which was that 2015 marked the first time that Aaron Sanchez had ever started a game in the major leagues.  Rough patches are to be expected for any young arm, but if given a chance a good pitcher can overcome his struggles.  It can easily be argued that Sanchez was on the road to doing just that.  In his first 8 starts, Aaron average only 5.2 IP per start, with a 4.17 ERA and more walks than strikeouts.  In his last 3 before he was injured, he averaged just under 7 IP per start, with a 2.18 ERA and over twice the amount of strikeouts than walks.  In short, just like so many other great pitchers who initially struggled as starters – including guys like Roy Halladay and, yes, David Price – Sanchez was figuring it out.

But there is more than just “figuring it out” to a pitchers development.  There is also the influence of team decision making.  There are enormous physical and mental differences between being a starter and a reliever.  A relief pitcher, especially a specialist like Sanchez last year, is typically brought in for one inning.  They throw every pitch as hard as they can, generally only throw two types of pitches, and have a mindset that they only need to get three batters out.  A starter needs to know how to pitch, how to change speeds, and how to mix in three or four different pitches.  They must also be prepared to face hitters multiple times in a game, sometimes as many as four plate appearances.

For those reasons it is very difficult for a pitcher to successfully convert from a reliever to a starter.  The act of stretching a player out in order to have him last eight innings instead of one takes time, and having a player go through the process more than once has the ability to ruin his arm.  Baseball is littered with successful relievers who used to be starters (Dennis Eckersley, John Smoltz, Jonathan Papelbon, Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton to name a few), but very few who have gone the other way.  Bouncing a player back and forth often has disastrous results – just ask former Jay Brandon Morrow, who was ruined by Seattle’s insistence that he was a starter, then a reliever, then a starter, then a reliever….

Of course, it all boils down to performance.  If Sanchez starts the year in the rotation and fails, a move back to the bullpen might be career-saving.  But starting him in the ‘pen might mean we never get a chance to find out if he has what it takes to throw 227 innings instead of 72.

I, for one, prefer the former.

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