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In 2015, Aaron Sanchez started 11 games at the start of the Blue Jays’ season. He gave up multiple earned runs in nine of those starts, surrendered home runs in seven, and walked 37 batters over 66 innings of work while striking out only 42. After those 11 starts, the Jays, who would coax and coddle their thin rotation into October, moved Sanchez to the bullpen, where he was excellent—but unable to help a staff that could have used one more playoff-caliber starter.

The velocity was there. Sanchez’s sinker averaged just a touch shy of 95 mph last year, while topping out at just over 98 mph. But like many pitchers who are gifted with such velocity, the curse of poor command kept Sanchez from holding his spot in the rotation. The Jays traded Daniel Norris for David Price. They rushed Marcus Stroman back. They did what they could, and it wasn’t enough.

This year, though, they’ve found that the ace they needed was Sanchez, all along. The 24-year-old has carved out a place for himself in the rotation, throwing the second most innings on the staff while submitting the rotation’s lowest ERA, lowest FIP and (just behind Stroman) second-lowest DRA.

It’s been a long journey for Sanchez, who has always a future starter in both his own mind and that of the industry. “I think I’m a starter, they (Blue Jays) know I wanna be a starter, everyone in baseball knows I wanna be a starter,” he said before the 2016 season. With an improved set of secondaries and the ability to work the strike zone like he had not been able to before, Sanchez has finally displayed the consistency that is required at the top of a rotation.

Sanchez owns a strong curveball and a decent changeup, but his repertoire is built on a foundation of brilliant two-seam fastball. He throws his fastball 74 percent of the time—only Bartolo Colon, who throws his with 89 percent frequency, has topped that as a starter this year.

Unlike Colon’s, though, Sanchez’s fastball combines movement with location with velocity. His currently the third fastest in the American League, and sixth fastest in baseball among starting pitchers. The company that velo keeps:

Pitcher

Avg. FA Velocity

Noah Syndergaard

97.9

Carlos Martinez

96.3

Yordano Ventura

96.1

Jose Fernandez

95.3

Kevin Gausman

94.7

Aaron Sanchez

94.5

Max Scherzer

94.3

Jeff Samardzija

94.3

Chris Archer

94.3

Michael Pineda

94

It’s not just the fastball that should be receiving all the credit, though. Sanchez’s curveball has become a powerful secondary pitch as he’s made his transition to the rotation. In 2016, Sanchez’s curveball is generating a 37 percent whiff rate, up 10 percentage points from 2015. "I think that's about the best my curveball has ever been," Sanchez said of the pitch back in June. "Just the feel for it was unbelievable all night. I was able to throw it for strikes, I was able to put guys away with it. Overall, it was a good night for myself."

Even famed Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was floored:

"Oh my God, unbelievable," Cabrera said in June. "Whew. Wow. Very impressed. Very impressed. … To pitch over 95 mph for eight innings, that's impressive, with a good breaking ball. He showed a little bit of changeup, but he doesn't need a changeup."

Sanchez credits putting on extra weight during his time on the disabled list with a back injury in June as part of the reason for his mechanical consistency, as well as strength conditioning. With the type of velocity that Sanchez possesses, the ability to control it comes from a strong, durable frame, and consistent mechanics — things that Sanchez came rapping at the door of 2016 bearing in hand.

This success comes with its own set of apprehensions though. Coming from the bullpen, Sanchez has already nearly doubled his workload in 2016 as a starter, and though his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame is conducive that type of workload, no athlete’s body is used to that drastic of a change. Sanchez went from pitching 100 innings, across all levels, in each of the previous two seasons, to 173—and counting, with October looming—this year.

The Blue Jays are handling Sanchez with as much finesse as one would hope any organization would, thinking about his future instead of just their now. Sanchez won’t be up for arbitration until 2018, and he won’t hit free agency until 2021 (his age 29 season). Even in the most cynical view of the Blue Jays’ incentives, it’s wise for Toronto to preserve his future as much as possible.

The Blue Jays optioned Sanchez to High-A ball three weeks ago, not to pitch, but to rest his him with the possibility of a postseason berth on the horizon in Canada. Sanchez has made two successful starts since his return from High-A, but was removed from his start on Sunday after just 75 pitches. (He was not pitching well.) They’ll skip his next start—a blister, which reemerged in that short outing, provides a convenient cause—and put him in line to start twice more: Once against New York or Baltimore, and one final time against Boston. Both games have the potential to define the Blue Jays’ season.

The Blue Jays’ rotation has come a long way since last year, when it took a king’s ransom and a miraculously quick recovery to produce a rotation fitting October baseball. This year, the Jays’ rotation sits fifth in baseball in ERA, 11th in FIP. Sanchez is a big reason that Toronto can march confidently into the postseason. It took a bit of finesse to get him here, but here he is.

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Schere
9/14
"can march confidently into the postseason" they have a 30% chance of missing altogether?