March 30, 2014
After an impressive big league spring training, there will be even more eyes on top Blue Jays prospect Aaron Sanchez as he gets set to kick off the 2014 season.
This is the first of a three-part series with the right-hander, on being untouchable and command issues. The next installments will delve into why he was limited to just 96 regular season innings last year and his quest for more in 2014.
When Aaron Sanchez threw his final pitch as a member of the Lansing Lugnuts in August of 2012, little did he know that his personal life and the entire makeup of the Blue Jays’ minor league system would change very soon.
That November, the Blue Jays and Marlins finalized their blockbuster deal that had been in the works since the summer. Toronto shipped seven players to Florida — a package that included Sanchez’s closest friend in the minor leagues, left-handed pitcher Justin Nicolino. One month after that, Lansing teammate Noah Syndergaard was sent packing to the Mets along with catcher Travis d’Arnaud in the trade that netted the Blue Jays R.A. Dickey.
“It was so hidden for me, I had no clue what was going on,” Sanchez said of the trades. “It was just like, wow. Then all of a sudden the rumbles come up that they’re getting R.A. in the deal with New York and it’s down to Gose, me, and Noah and they want d’Arnaud, d’Arnaud’s the centerpiece of this trade, and I get a text like ‘hey are you getting traded?”
Sanchez, Nicolino, and Syndergaard were, of course, the infamous Lugnuts trio that caused droves of scouts to flock to Lansing in 2012. Drafted in the same year and roommates as they worked their way up the minor league ladder together, the threesome, while dominant on the field, had become incredibly close off of it.
While opinions on who the best member was varied between scouts and front office staff alike, Sanchez turned out to be the one that Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos just couldn’t let go of.
“It does give you a reassuring sense of feel that hey man, these guys really do like what they see or what you’ve got,” Sanchez said of being the last man standing of the group. “It just kind of gives you that extra boost of confidence to getting to where you want to be, and that’s Toronto.”
I’m going to walk a few guys, and that’s just my game. It’s not like I’m made up to be this, wild thing.
While a case could be made for any of three, Sanchez was deemed untouchable for good reason.
Touted as a tall, projectable right-hander with effortless velocity out of high school, Sanchez found that a more intense change to his off-season workouts following his 2011 season resulted in more velocity on his fastball. So by the time he had worked his way into his first full season as a pro, Sanchez found his fastball eventually sitting in plus-plus (94-96 mph) territory and, on occasion, touching even higher.
Sanchez, however, also had a changeup in his arsenal; a seldom-used offering given his ability to overpower inexperienced hitters with the fastball early in his pro career. Lugnuts pitching coach Vince Horsman knew that mindset wouldn’t fly in the Midwest League, so he worked diligently with Sanchez on throwing his changeup more often and in counts he never imagined before, such as 0-2 or 3-2.
All in all, Sanchez was dominant for the Lugnuts that season. Being used in a piggybacking system for the first part of the year, he didn’t allow a run until early May during his seventh outing of the season. He finished the year with a tidy 2.49 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 90 1/3 innings, while limiting opposing hitters to a .204 batting average.
While Sanchez is perhaps the only untouchable prospect in the Blue Jays’ system, it’s certainly not going to affect the way the right-hander goes about his business.
“It’s kind of cool, but I’m not going to change my mindset, I’m not going to change my work ethic because of that,” the right-hander told JaysProspects. “I’m not going to be a person that tries to take advantage of an organization to getting out of things because of where I might stand. I’m never, ever going to be that way and I won’t ever be that way.”
In one off-season, the ‘Lansing Three’ had been whittled down to one. With a combination of pitching and position player prospects having been sent packing, that meant that Sanchez was not only considered the top Blue Jays pitching prospect now, but also the No. 1 prospect in Toronto’s entire minor league system. If the California native thought he had garnered a lot of attention while playing for Lansing, that was going to be nothing compared to the number of people that would be following him in 2013.
“Maybe I’m being looked at a little bit more because of the trades that happened and we let go a lot of talent, but I don’t think there’s more pressure on myself,” Sanchez said.
Early on in his time with Dunedin, it looked like Sanchez hadn’t missed a beat since making the jump from the Midwest League to the Florida State League. In his first month with the D-Jays, the right-hander managed a 2.60 ERA in seven starts, had limited opposing hitters to a paltry .163 average, and tallied 34 strikeouts to 10 walks in almost 35 innings.
Much like when he arrived in Lansing, though, Sanchez had been seeing results from using his fastball the majority of the time, which prompted some discussions with Dunedin pitching coach Darold Knowles and other members of the Jays’ brass.
“I think the toughest part for me was the beginning of the year, I was attacking guys with my fastball and I wasn’t getting hit around,” Sanchez said. “Then they kind of sat me down and said ‘hey, look, you need to throw your off-speed stuff, for the development side we need to get your off-speed stuff going’.
“So if I would give up four or five hits in a game, three would be off either a curveball or a changeup. It sucks because I know I can go out there and dominate with my fastball, but then again I have to look at the big picture and where I want to be. So that was a little difficult to grasp, with being so stubborn with getting away with my best stuff. And that’s my game plan, if you’re going to hit me, you’re going to beat me with my best stuff.
While it’s hard to argue that Sanchez’s stuff is some of the best in all of the minor leagues, the main criticism against him since turning pro has been inconsistent command and a high walk rate as a result.
“I know the big issue [with me] is ‘oh he walks too many guys’, but it’s competitive walks,” he said. “There’s been times where umpires have been fooled, there’s been times where there’s been 12-pitch at-bats and it’s just miss here, miss there.”
Those that saw Sanchez pitch last season know he has a point. He finished the season with 40 walks in 86 1/3 regular season innings, but not every single one was a free pass on four pitches; there were full counts and foul ball battles lost. There was also that fact that, in addition to adding a sinker to his repertoire, the Blue Jays tinkered with mechanical changes to Sanchez’s delivery during the season, which would likely require an adjustment period as well.
Nevertheless, the sheer numbers speak loudly, and it’s something the 21-year-old is well aware of.
“That’s my fault, I’m the one that’s out there doing it,” Sanchez said of his walk rate. “But I think if [people] were here to watch and see, it would be a little bit of a different story because I’m around the zone and I attack hitters.”
In his first two seasons as a pro from 2010-11, Sanchez issued 43 walks in 79 1/3 innings for an average of nearly five per nine frames. In 2012, Sanchez led his Lugnuts team in walks (51) and hit batsmen (7), and finished with a walk rate that was 51 percent above the Midwest League average. Last season, Sanchez finished with a career-best 4.2 walks per nine innings, but his walk rate was still 31% above the average for the Florida State League.
While the mechanical adjustments Sanchez made this past season—specifically shortening his stride and remaining more upright in his delivery to pitch on more of a downhill plane to avoid consistently missing high and arm side—should help bring his walk rate further down this coming season, the reality is that given his power-pitcher stuff and the amount of movement he has on all of his pitches, some walks are inevitable.
“Everything moves with Sanchez, and that’s the issue. If it moves too much, he’s going to get balls called and walk a few hitters,” former pro scout Bernie Pleskoff told MLB.com.
For those that haven’t had the luxury of seeing Sanchez pitch in person, the data, albeit a small sample, backs up the amount of movement he has on his pitches. As Kyle Matte pointed out over at Drunk Jays Fans using limited Pitch F/X data from the Arizona Fall League, there are few pitches from major league hurlers that can match the movement Sanchez’s offerings have.
“It’s not like I’m made up to be this, wild thing,” Sanchez said with a laugh. “I’m going to walk a few guys, and that’s just my game.”