At long last, Aaron Sanchez finds the strike zone

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Aaron Sanchez got his stuff under control for the first time this year on Tuesday. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Aaron Sanchez got his stuff under control for the first time this year on Tuesday. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

TORONTO — In Aaron Sanchez’s last start on July 17, he walked just one batter.

It was the first time he’d managed that feat in over a year as free passes have been his bugaboo throughout 2019.

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On Tuesday, the right-hander did himself one better, getting through his start against the Indians without a single base on balls in a 2-1 Blue Jays win. It was the first time he’d done that since July 19th, 2016. To put that in perspective, the Blue Jays were firmly in a wild card position at the point of the season on their way to the playoffs.

Their lineup that day was as follows:

2B Devon Travis

3B Josh Donaldson

1B Edwin Encarnacion

LF Michael Saunders

C Russell Martin

SS Troy Tulowitzki

CF Kevin Pillar

RF Junior Lake

P Aaron Sanchez

That there is a blast from the past. Now, you could argue that the sizeable gap between Sanchez’s walk-less appearances is more a piece of trivia than anything else - but it rather effectively sums up the Aaron Sanchez experience.

“For so long there, dating back to 2017 when the finger issues kind of started, I altered so many things to get 60 feet, six inches,” he said. “You create a lot of bad habits doing that.”

While there have been a number of factors that’ve accounted for the 27-year-old’s fall from grace since his excellent 2016 campaign, nothing has played a bigger role than his issues with walks.

It’s not a coincidence that his one extraordinary year as an MLB starter came in the season where he kept his BB% below league average:

Via FanGraphs
Via FanGraphs

There are mitigating factors of course, like Sanchez’s blister worries, but the bottom line is that an extremely high walk rate leads to big innings and inefficient outings. Sanchez simply cannot be effective if he’s constantly bleeding base runners, especially because he isn’t much of a strikeout guy.

That’s what makes his start on Tuesday so encouraging, especially in conjunction with his improved control in his last outing. Neither were masterpieces — he lasted just five innings in each — but they could be springboards to a better second half of the season.

“I said back a couple of starts ago that I’m finally starting to feel like myself,” Sanchez said. “If I can continue to keep building start to start I’ll be in good shape.”

For instance, on Tuesday, Sanchez faced 21 batters and threw 17 first-pitch strikes, giving himself the ability to work from ahead and force hitters to expand the zone. Here’s what those 21 pitches looked like:

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

That kind of chart has been completely unheard of for Sanchez this season, or frankly, in recent years. He entered the game with a below-average 58.8 percent first-pitch strike rate.

“That’s a big difference in the big leagues,” Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Actually at any level, but more here. If you pitch behind you’re going to get hit. The average goes way up, over .300, but he got ahead today.”

Sanchez also did other things well in his outing, like striking out six batters — tied for his second highest total of the season — and keeping the Indians on the ground with regularity. His natural movement was impressive, and one of his fastballs looked like this:

Those things matter, but for a guy who brought a 6.26 ERA into the game, they are welcome bonuses, not the most important occurrence. Sanchez’s foundational issue this season has been an inability to throw strikes. Any progress he makes needs to begin there.

It looks like maybe, just maybe, the right-hander is taking some positive steps in that direction of late. Tuesday’s outing certainly appeared to be one. If Sanchez wants to prove he can be an effective MLB starter again, there are plenty more still to take - as he well knows.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day... patience is a virtue,” he said. “It sucks for me that I was at the top of the game and now I’m at the bottom, but it makes the story that much greater in the end.”

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