It was so predictable to the point of where it was funny: the Astros trading for a struggling pitcher with plus-stuff was an all too familiar sight and so was the outcome. Justin Verlander (to an extent), Wade Miley, Colin McHugh, Gerrit Cole, and many more pitchers have seen their raw skills turn into improved results after changing into an Astros uniform. This is why everyone saw what could very well be coming when the Astros acquired struggling Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez.
Despite his numbers this season, Sanchez hasn’t always strayed away from success. He rose through the minor league ladder rather quickly, performing well at each level. He found early success in the majors as a reliever (1.09 ERA, 2.80 FIP in 2014), then as a swing-man (3.22 ERA, 4.61 FIP in 2015), and then as a starter, finishing seventh in AL Cy Young voting in 2016 (3.00 ERA, 3.55 FIP).
Since then, injuries and inconsistencies have brought down the stock on Sanchez’s game. It then all fell apart this season; in 23 starts with the Blue Jays he posted a 6.07 ERA and 5.03 FIP, which respectively ranked 74th and 68th among 74 qualified starting pitchers. A change of scenery was probably a good idea for both him and the Blue Jays, but luckily for him, he found himself landing in the best scenery possible.
I mentioned how Sanchez’s immediate improvement with the Astros was a sight too easy to foresee. The thought of the possibility intrigued me and many others, so I was most definitely going to be tuning in. I ended up turning on the game in third inning, checked the numbers, and what I saw wasn’t shocking at all.
Annnnnd just as we expected. Through three innings, Aaron Sanchez’s CB% is 28.2%. Looking at every game this season, his highest rate of curveballs through the first three innings would be tonight.— Patrick Brennan (@paintingcorner) August 3, 2019
I watched the rest of Sanchez’s start and what was foreseen was brought into present reality. Sanchez tossed six no-hit innings of a combined no-hitter and put up the highest Game Score (78) of the season, surpassing his opening start of the season (66). Of his 92 career starts, he’s only had two higher Game Scores. Diving deeper, he allowed his lowest average Exit Velocity of the season and generated swinging-strikes and his fifth-highest rate of the season. It would be proper to say that his first game in an Astros uniform was one of the best of his career.
What did Sanchez actually change? Once the trade happened, many mentioned the somewhat low usage of a curveball that had plus-spin and plus-movement, perhaps throwing too many sinkers. Maybe that was a place the Astros could start to look for improvements? Well... that is exactly what they did. Last night, he threw a curveball 30.4 percent of the time, a season-high for him. He threw his sinker 19.6 percent of the time, his third lowest rate of the season.
Outside of usage, there seem to be an adjustment to Sanchez’s curveball. For every game this season, the spin axis on his curveball has been between 44 and 46 degrees. Last night, it spun at 49.85 degrees. This put a clear impact on the movement of this offering, knocking some of the drop of his curveball. He’s had only one start this year replicate last night’s vertical movement on his curveball.
Examining the four-seam fastball, the game plan the Astros and Sanchez implemented last night looked simple. Throw the heater high in the zone. This is something they notably did with Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole, who were both able to utilize their high-spinning four-seamer better by adjusting their attack strategies with it.
“I think Strommy [Astros pitching coach Brent Strom] has a reputation of being a guy that supports pitchers using elevated fastballs. He’s big on using all your stuff, using pitches in counts where you might not normally use them, and that gives you a lot of freedom, because there are no ramifications if you walk a guy on a 3-2 curveball. You’re not going to go in the dugout and feel like you did something wrong. You just took a shot with one of your best pitches and missed.”
Unfortunately, Sanchez didn’t have the same level of spin on his four-seamer as the aforementioned two pitchers above (though his spin rate is still average), but the attack strategy with him could still be improved. Pitching in Toronto could have affected this, too. In terms of percentage of four-seamers elevated, the Blue Jays ranked 16th in 2018 and 27th in 2019 among all 30 teams. Meanwhile, the Astros ranked second and third in those two years, with the likes of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Justin Verlander consistently finding themselves near the top. Last night, Sanchez joined the party.
Sanchez on the left: keep that 4 seamer down! (7/28)— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) August 4, 2019
Sanchez on the right: HIGH AND FLY (tonight) pic.twitter.com/RU3YiQ97im
Pairing an elevated fastball with a very above-average curveball in terms of movement could be the recipe of success for Sanchez. Any time you can toy with a hitter between the fastball and breaking ball and then throw a curveball like this, you’ll be in good shape.
It remains to be seen whether Aaron Sanchez can sustain any high level of success for an extended period of time, but if the past is any indicator, the Astros might have just traded for the next reclamation piece. The pressure isn’t even on too, as he currently sits behind four very above-average starters in Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Wade Miley. Sanchez currently fills a back-end starter role, but with a few adjustments, his ceiling could be much higher.