The Sanchez Conundrum

sanchez

Aaron Sanchez is one of the best starting pitchers in the American League.  He is first in winning percentage (.917), first in ERA (2.71), seventh in WAR (3.5), first in quality start percentage (81%), and tenth in WHIP (1.13).  At this stage in the season, he has to be considered one of the front runners for the AL Cy Young award.

But he will not win the award, because Aaron Sanchez is now officially moving to the bullpen.

We don’t know for certain when he will be shifted from a member of the rotation to a member of the relief corps, but we know for certain that he will be shifted.  Quite obviously my opinion on the matter means nothing, and many writers both more influential and better than myself have already weighed in.

But I’m going to share my two cents anyways: I understand the decision, but I don’t agree with it.

Here is why I understand the decision: Aaron Sanchez is one of the most important members of the Toronto Blue Jays.  He is young, he is talented, and he has the potential to be an ace pitcher for many years to come.  Protecting his arm from injury is of the utmost importance to the future of the franchise.  If limiting his innings by removing him from the rotation is how Ross Atkins, Mark Shapiro, and the rest of the Blue Jays braintrust want to proceed, then so be it.  They have access to all kinds of performance monitoring data and are closer to the situation than anybody else.

The Verducci Effect, named after SI writer Tom Verducci, states that pitchers under the age of 25 with large inning jumps year-over-year, have an increased risk of arm injury.  The theory was largely predicated on the heavy workload and subsequent collapse of Cubs pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.  But the theory has been largely debunked in recent years.  There are many variables that can determine injury risk – body type, height, delivery, velocity, stamina – that narrowing everything down to a count of innings is absurd.

No two innings are the same, yet all are accounted for identically.  A pitcher can have a 1-2-3 inning on four pitches, or struggle through a 30-pitch inning with several base runners and heavy pressure.  Clearly those are different situations, yet both count as one inning pitched.  Simply deducting last year’s total from this year’s total to arrive at an innings increase is misleading.

Sanchez’s previous career innings high of 133.1 was set in 2014 (split between the majors and minors).  He has now reached 139.1 innings pitched.  For some people, that rings alarm bells.  But consider:

  • He is bigger and stronger than in previous seasons thanks to a rigorous off-season workout program conducted with Marcus Stroman
  • He has faced very few high stress situations
  • He has thrown a total of 2,078 pitches (as compared to 2,101 in his 2014 season), suggesting he is more efficient than in years past
  • As a starting pitcher Sanchez has an established routine that will not exist with a move to the bullpen

The other question to ask is where will Sanchez fit in?  After struggling to develop a bullpen identity all season long, Gibbons has finally found something that works with an endgame of Grilli and Osuna.  Does Sanchez supplant Grilli as the 8th inning guy?  Does he become a multi-inning relief beast?  Does he pitch the 7th?  Until those questions can be answered I’m not sure moving him makes sense.

This whole debate is eerily similar to what happened in Washington a few seasons ago.  In 2012 the Washington Nationals won 98 games – the most in baseball.  They did it largely on the arm of Stephen Strasburg who went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA.  However, concerns over his workload (159.1 innings) led the Nats to shut him down in early September, meaning he wasn’t available for the playoffs.  Not surprisingly, Washington lost in the first round.  Though they have had good teams in the years that followed, 2012 was their best shot at a World Series.

In 2016, the Jays are tooth and nail to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.  Though their window for contention will not close at the end of the season, there is a very real possibility that it narrows considerably as both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion may be in different uniforms.  Like Strasburg in 2012, Sanchez is dominating big league hitters.  Like Strasburg in 2012, Sanchez is 23 years old.

But, and this is a HUGE but, unlike Strasburg in 2012, Sanchez has a much broader body of work behind him.  Coming into the 2012 season, Strasburg had pitched professionally for parts of three seasons, compiling a total of 186.2 innings across six levels (Arizona Fall League, A, A+, AA, AAA, MLB):

Year Age Tm Lg Lev IP
2009 20 Phoenix AZFL Fal 19.0
2010 21 Harrisburg EL AA 22.0
2010 21 Syracuse IL AAA 33.1
2010 21 WSN NL MLB 68.0
2011 22 Hagerstown SALL A 6.1
2011 22 Potomac CARL A+ 3.0
2011 22 Harrisburg EL AA 6.0
2011 22 Syracuse IL AAA 5.0
2011 22 WSN NL MLB 24.0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2016.

 

Coming into the 2016 season, Aaron Sanchez has pitched professionally for parts of six seasons, compiling a total of 514.2 innings across eight levels (Arizona Fall League, Rookie League, A-, A, A+, AA, AAA, MLB):

Year Age Tm Lg Lev IP
2010 17 Blue Jays GULF Rk 19.0
2010 17 Auburn NYPL A- 6.0
2011 18 Bluefield APPY Rk 42.2
2011 18 Vancouver NORW A- 11.2
2012 19 Lansing MIDW A 90.1
2013 20 Dunedin FLOR A+ 86.1
2013 20 Salt River AZFL Fal 23.1
2014 21 New Hampshire EL AA 66.0
2014 21 Buffalo IL AAA 34.1
2014 21 TOR AL MLB 33.0
2015 22 Blue Jays GULF Rk 2.0
2015 22 Dunedin FLOR A+ 2.2
2015 22 Buffalo IL AAA 5.0
2015 22 TOR AL MLB 92.1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2016.

 

That is nearly three times the workload that Strasburg had, spread out over twice as many years.  The argument that Sanchez doesn’t have sufficient mileage built up in his arm to withstand a large innings increase seems very thin.

As is well known, Washington did not win the World Series in 2012.   Without Sanchez in the rotation it may prove difficult for the Blue Jays to win in 2016.

But if there is some cause for hope, consider this:

Back in spring training there were two key questions facing Toronto’s pitching staff.  The first was whether Drew Storen or Roberto Osuna would open the season in the closer role.  The second was whether Aaron Sanchez or Jesse Chavez would win a rotation spot.  Toronto’s management chose Osuna and Sanchez.

Without a doubt they made the right decision back then.

Here’s hoping they made the right decision now.

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