Aaron Sanchez has appeared in games of far more substance than that of his Cactus League debut against the Reds. He was part of a no-hitter with the Astros in 2019. He made a cameo in the Midsummer Classic in 2016. He’s dazzled in October against the game’s best.
But for Sanchez, whose last official action came in the previous decade, Friday’s start was, in some respects, a watershed moment, one that was not lost upon him as he attempts to revitalize his career.
“I woke up wired and ready to go bright and early this morning,” Sanchez said. “For me, I was trying to keep myself under control all day. Me being the competitor I am, it’s been something that’s been hard on me to watch from afar, and I knew how I could be when I get in there.”
Sanchez, who signed in late February after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury, made his Cactus League debut in the Giants’ 6-2 loss to the Reds, allowing three runs and striking out two over 2 1/3 innings.
The right-hander was removed after recording one out in the second, but re-entered per new Spring Training rules to pitch the entirety of the third inning.
Like most starting pitchers, Sanchez’s self-evaluation focused less on raw numbers and more on execution. Sanchez wasn't overly complimentary of himself, but given the long layoff, he was satisfied with the start.
"For not being in a game in a year and a half, that was exactly what I wanted to see,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez’s fastball velocity sat in the low-90s and peaked at 93 mph, a few ticks lower than his outing in a simulated game last Sunday, but he noted this was by design. Going forward, Sanchez aims to add more intensity to up that velocity.
“The last thing I wanted to do was go out there, try and throw hard and be all over the map,” Sanchez said. “For me, I’d rather be in the strike zone, because after that, I can add on top of that moving forward.”
With his first outing of the spring complete, Sanchez will now have a foundation as he attempts to course-correct a career that has been derailed in recent seasons.
In 2016 with the Blue Jays, Sanchez truly emerged as one of the league’s more promising young starters. Sanchez, then 24, was named an All-Star and earned Cy Young votes after leading the American League with a 3.00 ERA over 192 innings.
In the playoffs, Sanchez pitched a gem against the Indians in Game 4 of the AL Champion Series, holding the eventual AL champions to one run over six innings and striking out five.
That breakout season, however, has become an outlier in a career riddled by various injuries. Since 2017, Sanchez has been limited to 272 1/3 innings across 55 starts. When healthy enough to pitch, Sanchez wasn’t all that effective, being dinged for a 5.29 ERA over his last three seasons.
Those injuries have sapped Sanchez’s fastball of some juice. In 2016, Sanchez averaged 95.2 mph on his fastball, which ranked in the 84th percentile. Three years later, Sanchez’s fastball velocity was down to 93.4 mph, dropping down to the 60th percentile.
While the last several years have been unkind to Sanchez, there’s reason to believe he’s still capable of producing in a starting role. Not only is Sanchez only 28 (he’ll turn 29 in July), but he features an intriguing high-spin curveball. Since Statcast’s inception, Sanchez’s curveball has ranked in the 91st percentile or higher in every season that he’s pitched, peaking at the 97th percentile in 2018.
Now at a different stage of his career, Sanchez will attempt, like fellow free agent signings Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood, to once again prove himself as a quality big league starter.
"I just knew once I got back out there, it would be second nature to me, and that's how it felt," Sanchez said. "Now that I got this first one underneath my belt, we just continue to build off that."