MLB: Houston Astros at Toronto Blue Jays

How the Blue Jays Can Keep Aaron Sanchez in the Rotation

Aaron Sanchez has officially made the Blue Jays rotation, as we (almost) all agree he should have. Yet no sooner than the announcement was made than it was swiftly followed by disclaimers about how his innings need to be closely monitored and it’s not certain he’ll remain in the rotation all year. I think it’s fair to say these ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Teams always express caution in the Spring about what might happen in late summer and fall, such as the unanimous declarations a year ago that there was no chance Stroman would pitch in 2015.

On the other hand, it’s hardly worthy of saying that they will keep a close eye on him, and have a plan in place to manage his workload – of course they will. They are not idiots. What we don’t know, as fans, is the nature of this plan, or what exactly they mean by monitoring. There are as many unproven hypotheses about what leads to pitcher injuries, it seems, as there are people looking for answers. Most amount to correlation at best with little evidence of causation. There is the widely propagated, and many consider debunked, “Year After Effect” (also called the “Verducci Effect” because it’s most famously attributed to SI writer Tom Verducci ) which says that pitchers 25 and under should be limited to an increase of no more than 30 IP year over year. Then there’s the modification of that which Alex Anthopolous mentioned a couple of times early on, which changed that to an increase of around 30% rather than 30 IP.  The most notorious example of attempting to apply the YAE paradigm in recent years was the Nationals’ strict handling of Stephen Strasburg; he ended up not pitching in the postseason and Washington lost the Division Series. But that wasn’t the only one. There was also the debate over Matt Harvey last fall and several other examples of teams taking this thesis as accepted wisdom. Yet we know the Blue Jays, at least under AA, had moved on from the YAE concept, since Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison  and Daniel Norris all broke that ceiling in 2014.

Then there are similar discussions regarding the number of pitches per start (Baseball Prospectus had a major feature on this 15 years ago), or the number of innings with a high number of pitches, and so forth. However Mark Shapiro and Company have made a considerable deal of being at the cutting edge in the area of sports science and high performance and it’s unlikely they are relying on anything so primitive as inning counts to make these decisions. I, for one, am highly confident Sanchez will, barring injury, pitch right through the season and into the playoffs.

However, this does not mean that I expect that they will never skip a turn or make other sensible adjustments to manage his workload (and to a lesser degree, Stroman’s) so that he’s most effective in the fall. More to the point, you will no doubt see thousands of words in print over the next six months parsing and re-parsing the accumulation of innings on Sanchez’s arm. Management might not settle for so archaic a measurement but the press and the blogosphere and the comments threads surely will. Therefore I’ve taken it upon myself to walk you through the season in an effort to illustrate how, with a modicum of foresight, the team can easily manage this figure, and without over-taxing the rest of the rotation.

First, let’s be clear – it’s exceedingly rare for a team to make it through the season with their opening day five man rotation intact. On average, a team will use multiple extra starting pitchers in a season. But injuries cannot be specifically predicted so this exercise necessarily presumes use of only the starting five (with the exception of two planned spot-starts). It is sufficient to point out that any injury decreases the inning count of the injured pitcher and thus makes him that much less likely to be over-taxed by October. Also, teams are increasingly reluctant to allow a SP to exceed 100 pitches, and there seems to be a movement towards avoiding having a pitcher face hitters a third time on a regular basis. Both these mitigate against high IP totals at the end of the season.

Secondly, let’s lay out the simple math of the YAE. It really only applies to Stroman and Sanchez, as the other three starters are veterans, but two of the three have never breached 200 IP so let’s throw them in just for fun.  The following are the  +30% totals for the two young guys and +20% for the veterans not named Dickey:

Stroman – 216

Sanchez – 173

Happ – 206

Estrada – 240 (if we include the postseason from last year)

We can see that even if we’re looking at the hypothetical (mythological?) red line, it’s clear that approaching or exceeding 200 IP isn’t an issue for anyone but Sanchez. What follows then is a survey of the coming season, noting the appropriate moments when the team will have to be proactive in order to achieve the results that the media and fans will be obsessing over.


Based on the news that the team will hold back Marco Estrada on the DL to begin the season, Sanchez would seem to slot into the third position initially behind Stroman and Dickey, immediately followed by Happ. In so doing, given two early off days, they could run through this set twice before making a decision on where to slot Estrada in on the third turn through. They do not have to use him before April 16, but the smart play is to do it a day earlier, giving Sanchez a fifth day of rest, though that’s not the reason why it’s smart. By doing this, they line Sanchez’s turn up with an off day in May, giving them their first opportunity to conserve innings. This adjustment does not affect the opposing team initially , since both games (April 15 and 16) are at Boston. The same applies to the next two turns through the rotation as we move towards May.


As of May 3, Estrada should have four starts and the other pitchers have six each. There’s an off day on May 12 in the middle of a road trip to San Francisco and Texas. Sanchez’s turn falls on that day and the plan would be to skip him. That places him on the same day he would have been if Estrada hadn’t been slipped in front of him. In the third week of May, the entire rotation gets a turn on five days rest, and Stroman and Dickey make their 12th start as the first third of the season concludes on May 31.


