By Cole Shelton
Canadian Baseball Network
In 2016, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball was Toronto Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez.
After leading the American League in ERA that season, Sanchez was primed to be the Blue Jays' ace in 2017, but a nagging blister injury derailed his season. The blister put him on the disabled list multiple times, and after a surgery didn’t fix it, Sanchez decided to change his grip on the ball, but that ultimately led him to tear a ligament in his finger and keep him out of the regular season.
Sanchez finished 2017 with a disappointing 1-3 record, a 4.25 ERA, a 5.74 FIP and most notably just 36 innings pitched.
“There were a lot of factors that played into what happened,” Sanchez said to the Toronto Star’s Richard Griffin. “At the end the year, I just kind of flushed it down the toilet when the season was over. I took my time to get back into things. It’s been a pleasant off-season for me. I’m just getting excited to get back going.”
Getting back going is exactly what Sanchez and the Blue Jays need if they are going to be successful this season. Sanchez has said all spring that his finger injury is behind him and now it appears it is, but the 6-foot-4 right-hander needs to show he can remain healthy all year.
When Sanchez was healthy in 2016, he topped the American League with a 3.00 ERA and compiled a 15-2 record in 192 innings. If Sanchez can come even close to that in 2018, the Blue Jays will have great success.
"I knew what I needed to accomplish when I came into spring training, to be ready for the year because I missed so much time last year," said Sanchez to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi. "There was a lot of emphasis on a lot of things this year and I felt like I accomplished it. If I didn’t accomplish the things I wanted to, I’m super close. It’s what I do, man. I come here to work. I know what I need to do. I know what I need to do to get better."
The main reason that the Blue Jays need a strong comeback season from Sanchez is that they don't possess a lot of starting pitching depth behind him.
Joe Biagini is deemed to be the sixth starter and as a starter he has struggled in the majors. Last season, Biagini pitched to a 3-13 record with a 5.34 ERA, much worse than Sanchez’s 2016 season. Biagini also walks more batters per nine innings than Sanchez and strikes out fewer batters as well, according to FanGraphs.
Just to the eye test, Sanchez is a much better pitcher than Biagini, and his stuff is a lot better with more movement, and Baseball-Reference agrees. They peg Sanchez to finish 2018 with a 6-3 record, a 3.54 ERA and a 1.281 WHIP, while Biagini is projected to finish with a 2-2 record, a 4.64 ERA and a 1.364 WHIP.
Sanchez also keeps the ball down which is important in a hitter-friendly ballpark like the Rogers Centre. In his superb 2016 season, Sanchez was pitching to a 54.4% ground ball rate, — while for his career he is in the 60’s — and just a 25.1% fly ball rate, but 7.1% is from infield fly balls which lowers the fly ball number even more.
Keeping the ball down and limiting runs will be crucial for the Blue Jays' pitching staff as the club's offence remains a major concern. PECTOA — a baseball analytics site — projects the Blue Jays to score just 4.7 runs per game, while FanGraphs projects them to score a bit more with 5.06 runs per game.
Having a healthy Sanchez and his ability to limit teams from scoring runs will be huge for the Blue Jays this upcoming season. After a strong spring training, the 25-year-old righty appears to be injury-free and is slated to pitch the second game of the season. The hope is that he can remain healthy all season and return to his dominant 2016 form. If he comes close to this, the Blue Jays may be looking at a playoff spot come October.