Sanchez continues ascension as a starter

June 29th, 2016

DENVER -- Coors Field is a living nightmare for almost every pitcher in Major League Baseball, but apparently not for Aaron Sanchez.

Sanchez handled the most hitter-friendly ballpark like it was no big deal at all. He scattered six hits over eight strong innings and was the driving force behind Toronto's 5-3 victory over the Rockies on Wednesday.

The outing was yet another positive step for a pitcher who finds himself with the seventh-best ERA in the American League at 3.08. Perhaps just as surprising, Sanchez also finished Wednesday's outing ranked fourth with 105 1/3 innings.

"That's as good as you can pitch a place like this," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "One run over eight innings, but that's what he's capable of. The sky is the limit. He keeps getting better and better. He's had a tremendous year."

There is still some long-term concern about Sanchez's workload and an innings limit that could force his move to the bullpen. Gibbons repeatedly has said Sanchez is eventually going to transition into a reliever's role during the second half of the season, but public comments from the front office over the last couple of weeks have sent some mixed messages about that plan.

Regardless of what happens, Toronto will have to make some very difficult decisions if Sanchez keeps pitching like he did in the series finale against Colorado. He gave up six singles and walked three while striking out two and inducing 14 ground-ball outs.

Sanchez entered Spring Training as someone who was predominantly known as a one-pitch pitcher. He almost exclusively used his sinker in recent years, but his success this season can be directly tied to the increased use -- and effectiveness -- of his curveball, and to a lesser extent his changeup. The complete repertoire has turned him into an entirely different pitcher.

"It's always a huge plus," Sanchez said of his improved secondary pitches. "If you go to the plate as a hitter and you can eliminate pitches, that's an advantage for them. For me to be able to go out there and throw everything for a strike, it's just going to benefit me."

Earlier this series, Marco Estrada had to abandon his curveball because he didn't feel like it was effective at the high-altitude level of Coors Field. Similar problems were expected for Sanchez, but he still found a way to make it a successful pitch. According to MLB Gameday, he threw nine curveballs -- five of them for strikes. In the past, it was a pitch he couldn't command, but that is no longer the case.

"His command," Gibbons said, when asked what Sanchez's biggest area of development has been this season. "You look back on last year, he started the season as a starter, and I don't know how many walks a night he had, but it could blow up on him pretty good.

"He would get into those ruts where he'd walk guys on four straight [pitches] and the next guy would be 3-0. Now, he might lose it, but he always seems to be able to get back into the count ... That's what jumps out at me."