Greg Wisniewski has an excellent piece up at Blue Jays Plus, where he uses actual numbers and logic in an attempt to answer the question that was on a lot of minds during the latter half of this summer: should Aaron Sanchez remain in the bullpen?
The argument for is fairly elegant: even though we can expect some regression, given his otherworldly beginnings as a big league reliever and the fact that the league has only seen 30 innings of him so far, he still could be a spectacular, bullpen-saving multi-inning reliever.
Imagine the Jays with Sanchez doing — albeit via groundballs, not strikeouts — what Dellin Betances did for the Yankees this season, throwing 90 relief innings over 70 appearances, 35 of which saw him get four outs or more.
It’s tantalizing, and — as Greg argues — it’s a way to get a tonne of immediate big league value out of Sanchez, rather than either having him toil in Buffalo or by making room for him in the rotation only to have him shut down late in the season because of an innings cap. It also, I might add, leaves him somewhat stretched out, and therefore more ready than most to assume a spot in the rotation should anyone go down to injury or need to be demoted for performance reasons — at which point his innings will likely have been suppressed enough that worrying about an early shut-down will have stopped being an issue.
This is all well and good. Counterintuitive as it may be to want to take innings away from what may be one of your better pitchers, you can make a pretty compelling case out of these ideas, I think. But if I were to take sort of issue with Greg’s piece, it would start around here:
The argument I’ve heard against the whole idea is that of the possibilty of injury. Frankly, I don’t buy it, and I don’t think the Blue Jays worry about the bullpen causing injuries to starters due to a change in routine. Sanchez, Stroman, and Daniel Norris (not to mention Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek) were all put in the bullpen this year after starting games, and there was no hesitation to do so from the Blue Jays front office.
Injury may well be an argument against the notion that some have made, but I personally wouldn’t make it — for exactly the reasons Greg cites — and I wouldn’t call it the argument against the scheme, either.
What I would call the argument against it is essentially twofold, though comes down to one central conceit: you eventually want Aaron Sanchez to be a starter — and not just any starter, but a very, very good one. That’s a key difference between him and Betances, who seems now a reliever in full. And the timeline for Sanchez’s future in the rotation isn’t necessarily just some vague “eventually,” but actually rather specific and, frankly, pretty soon.
J.A. Happ’s contract is up following the 2015 season. Mark Buehrle will hit free agency after next year as well. R.A. Dickey will likely be around for one year after that, but it’s too early to say whether his 2016 option will be picked up, and not impossible to think that injury or poor performance could force the Jays to drop him, creating three large holes in the club’s rotation twelve months from now.
Daniel Norris would ideally be able to fill one of those holes, but Sanchez, coming off a mere 100 inning season, likely could not. At least not in the way that you’d want.
The BJP piece notes that the Jays attempt to be gradual with the way they increase their young starters’ workloads, which they say poses a problem for Sanchez next spring, as he’ll be coming off a year in which he logged just 133.1 innings. But though Greg notes at one point that 30 inning increases are generally the maximum, he shows later that Marcus Stroman’s total this year actually went up by 42 innings. Daniel Norris also jumped about that much, from 90.2 last season to this year’s 131.1. And Drew Hutchison’s career high was 149.1 innings back in 2011, before he went up to 184.2 this year — a smaller jump, yes, but still above 30 and maybe more risky given his surgery and how long it had been since his arm had been built up to that point.
Not only does that make something closer to 175 innings — i.e. just ten innings fewer than Hutchison this year — plausible for Sanchez in 2015, it also puts him in line to pitch with no restrictions the following season (provided good health, of course). That’s not the case if he becomes a 100 inning guy this year, and while I’m sure the Jays could find a way to work around it (or, given their actions with Hutchison, simply increase his 2016 workload to 40-odd innings above its previous peak), it’s not the only problem that arises from bullpen plan.
There is also the issue of his repertoire and its development.
Sanchez essentially ditched his changeup while working out of the Jays’ bullpen this summer, throwing it just 4.2% of the time according to the data at Brooks. His curveball showed up just 13.1% of the time, while the rest of his pitches were either sinkers (59.7%) or four-seamers (23.0%). That’s not exactly the way to hone still-developing secondary offerings, nor is the fact that as a reliever he wouldn’t be turning lineups over particularly great for his development either.
To those points, here’s how Mark Anderson of Baseball Prospectus described the changeup he saw Sanchez using while pitching for New Hampshire on April 13th and June 8th of this year:
Poor pitch in both outings; lacks feel for offering; consistently misses up with CH; lacked consistent movement but showed occasional dive that didn’t seem repeatable; almost always overthrown and way too firm; needs to let the grip do the work; question whether feel will ever develop enough for average third pitch; stayed away from it in tight spots; seemed to use slower curveball as change-of-pace offering instead of changeup.
If Sanchez is being asked to come into high leverage big league situations and get outs all year, is he going to throw that pitch enough to really get the feel for it that he needs? Is practically shelving it for a year the best thing for its continued development?
These are important questions, and it would be easy to answer them with an emphatic “No!” But it’s not like he necessarily needs the change that badly in order to become an effective big league starter, either. In fact, in the concluding section of Anderson’s scouting report he says that Sanchez reminds him “a lot of A.J. Burnett in many ways.” Part of that is maybe just an overall feeling — he “will look brilliant at times and lost at others,” he says, calling Sanchez a future “mid-rotation starter who will have streaks where he can shows more than that” — but part of it too is that Burnett gets by just fine using a similar set of pitches.
Since 2007, Brooks says A.J. has thrown his changeup 5.9% of the time. The rest of his pitches, like Sanchez, have been a mix of curves, sinkers, and four-seamers. Burnett’s curve isn’t thrown the same way, his usage of it has been much heavier (31.6%), and his ratio of sinkers to four-seamers is quite different, but maybe he represents a sort of model of something you hope Sanchez can be.
It’s just… is that all you want him to be?
Sure, you’d take getting A.J. Burnett’s career out of Aaron Sanchez in a heartbeat. IN A HEARTBEAT. And consigning him to the bullpen for now won’t necessarily stunt him, so maybe my concerns about the lack of repetition of the changeup and putting off having him turn lineups over are a bit overblown. But I just can’t not believe that continuing to let him grow as a pitcher, rather than narrowing his focus at this still-crucial point in his development, is paramount. And combined with the innings issue you’ll run into when looking to him as a likely rotation piece in 2016, I tend to think that going for the short-term value gain of having him pitch as a multi-inning reliever next season probably just isn’t as worthwhile as it seems.
Um… unless you didn’t buy the arguments about using him in the ‘pen in the first place, in which case it’s exactly as worthwhile as it seems.