On June 2nd, Sanchez’s turn again falls on an off day and, again, the plan says to skip him. This will tax their resolve because the next day they open back in Boston with Happ on the mound, but it’s best to stick to the plan. Later in the month, June 20 and 23, the Blue Jays have off days sandwiching a two game set against Arizona.  Sanchez would have last started on the 17th, and skipping him altogether this week holds him back to the 28th, when he’ll get his 14th start of the year (while Estrada has 15 and the other three have 17 turns). This would give both Stroman and Happ an extra day of rest that week as well. On the 81st game of the year, the last day in June, Stroman makes his 18th start.  That may seem like a pace that’s leading to a bad place, but that will change over the second half.


The last game before the All Star break, July 10 hosting the Tigers, is a turn that naturally falls to Stroman but I’m going to propose here that the team would be wise to give Chavez or Floyd a spot start here. This allows Stroman an opportunity to accept his potential ASG invite, and helps dial back his pace a bit. After the four day break, the team can take more advantage than most teams because they have another Diamondback Sandwich on the schedule. July 18 and 21 are off days surrounding two games in Phoenix. Here’s what the team can do, then, coming out of the break:

July 15 – Dickey – 8 days rest

July 16 – Estrada – 8 days rest

July 17 – Happ – 7 days rest

July 18 – off day

July 19 – Stroman – 13 days rest (ASG notwithstanding)

July 20 – Dickey – 4 days rest

July 21 – off day

July 22 – Estrada – 5 days rest

July 23 – Happ – 5 days rest

July 24 – Stroman – 4 days rest

July 25 – Dickey – 4 days rest

July 26 – Sanchez – 17 days since last start

July 27 – Estrada – 4 days rest

Not only do you get a major savings on Sanchez here, but you give Stroman a nice break and you can even use Sanchez out of the bullpen on his “throw days” during those first two series if you want, to keep him sharp. Alternately, you could demote him for 10 days and let him make a couple of controled 2 or 3 inning outings there. There’s another off day on July 28, and as of the end of the month, Dickey has 23 starts, Stroman and Happ have 22, Estrada 20 and Sanchez 17 starts. At this point we’ve effectively addressed the issue, but let’s play out the season and check the totals.


We keep the rotation intact through August, with off days on the 18th and the 22nd giving everyone two turns through on five days rest except Dickey who gets six days once. As the rosters expand, Dickey and Happ have 28 starts, Stroman has 27, and Sanchez will have made only 23.


September 1st and 8th are off days, so our rotation continues to get routine extra days rest. If anyone seems weary, you can plug presumed call-up Drew Hutchison into any game on a mid-month West Coast trip to spot-start and provide, say, Happ a skipped turn, assuming neither of the Angels or Mariners stand to have a direct effect on the team’s playoff chances. But that’s just an “if necessary” precuation. I didn’t include it in my plans. There’s another off day Sept. 22 and it provides for our last twist. The team can use it to flip Estrada and Sanchez, and that would line up Sanchez with the last day of the season. If all is well and the Blue Jays have sufficient lead for the game to not be critical, it provides one last opportunity to spot-start someone else and hold Sanchez back for an upcoming playoff  series. Alternately, if they have been eliminated there’s still no reason to start him on the last day. The only scenario in which he needs to make that start is if the Jays are within one game of gaining or losing a playoff slot.


As described, this season would end with the following start totals:

Stroman – 33

Dickey – 34

Estrada – 32

Happ – 33

Sanchez – 28

Spot – 2

Assuming his career average IP per start, that would give Stroman 204 IP, Based on Estrada’s rate in 2015 he’d have 196, and Happ, based on his three year average of IP/GS, would end with 183.1 innings. But this is about Sanchez, so what happens with him? 28 starts at six IP on average would be 168 total innings, plus the handful he might or might not get in relief/minor league outings in the week following the All Star Game.

As you can see, the team need not overwork the rest of the rotation in order to smartly manage Sanchez, even if we assume their primary measure is as simple as innings pitched. As with so many of the other concerns that get a lot of press, there’s really nothing to see here for a team that’s declared themselves aware of the issue and conscious of how to best address it. If I can figure this stuff out, the front office can surely do it better. Again, something will happen. Someone will get the stomach flu or sleep on their hair the wrong way or hurt something more serious. I’m not so naive as to argue this a plan you can sort out in March and roll with it. Bust most of the things that might go wrong only make it easier to achieve the desired (in the matter of innings management) outcome. Every inning that goes to an alternate starter is an inning that doesn’t go to the front five. This is just one more data set supporting the widely held view that the team, finally, made the right call.

Lead Photo: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

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5 comments on “How the Blue Jays Can Keep Aaron Sanchez in the Rotation”


I smiled at “they are not idiots.” I wish I believed that.


Thanks for the article. That was great. It was insightful and detailed.


I agree with the idea. But assuming Sanchez is good enough to be the Jays’ 2nd best starter (which I do), wouldn’t the plan be to manage his ability to stay in the rotation, not only through September, but also in the playoffs as well? Even assuming that limiting his innings is the right approach (I actually think it should be based on pitch counts and total workload), I think there has to be some more in-game management, e.g. working up his innings more gradually at the beginning (they have Floyd after all, so use him), as well as taking him out after 6 IP whenever the outcome of the game is already more or less decided (i.e. thereby saving his bullets). The playoffs really comes down to 4-5 more starts, or around 30 innings.


I suspect the situation will be played by ear so to speak. As just one possible factor, if the Jays lead the league all season like KC did last year rather than being ~ .500 again, they’ll be in a better position to manage not just Sanchez’ workload but the entire rotation’s.

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