When facing 2018 National League MVP Award winner Christian Yelich on Thursday, Giants right-hander Aaron Sanchez decided to turn to the offering that he views as his “stock-market pitch.”
Sanchez threw five consecutive curveballs to strike out Yelich to lead off the third inning of a 2-2 tie against the Brewers at Scottsdale Stadium, flashing the high-upside stuff that compelled the Giants to sign the 28-year-old right-hander to a one-year, $4 million deal last month.
“I was having trouble just trying to harness that in for strikes, and for putaways, that was more or less just trying to harness that in with the lefty in the batter's box,” Sanchez said. “Obviously, when you get a guy like that in the box, you want to level up.”
Sanchez, who missed last season while rehabbing from right shoulder surgery, threw his curveball only 23.1 percent of the time in 2019, but he said the Giants’ coaching staff sat down with him earlier this spring and advised him to lean on the pitch more than he has in the past. Sanchez’s curveball spin sits in the 91st percentile and induced a 36.3 percent whiff rate in '19, the highest of any of his offerings, according to Baseball Savant.
“Their analogy to me was, ‘Hey, that’s like your stock-market pitch,’” Sanchez said. “‘That's one of your better stocks. The more money you put into it, the more times you use it, the better off you're going to be. It's that good.’ That's a little bit of the mindset on that pitch surrounding Spring Training. You saw it tonight, I threw it a lot. Not a lot of damage done on it. If I can start to harness that thing in and get that thing popping in there effortlessly whenever I want, you're going to see a lot of fun nights, for sure.”
Sanchez threw 70 pitches over 3 1/3 innings in his second Cactus League start, allowing two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out three. The Brewers scored both of their runs off Sanchez in a laborious second, forcing manager Gabe Kapler to pull him with two outs. But Sanchez re-entered the game in the third and recorded a 1-2-3 inning. He returned to the mound for the fourth, striking out two and giving up a walk and a single before being replaced by left-hander José Álvarez.
Before Thursday’s game, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi noted that Sanchez’s endurance had been an issue in his previous appearance, but Kapler said he thought Sanchez showed better stamina against the Brewers.
“He was able to maintain his velocity better in this outing than in his last outing,” Kapler said. “I just see that as a trend in the right direction.”
Kapler said Sanchez is currently projected to open the season in the Giants’ rotation alongside Kevin Gausman, Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani and Logan Webb. Alex Wood is also in the mix, but he’s behind the others due to back stiffness and appears likely to open the year on the injured list.
Sanchez is scheduled to make his final spring outing on Tuesday in a simulated game at Scottsdale Stadium, and he has already identified what he believes he has to fine-tune before the start of the regular season.
“Today, you could see I was yanking some balls, curveballs mostly, just not having a good feel for that,” Sanchez said. “Now, it's harnessing that intensity and harnessing that release point on those things. I feel like that's all it really was tonight, release point, on a lot of those things. For me, it was definitely a step in the right direction. The ball is coming out of my hand great, spinning well.”
Brandon Belt went 1-for-2 with a single and played four innings at first base in his first start of the spring on Thursday. Belt missed the beginning of camp with a bout of mononucleosis, but he said the biggest obstacle now is making sure his right foot is back to full strength following offseason heel surgery.
“Right now, I think it's probably getting the foot back to 100 percent,” Belt said. “There's no pain in my foot right now. My joints are pretty stiff from being in a boot for two months. With COVID [in January] and mono, I didn't get to rehab it as much as I wanted to. It's still a little stiff in there, but every time I do something like I did tonight and run around and do extra stuff, it feels better the next day.”
Belt said his goal is to be ready for Opening Day, but he recognizes that he’ll have to check a number of boxes before he’ll be cleared to take the field for the Giants during the regular season.
“I have a lot of confidence that I can go out there and my body's going to hold up and my foot’s going to hold up,” Belt said. “I don't know about Opening Day. I'm working toward that. My goal is to be out there for Opening Day, but there's definitely a schedule on this thing. We’ve got to make sure everything's good to go.”
• If Belt is unavailable to start the season, the Giants will likely have a spot on their bench open for LaMonte Wade Jr., who bolstered his case by crushing a two-run home run to right field off Milwaukee lefty Brett Anderson in the fourth inning.
• Mauricio Dubón delivered one of the defensive highlights of the spring for the Giants, making a leaping catch at the center-field wall to rob Avisaíl García of a hit in the fifth.
• Two bullpen candidates, non-roster invitees Dominic Leone and Zack Littell, each worked a scoreless inning. Leone, 29, struck out the side in the seventh, lowering his spring ERA to 1.17 over 7 2/3 innings. Littell, 25, retired the side in order in the sixth, as he hasn’t allowed a run in his past three Cactus League outings. Littell has logged a 5.00 ERA this spring, but he’s also caught the Giants’ eye by striking out 11 batters and issuing only two walks over nine innings.
Roster hopeful Nick Tropeano will make his sixth appearance and third start of the spring on Friday when the Giants head to Sloan Park to face the Cubs at 1:05 p.m. PT, live on MLB.TV and MLB Network. Right-hander Kyle Hendricks is slated to start for Chicago.