The Blue Jays Made the Wrong Decision with Aaron Sanchez

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez is one of the best young pitchers in baseball. In his first full season in the league, Sanchez sits at 11-1 and atop the American League in ERA (2.71). At just 24 years old, Sanchez could be one of the best pitchers in the game for many years to come. But, like many other things in baseball, there’s one catch:

Aaron Sanchez has never pitched this many innings in a season in his professional career.

His previous career high in innings pitched was 2014, a season that saw Sanchez toss 133.1 innings between AA New Hampshire, AAA Buffalo, and Toronto. This season, he’s already up to 139.1 innings, all of which came in starts. Sanchez had previously been shuffled back and forth between the starting rotation and this helped him limit his innings in the past couple of seasons. 2016, however, is his first full season as a starting pitcher, and even though he has performed extraordinarily well, many observers assumed that Sanchez would, at some point, either: 1) move to the bullpen or 2) be shut down by the organization completely. While Sanchez does not have a set “innings limit”, the Blue Jays and manager John Gibbons frequently discussed moving him to the bullpen at some point later in the season.

But that’s not the decision the Blue Jays decided to make. Instead of shutting down Sanchez completely or moving him to the bullpen to conserve his innings, the team announced Thursday that Sanchez would remain in the starting rotation through the rest of the season. While the Jays will go with a six-man rotation and closely monitor Sanchez for signs of fatigue, the decision marks a clear change of course for a franchise that seemed to want to protect Sanchez’s young arm even if the team had a chance to go to the playoffs. So, here comes the big question: is this the right decision for Sanchez and the Blue Jays?

First, to explain Toronto’s logic in making this decision, we need to examine the infamous “Strasburg Shutdown” of 2012. In that situation, Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who was fresh off Tommy John Surgery that forced him to miss the 2011 season, was approaching his team-imposed limit of 160 innings. Sure enough, Strasburg reached 159.1 innings with his start on September 5th of that season. After that start, the team informed Strasburg that he would not pitch again for the rest of the year, even as the team closed in on the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1981; the team was known as the Montreal Expos back then.

The Nationals took the NL East crown, and after winning 98 games, the team was widely considered a World Series favorite even without Strasburg’s services. However, Washington would get all it could handle against the St. Louis Cardinals in a series that went the distance. In Game 5, St. Louis rallied from a 6-0 deficit to win 9-7 and advance to the NLCS. Because Strasburg was not available for that series, the Nats were forced to start Edwin Jackson in a pivotal Game 3. Jackson struggled, allowing four runs in five innings; the Cardinals would win that game and take a 2-1 series lead. While nothing would have been assured if Strasburg had started the game, it is natural and fair to wonder if the Nationals would have won the series if Strasburg was available. He wasn’t, and the Nationals possibly blew their chance at a World Series because of their high-wire act centered around protecting their young star.

That’s the mistake the Blue Jays are trying to avoid. The problem is that overworking Sanchez is probably a mistake, as well. Just ask the New York Mets.

The Mets had the incredible, almost too-good-to-be-true luck of having four superstar pitchers (Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey) in the same rotation at the same time a year ago. The team was in a very similar position as the Nationals were in 2012, closing in on a playoff berth while trying to protect its star pitcher(s). Near the end of last season, the Mets were primarily concerned with protecting Harvey, who, just like Strasburg, was coming off Tommy John Surgery the year before.

Instead of going the way of the Nationals, the Mets decided to keep Harvey and the other young guns in a six-man rotation for the month of September. Harvey agreed to continue pitching, even after a protracted fight with the front office waged through the media. Unlike the Nationals, the Mets reached the World Series, eventually losing to the Kansas City Royals in five games. The wear and tear of the postseason took its toll on the Mets’ pitchers, though; Harvey, Syndergaard, and deGrom all threw well over 200 innings for the season (Syndergaard started the year in AAA). Matz avoided this distinction because of a lat injury he suffered in early July that cost him two months of the season.

The effects of being stretched out unexpectedly last season have made their presence felt on the Mets’ starters this season. Matz and Syndergaard have both pitched the second half of the season with bone spurs in their elbows while Harvey is out for the year after undergoing surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, an injury that has claimed the likes of Chris Carpenter, Chris Young, and Jaime Garcia. The Mets probably knew that the right decision would have been to limit the innings of their star pitchers, but with the team performing so well and the opportunity to win a championship firmly in their grasp, it was hard for the Mets to pull that trigger. But the team has a history of knowing what the right decision is and yet still making the wrong one; anyone remember Game 5 of the World Series?

This is the same position the Blue Jays find themselves in, but they only have one young pitcher to manage instead of four. The organization obviously thinks that going to a six-man rotation will help Sanchez and the rest of the rotation stay fresh for a potential playoff run. But as we saw with the Mets last season and now into this one, a six-man rotation is not a be-all, end-all cure for a young pitcher.

That’s why this decision is a mistake; while the Jays sit in a tie for first place in the AL East, the future of the franchise is much more important than just this season. It would be much better for the Jays to have a healthy and effective Aaron Sanchez for the next ten years instead of burning him out this year and having him never be the same again. It’s a difficult decision to make because the minds of many in the organization are clouded by the opportunity to win a championship this year. The decision becomes even more muddled when you consider that Sanchez is not coming off Tommy John Surgery or any other major operation (he’s never had Tommy John). But would the Blue Jays be willing to go down that road if wear and tear catch up to Sanchez at the end of this season?

