Last column I said Aaron Sanchez had gone from being a question mark to a name in the discussion for a Cy Young Award. True, but really Sanchez has gone from being a question mark to… another question mark.
It’s a problem most teams would love to have. With pitching at such a premium in today’s game, most teams would kill to have a pitcher who’s just too good. Not a terrible problem to have, but make no mistake, Aaron Sanchez has become a problem for the Blue Jays by being precisely that.
His run of ten-straight winning decisions is best for a Blue Jays pitcher since Roy Halladay back in 2003- his Cy Young winning campaign. He’s currently second in the AL among officially-qualified starters in ERA , at 2.72, in the top 10 among pitchers on pace for even 100 innings and his 11-1 record equates to the league’s best winning percentage among regular starters. So what’s the problem again?
The problem is, at least to the minds of the management, a worry about how much more he can deliver this year. At 132 1/3 innings, he’s sixth in the AL (ahead of regular innings-eaters like Cole Hamels and jered Weaver) and only a few pitches away from his career high of 133 1/3 innings, split between the minors and bigs back in 2014. In days of yore, back when Pete Rose would say “men were men” and Nolan Ryan pitched about 300 innings a year at full tilt, this wouldn’t be seen as a predicament . But times have changed obviously, and we live in a world of pitch counts and teams wanting to nurture their investment in ace pitchers. A common rule of thumb these days is to limit a young pitcher to about 20% more innings than in the past year, which even if the Jays forgot about 2015 and went by his ’14 season, would see him top out around 160 innings. As it stands now, he is on pace to hurl some 210 innings before, (we hope), heading into the post-season.
Midway through June, coincidentally or not after a bit of a rough outing against Baltimore, John Gibbons told the media that Sanchez would soon trudge back to the bullpen to save his arm and be replaced with Drew Hutchison in the rotation. That’s where the problem arises. Since that time, Sanchez has been brilliant, going 5-0 in seven starts, allowing only 8 earned runs in over 47 innings, for a 1.53 ERA. Oh, and of course he also put in an inning for the American League in the All Star game. Hutchison, meanwhile , has been mediocre enough as to not dispel any memories of his disappointing fall from grace last year. Not to mention that the other youngster in the rotation, Marcus Stroman, has been less than expected so far and is also getting up there in innings (129 or so , with a career high of 166 in 2014.)
So what to do? The Jays have been playing well enough of late, but still languish in third place. Dropping the best pitcher from the rotation would surely alienate fans and result in a booming business in burnable effigies of John Gibbons and Mark Shapiro should the team miss the playoffs by a game or two (particularly if it was indeed Hutchison replacing Sanchez.)
On the other hand, a torn rotator cuff or similar arm injury would keep Sanchez out for at least a year and be sure to be blamed on over-use. Never mind that the science is dubious about the relationship between innings and injuries and is slow to explain why there are more injuries requiring Tommy John surgery now than there were before the surgery was available, (when pitchers often started 40 games a year and hit the 300 innning mark), the current sport concensus is in. Too many innings, not an over fascination with the radar and throwing all out, all the time, caused young arms to break. An injury to Sanchez late season would harm the Jays post-season chances and have the front office labeled as idiots by many of their peers. It is a problem indeed.
The Washington Nationals had a somewhat similar problem 4 years back, when they shut down their young ace, Stephen Strasburg, in September after he hit 159 innings. The team then went on to lose the NLDS in five games causing fans to wonder “what if”, and some might suggest have been battling that karma since. The Nats, despite being the best team in the NL East have but one playoff win since then.
Their situation was a bit different than ours. Strasburg was coming back from Tommy John surgery, which would suggest some caution might be prudent. Sanchez has, knock on wood been healthy for a young pitcher who throws at 95. My suggestion is to learn from Washington’s blunder. You get only so many kicks at the can and Toronto has one this year. They need to make a run for it, especially when pondering the unhappy fact that either Jose Bautista and/or Edwin Encarnacion might be elsewhere next year. The Jays need to put their best foot, or arm, forward and go all in for october. Anything less would be a betrayal of a reliably loyal fan base.
That said, it makes no sense to tempt fate and burn out Sanchez. As much as I like starting pitchers who can go deep into the game, it might be a smart move for Gibby to call for the bullpen after 6 innings in any game where Sanchez has a lead. As well, the team has 7 off days left , July 28th and then three each in August and September. It would be feasible to keep the 5-day rotation largely in effect and skip over Sanchez a couple of times with the off days, thereby limiting him to 8 more starts. Granted, it’s a compromise but like all good ones, it’s better than the alternative for both sides. Eight starts and about 6 innings each delivers him to the post-season with 180 innings. Hopefully he could tough out three or four starts in October in return for a ring! And while people like myself would love to see him out there every fifth day trying for a shutout, it’s obvious that a Sanchez who pitches six innings, eight more times this year is better than seeing him resting in the bullpen when a much lesser pitcher throws away games and our hopes of a championship.
A final thought- in 1992, the Jays went into the post-season with a dominant young, 25 year old pitcher who had only 139 innings of experience prior to that year. Juan Guzman dominated in three October starts, and we know the rest of that year’s story!