TORONTO - Thirty-four months ago, Aaron Sanchez looked like he was on the verge of ascending into the league’s elite.
It was Oct. 2, 2016.
The season was already billed as a breakout year up to that point, with the then-24-year-old Sanchez coming off a 10-strikeout performance against the Baltimore Orioles, lowering his ERA to 3.06.
With the Toronto Blue Jays needing a win on the final day of the 2016 schedule in Boston in order to secure homefield in the wild-card game, Sanchez did what aces are supposed to do: he went into Fenway Park and put the team on his back, allowing just one run on two measly hits across seven innings.
Not only was the American League ERA crown his thanks to the strong performance, but the Jays were headed to the postseason for a second straight October.
It was supposed to be the beginning of a dominant stretch for the California native, and many were predicting yearly Cy Young consideration was on the horizon for the lanky right-hander.
But finger injuries began to intervene in the spring of 2017.
And once the finger problems worsened over the coming months, his mechanics, already a work in progress at the best of times, started to fail him.
Fast forwarding close to the present day, Sanchez is a broken pitcher, one that the Blue Jays are desperately and creatively trying to fix in order to salvage something, anything from the now-27-year-old’s remaining year and a half of team control.
The month of June may have been rock bottom.
Carrying a 3.75 ERA through the first two months of the season, Sanchez endured one of the worst months from a Jays starter ever, registering a grotesque 12.00 ERA over six starts.
None of the numbers were pretty.
In 27 innings, he gave up 44 hits and 36 earned runs, walking 19 and striking out just 16.
Sanchez’s velocity dropped and he allowed a 1.047 OPS, essentially turning everyone he faced into Barry Bonds (Bonds’ career OPS sits at 1.051).
Mechanical changes didn’t take, and Sanchez was left searching for answers.
He still is.
“I was already getting bashed, and I was going to get bashed the way I felt comfortable,” Sanchez said of the mechanical adjustments.
“We kind of did some things in my delivery that wasn’t really me, that I look back on and I wish I would’ve found a little earlier. I haven’t pitched healthy in, really, two years so it’s just one of those things. If my body feels good, I’m going to go out there and compete and that other stuff will come. And that’s what’s happening.”
Internally, the Jays have looked every which way for fixes.
They still are.
“He’s not as far off as you may think,” Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said. “There are just some subtle changes in the delivery that we’ve been looking at and trying to get him back to. It’s a little bit of a work in progress and obviously it hinges on him feeling good and being physically 100 per cent or close to it. We feel he’s just about there right now. If we can keep him there and get the delivery issues under control, we feel he can be real effective again.”
Thanks to service time and the right-hander’s insistence that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel, a demotion to Triple-A was never seriously considered, especially now that Sanchez’s veteran status says he has to agree to be sent to the minors.
The bullpen is, and still will be, an option if the struggles continue, but there have been signs that Sanchez is starting to turn a corner, even if the ERA hasn’t been the best indicator of a turnaround.
Sanchez has been able to complete five innings in all three of his July starts, which is a step in the right direction after failing to complete four innings in three of his last four outings in June.
“This is first time I’ve seen my ball moving with that type of velocity,” Sanchez said after his first start out of the all-star break in New York. “I felt like the old me. I’m pleased.”
Walker, the seventh-year pitching coach who has worked with Sanchez his entire career, believes the finger issues aren’t the problem at this point; it’s about getting everything else in sync.
“I think physically, honestly, he’s feeling, right now, as good as he has in a long time again,” Walker said. “We’re hopeful the adjustments we can make in his delivery to get back there can stay.
“I think it all comes with his lower half and he’s gotten away from that a little bit with some physical issues again. If we can get him to utilize his back leg a little bit more where he’s generating more power, more power throughout his delivery, I think, that’s the most important thing right now. The changes from 2016 to where we are now, they’re definitely noticeable but it’s a matter of getting him back to that feel and being able to do the things that he did. It’s his drive leg. It’s his landing leg. It’s finishing [pitches] and the tempo and delivery and the explosiveness that he had. It’s been a challenge, but as he feels better, it’s easier to do.”
The finger issues, however, will always linger in the background.
Blisters could re-emerge at any point, while the surgery he had last September to repair a UCL ligament in his right index finger, a procedure pushed by his agent, Scott Boras, was experimental at best.
“There have been some physical limitations and issues,” Walker admitted. “Between the blisters and the surgically repaired finger, there’s been some issues physically that he’s had a tough time overcoming and, obviously, it’s affected his delivery. When you can’t quite get the ball to do what it you want it to do or what it needs to do or you’re used to it doing, it becomes an issue. When your delivery starts to falter because of it, then it’s a major issue.”
Walks are often the culprit, and it’s not a new problem.
This year, he’s issued 59 free passes in 102 innings, a far cry from the 3.0 BB/9 in 2016. But this isn’t a new problem, as his BB/9 across 385 minor league innings was an even 5.0.
Then there’s the velocity.
At his best, Sanchez’s sinker was a dominant offering, but the average velocity on the pitch has dropped from 95.5 mph in 2016 to 94.3 mph this season, and it’s been hit hard as a result.
“I don’t know … but he thinks he can get it back,” manager Charlie Montoyo said when asked how Sanchez finds the lost velocity.
With few other rotation options to turn to, Montoyo has little choice but to let Sanchez work through his struggles in the rotation.
“He feels healthy, so it’s just that he knows he’s not commanding his pitches,” Montoyo said. “He knows that if he does that, then he knows he’s going to be okay. Because he knows he’s pitching behind in the count and all that. We all see it and in the big leagues when you do that you’re going to get hit or not pitch five innings.”
Coming into the season, the Jays were hoping Sanchez and Marcus Stroman would both pitch well enough to entice contenders to ante up at the July 31 trade deadline.
One has, one hasn’t.
But Sanchez’s arm talent is still there, and there have been teams sniffing around, according to sources, trying to buy low on a reclamation project that may be able to help in shorter stints out of the bullpen.
The Jays have no desire to sell low on a starting rotation option with another year of team control.
This winter, the Jays will be sifting through all the buy-low rotation options on both the trade and free-agent markets, but the best of that cohort is already in their possession.
There’s no plan needed for Sanchez from here on out.
Wins and losses don’t matter over the next two months, but this reclamation project could.
Just cross your fingers, let him pitch and hope something clicks before the two sides part ways at some point in 2020.