At the beginning of last night's game, I commented that whether Aaron Sanchez dominated or was terrible in his 2016 debut, it was just one start. That is, one start in baseball is never definitive for a pitcher, and particularly so for young pitchers. His line for the night - seven innings, five hits, no walks, eight strikeouts and just one run allowed on a home run - speaks for itself in terms of which was the ultimate outcome. And while it was only one start, a good Bayesian is always updating their expectations, and I was struck by multiple promising signs of development.
A good place to start is the number of whiffs that Sanchez piled up, 16 in total out of 91 pitches (49 swings). For as good as his MLB results have been entering 2016 - a 2.66 ERA in 125 career innings plus 7.1 more scoreless playoff innings - one thing he has not been able to do is miss bats, with a contact rate of around 83.5% being worse than the league average of around 80%. Last night his contact rate was just 67% overall, and even more impressive was that 10 of whiffs came on fastballs, which works out to a 70% contact rate on 33 swings. Given his fastball velocity and movement, especially out of the pen, it's been something of a mystery why he hasn't been able to miss more bats, the hallmark of a dominant fastball. Last night he did, and there was some truly dominant sequences (Corey Dickerson to end the the 1st, Hank Conger in the 5th come to mind).
The second major positive for me was seeing some of the change-ups he threw. In the past, and even this spring in the televised games, Sanchez hasn't really shown the feel for a good changeup, it typically coming in too firm around 90 MPH. Buck and Tabby mentioned that Sanchez had told them that in his last (minor league) start in Dunedin he had really found the feel for the changeup. He threw a handful of changeups over the first couple innings that looked no different than before, but then threw a beauty to Dickerson leading off the 4th with textbook fade that was completely swung over. At 87 MPH, it's still really high fast for a changeup, but compared to his fastball at 95-97 for most of the night, it had that 8-10 MPH separation that is thought to be ideal.
Overall, he got four whiffs on the seven swings at his 15 pitches classified changeups by Gameday. Outcome-wise, it was quite successful, but he really only flashed a few good changeups. Nonetheless, even seeing that was very good. It shows the ability/feel is there, and more consistency can be reasonably expected with more experience. But also, it's not like he needs a great change-up to succeed. Just having hitters know it's there, and he can flash a good one, will help keep them honest and help keep them off his fastball.
The final big positive for me was what happened in the middle innings, when I think for the first time I've ever seen, Sanchez was truly commanding his pitches. He certainly had dominant stretches last year, but that was usually more about batters not being able to square up his fastball than Sanchez really hitting spots. A lot of the time, it seemed like he was throwing a mid-90s knuckleball - effective because neither pitcher nor hitter really knew how or where it was going to move. But last night was something else entirely. He was hitting spots, pitch after pitch. He still had good movement on his fastball, but it was late, finishing movement rather than wild, uncontrolled movement. It's the difference between a pitcher and a thrower, and it was great to see. The hard part is repeating it more starts than not, but it's a giant leap in the right direction.
There's one final thing I want to highlight, and that was first pitch success. Overall, balls are put in play about 11% of the time on the first pitch, with batters getting ahead about 39% of the time and pitchers getting ahead 50% of the time. Sanchez has significantly lagged, falling behind more batters than getting ahead. But last night was a different story. Sanchez threw a first pitch to 26 batters last night, of whom only two put the ball in play on the first pitch. He got ahead of 16 of the other 24 batters, and in fact after falling behind the first three batters only fell behind five more the rest of the game. It's a big part of the reason Sanchez avoided any walks last night, and really avoided many three ball counts and other dominant hitter counts.
It's worth reiterating again in conclusion that's it was just one start, but there were a bunch of positives that can hopefully be carried forward. Even if the game ultimately didn't end well, it was still good to see the green shoots. Doubly so since all the other green shoots in the GTA have been buried in snow for the last three days.