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The Major Aaron Sanchez Debate Should be Minor(s)

Oh, Spring Training. A time of mascot antics, stories about players in the best shape of their lives, and hot takes for the sake of hot takes. On Sunday, the latter was fulfilled by Sportsnet’s Mike Wilner, as he argued that the Jays should use Aaron Sanchez solely as a relief pitcher in 2016. Given that prior to Sunday the conventional wisdom was that Sanchez would assuredly be in the rotation, Wilner’s comments created a heated discussion. In his piece, he makes the very salient point that “we don’t know what Sanchez is as a starter. Is he the guy with the 2.57 ERA over his last four starts, the one who stopped walking people, or is he the guy who struggled with his command and couldn’t get deep into games earlier in the season?”

Sanchez is risky as a starter, but we already know that he’s fairly reliable as a reliever. Wilner argues that the reliability is what is needed for a team in contention. Conversely, on Twitter, many have argued that the risk is precisely what the Jays need to set themselves apart. Or, more specifically, that the the Jays need to try Sanchez in the major league rotation soon as to not waste him.

Now, what if I told you that they’re both mostly wrong?

In past years, the Jays needed to try and bet on upside in the rotation in order to succeed (See: Norris, Daniel, and Boyd, Matt). However, this season, that’s not true at all. Without even counting Aaron Sanchez, the Jays have seven starters that could easily slot into a rotation: Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Gavin Floyd, Jesse Chavez, and Drew Hutchison. Do any of the latter three have as much upside as Aaron Sanchez in the long term? Probably not. Can they pitch to a similar or better ERA in 2016? Probably.

That’s the first point against Sanchez as a starter. Even if he’s 30 percent better than he was the last time he was in the rotation, that’s still not good enough. Sure, Sanchez put up a 3.55 ERA in the role last season, but that was on the back of roughly equal strikeout (15.0 percent) and walk (13.2 percent) rates. In history, there are no pitchers who’ve consistently survived on that little split between walks and strikeouts – no matter how high their ground ball rates may have been.

Sanchez’s supporters would likely argue that he isn’t the same pitcher that we saw at the beginning of last season. They would, as Wilner notes, point out that Sanchez had a 2.57 ERA over his last four starts. Or perhaps they’ll offer up a picture of the new, bulked up Sanchez as some evidence that he’s ‘ready to start’. He might very well be, but when there are other alternatives, why throw him in to the AL East fire? They don’t have to.

That argument may lead you to believe that Sanchez should be in the bullpen instead, right? Au contraire, mon ami. In spite of my affliction towards disdain for relievers who don’t fit the high-strikeout mold, I’d be remiss to suggest that Aaron Sanchez isn’t an elite reliever. Since 2014, among relievers with at least 50 IP, Sanchez’s 1.67 ERA ranks fifth in baseball – ahead of big-dollar guys like Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel, and Aroldis Chapman. That being said, the Jays would be silly to waste the arm of a man who Alex Anthopoulos chose to keep over Noah Syndergaard; Sanchez needs to start. Fortunately, forcing him in to a relief role in 2016 doesn’t preclude the Jays from having him start in the future. As long as they’re not going back and forth between the roles in season, it shouldn’t hinder Sanchez’s development, and will definitely help this year’s squad. That’s Wilner’s argument.

While pitching in the pen this year won’t hinder Sanchez’ development, it won’t necessarily help it either. In order to be an effective starter, he’s going to have to further develop his pitch mix, which isn’t going to happen when he can succeed in relief by throwing 85 percent fastballs. And just as there is plenty of starting depth, the same is true for the relievers. A back end that already includes Roberto Osuna, Brett Cecil, and Drew Storen doesn’t *need* another elite reliever. It certainly can’t hurt, but they’ll be fine without him. That brings us to what’s behind door number three: Start Aaron Sanchez in AAA.

Let’s create a couple of decision criteria to break down this role conundrum.

How much does the role contribute to the team in 2016?
How much does the role help Sanchez reach his future potential?

