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Aaron Sanchez: Lightning Rod of Optimism

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Aaron Sanchez is an immensely talented pitcher, but expectations for him may be based more on faith than logic.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If you are a Toronto Blue Jays fan you've been told about the enormity of Aaron Sanchez's potential countless times.

When the team shipped of two-thirds of the famous "Lansing Three" Sanchez was the man they chose to keep and since then he has been thrust into the spotlight. The 22-year-old right-hander has an electric arm and is an absolute treat to watch, but as a prospect he is not without his blemishes. Here are three facts about Sanchez.

1. He hasn't posted a K/9 over eight at any level above Class-A Lansing.

Now, Sanchez's marquee skill is likely to be inducing ground balls rather than striking hitters out, but the lack of K's has to be a concern for a pitcher tabbed as having front-of-the-rotation potential.

2. His career minor league BB/9 is 4.8 and it was an even worse 5.1 in 2014.

This tends to be glazed over due to the fact his command was solid during his stint in the Jays bullpen last year, but Sanchez needs to do more to prove his command issues are behind him.

3. Neither Steamer nor ZiPS project a WAR total for Sanchez above 0.4 in 2015

The fallibility of projection systems are abundantly clear, but they are a good starting point when it comes to setting expectations.

In terms of projections Sanchez is a very interesting case because his production has consistently fallen short of his potential throughout his career. There are reasons to believe he will put it together and be a very good pitcher, but projection systems deal only in hard data and the hard data does not paint Sanchez in a particularly flattering light.

Generally fans tend to take the opposite view to projection systems. The eye test and countless media reports show Sanchez as a rare talent and future difference maker. They are more likely to believe that than faceless and opaque projections.

The purpose of this article is not to criticize fans, the media, or projection systems. Sanchez is simply and interesting case when it comes to the divergence in opinions about a player between those focusing on traditional scouting-based evaluation and those focusing strictly on statistics.

On FanGraphs player pages there are projections from systems like ZiPS and Steamer, but also crowdsourced "Fans" projections. While "Fan" projections are rarely used in more serious analysis, and tend to be on the optimistic side, they are an interesting barometer of how the layperson expects a player to perform.

The layperson might be a bit of an unfair categorization of the kind of fan that contributes to a FanGraphs player projection, but you catch my drift.

In Sanchez's case the difference between the "Fans" projection, ZiPS and Steamer is a profound one. The chart below shows the Fans, ZiPS and Steamer projections of Sanchez, as well the rest of the Jays rotation (presuming Daniel Norris beats out Marco Estrada) to serve as a mini control group.

Pitcher

Steamer Projected WAR

ZiPS Projected WAR

Fans Projected War

Aaron Sanchez

0.4

0.0

2.1

Daniel Norris

1.3

0.7

1.3

R.A. Dickey

1.9

1.9

2.4

Mark Buehrle

1.8

2.6

2.4

Drew Hutchison

2.1

1.8

2.8

As expected Fans tend to be more optimistic than projection systems, but the difference is usually not nearly as pronounced as it is in Sanchez's case. It should be noted that the Fans projections are normally based on tiny samples, but I think there is something representative here.

There is a strong belief among Blue Jays supporters that Sanchez is going to be very good, possibly as soon as this season. That could very well be true. He has elite velocity, the ability to post an excellent ground ball rate, and he's even working on a new pitch, which could end up being a game changer for all we know.

It is very tempting to be optimistic about Sanchez. His potential is magnetic, it draws in fans, coaches, and media types alike. Those who have touted his potential in the past could easily be vindicated by a tour de force of a rookie season much like the one Marcus Stroman had last year.

However, it's important to remember there was a lot more reason to believe that Stroman would succeed at the time given the way he dominated the minor leagues. Sanchez has an absolutely gargantuan range of outcomes this season, one that is complicated further by possible changes in role.

Radar gun readings, scouting reports, and a nice debut won Aaron Sanchez the heart of Blue Jays fans, but he'll need to produce something a little more tangible to keep them.

There may be a pretty good chance that he will, but there is also an under-publicized chance that he won't.