In the Option 1, where Sanchez starts the season in the rotation, he might have be improved enough to be an asset, but he also might take up a spot from someone who can contribute more (i.e. Jesse Chavez or Gavin Floyd). In addition, he could be hurt developmentally if his changes don’t lead to success. In Option 2, wherein Sanchez remains a reliever, he’ll be a solid contributor in 2016…well, as much as any reliever can. However, he loses a year of development for starting, which doesn’t preclude him from starting all together, but does delay the process.

With Option 3, Buffalo, Sanchez won’t be able to contribute at the beginning of the season, outside of giving the team the opportunity to see what else they have in other arms. He may not enjoy it, but if Sanchez can hone his craft in Buffalo, it’s possible that he could be a bigger part of a late season playoff push than if he started the season in the major leagues. More importantly, he’ll also get the chance to develop as a starter in the best environment possible; he can throw as many curveballs, changeups, and cutters as necessary without worrying about results. Then, once he proves that he has mastered his stuff and AAA is no longer a challenge for him, the Jays can call him up.

It’s important to keep in mind that, unlike Marcus Stroman or Brett Lawrie before him, Aaron Sanchez never forced his way in to the majors. He stumbled up the ladder when the Jays lacked a right handed arm at the back of the bullpen. With that in mind, and the fact that the Jays finally have the depth to allow pitching prospects to develop, they need not be hasty. At one point, Aaron Sanchez was hailed as future top of the rotation starter. After losing out on one this offseason, the Jays should know now, more than ever, just how valuable those players can be.

Don’t waste it.

Lead Photo: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

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8 comments on “The Major Aaron Sanchez Debate Should be Minor(s)”

Gary W

Isn’t Sanchez out of options?

Gideon Turk

No, he has all three options left.

JAM

C’mon guys… ERA? I mean it’s not “pitcher win” level of obsolete stat but I’d figure a BP branded site wouldn’t be using ERA.

Matt Gwin

ERA is far from obsolete when you’re talking about what actually happened. I love FIP, DRA, and the like as much or more than the next guy, but they tell you what should have happened to Sanchez, not what actually did. That’s especially important to note for a guy like Sanchez, who thrives on success from ground balls, as opposed to the Ks and BBs that drive a good FIP or DRA.

Mark

While you can argue that FIP may undervalue groundball pitchers, it doesn’t mean it should be ignored, either. FIP is still the method of choice for pitchers unless there are hundreds, if not thousands of innings within a sample size suggesting a pitcher can beat, or underperform his FIP.

We’re not at that point for Sanchez yet, so the above poster is correct. You shouldn’t be using ERA for any point regarding Sanchez, and if you are, your findings will be invalid.

Sanchez wasn’t particularly strong in those 4 starts, either. He faced Minnesota, Houston, LA, and Seattle, 2 of whom were at the time the worst offences in the AL. He was giving up home runs to each team, something that is a huge red flag for a groundball pitcher. In only 2 games were his K:BB acceptable (at least 2 or higher). The results were good, but the process behind them wasn’t. He wasn’t walking 5 guys a game anymore, but his peripherals still sucked.

We shouldn’t assume he’ll be good simply because he did well against the worst offences in the AL.

The idea of Sanchez to the minors is right on, but your arguments are a bit odd.

Erik

While I agree that ERA isn’t usually the best stat to use, in the context that it is used throughout the article, it makes sense.

nberlove

Option 4:
Put him in the bullpen with the plan to have him pitch 3-4 innings every 4-5 days. This would give him more work than a typical back of the bullpen role, force him to rely on more than just his fastball and would allow him to contribute this year. If he can’t thrive in that role, send him to Buffalo.

The reality is none of the possible starters, except maybe Stroman, can be relied upon to pitch 6-7 innings each start, especially in April: Dickey has a history of starting slow, Estrada is dealing with a bad back, Floyd is not that far removed from arm surgery, and Happ, Chavez and Hutch are not known for their consistency. There is little doubt the Jays will need long relievers in April. The prudent thing is to plan for it.

Bob M

Brandon Morrow is an excellent example of what can happen to a high end prospect when team management cannot decide between the bullpen and starter role. I would hate to see a similar result with Sanchez

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