There are a multitude of reasons why this could be considered both the right and the wrong decision. The one I keep coming back to is the fact that it’s just more important to have Sanchez healthy for the rest of his career rather than to burn him out going for a championship this year. Remember Stephen Strasburg? He’s one of the best pitchers in the league this year, sporting a 15-1 record and a 2.63 ERA. The Nationals are right back where they were four years ago, but this time there will be no limitations on Strasburg’s usage. The Nationals can go for a championship this season without the cloud of innings limits or the threat of major injury hanging over their heads.

That’s what could have awaited the Blue Jays if they made the smart decision with Sanchez. Unfortunately, it looks like they went in a very different direction, for better or worse.

It’s Time for Uniformity in Baseball’s Designated Hitter Rule

Photo Credit: Adam Hunger/USA Today

Baseball’s crazy Designated Hitter rule is something I’ve written about in the past and is something I feel very strongly about. However, it’s not something that I’ve ever really taken a deep dive into, but that changes right now. In this post, I’ll tell you what I think of the universal DH and pitchers hitting; my opinion on this is relevant due to recent events and the present landscape of baseball.

Yesterday, the San Francisco Giants concluded their four-game weekend series against the Washington Nationals. Matt Cain started the game and carried a no-hitter through the first five innings. However, Cain threw nearly 100 pitches in the process and was only making his third start since missing almost two months of the season with a hamstring injury. So manager Bruce Bochy came up with a brilliant idea; the Giants would pinch-hit Cain with Cy Young Contender and Pitcher Who Rakes Madison Bumgarner. And lo and behold, it worked!

But wait, there’s more. Not only did Bochy use Bumgarner to hit but he also pinch-ran Bumgarner with Jeff Samardzija, another one of his pitchers. Samardzija would eventually score on an error by the Nats’ Anthony Rendon. On the surface, the strategy was ingenious; the Giants used no position players and even scored a run in the process. But this is the problem: it put two pitchers at risk, a risk we’ve seen come to fruition on several occasions. But hey, why put one pitcher at risk when you can endanger two?

The Giants ended up winning the game 3-1, and the 5th inning of Bumgarner and Samardzija played a major role in the final outcome. But the outcome would be very different if one or both of the team’s star pitchers sustained injuries in the process of their journey around the bases.

There is an argument to be made for pitchers hitting in both leagues. For example, there’s the shock value that accompanies any positive result that comes out of any at-bat by a pitcher. And then there’s also a good deal of entertainment value that comes from watching pitchers work. Just look at Bartolo Colon.

Colon, who stands at 5’11”, 285 lb. and is widely known by the nickname “Big Sexy”, is one of the most entertaining at-bats in all of baseball. This is’nt because he’s a great hitter or has a great swing or works deep into counts. It’s because he puts his all into every swing, sometimes at the expense of his helmet or even his bat.

His at-bats were regarded as a complete joke… and then he hit the home run. It’s one of the great moments of my lifetime and getting to experience it is something that none of us will ever forget.

Simply put, we enjoy watching Bartolo Colon at the plate; the entertainment value in watching an oversized neophyte trying to hit a baseball is far greater than watching a designated hitter give a far more professional at-bat. However, we have to reach a point where we look beyond humor value and study the actual numbers behind pitchers hitting and ask ourselves whether it’s worth it to keep the same rules in place.

This season, like many others before it, has seen some really bad hitting from baseball’s pitchers. In the majors, pitchers are hitting just .131, and the sample size (3,499 at-bats) is not small, either. The numbers get even uglier, though, when you go to the American League: over there, pitchers are hitting .119 in just 268 at-bats. Aside from a few exceptions to the rule (Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Greinke), pitchers as a whole are terrible at the plate. And most pitchers don’t commit outs with Colon’s entertainment value, so having pitchers hit is not exactly aesthetically pleasing to the baseball viewer’s eye. But hey, let’s keep the rule the way it is because that’s the way it always was. That makes a ton of sense.

(statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus)

The other question we need to ask ourselves is this: is it fair to have a different set of rules for each league? For example, do you know of any other sport that has a different set of rules between its two leagues? If basketball allowed more contact in the Western Conference than the Eastern Conference, would that be fair to the players, especially come playoff time? What if the NFL allowed the offense to have a twelfth player on the field, but only in the AFC? Would that bring unity to the NFL product? My guess is that it would not, and the league would never do it because keeping the same set of rules for everyone is actually something that actually protects the shield.

Well, guess what? This is what Major League Baseball is dealing with here. But I guess nothing is really surprising when you consider that the league decides home-field advantage in the World Series by way of an exhibition game that just this year alone let 60 different players take the field over the course of just 9 innings.

This is the bottom line: it’s not good for baseball to have a different set of rules for each league. In basically every World Series, discussion arises about how the NL team will use the DH and whether or not the AL team’s DH will be able to play the field in the NL team’s park. I’m not even really against having the pitcher hit in both leagues just as long as each league is playing by the same set of rules. 

The numbers also tell the story of an unnecessary disparity: the National League has scored 230 fewer runs than the American League so far this season. What’s worse is that National League teams have played an average of roughly one more game than each American League team, so at this point, we basically know what we’re getting out of each league.

But is it fair to all major league teams to have a different set of rules for each league? Is it fair to the pitchers to put them at risk by making them do something they really aren’t good at? This particularly pertains to AL pitchers who only have to hit a handful of times over the course of a season. And is it fair to the fans of this game to make them watch what is often a sure out at the bottom of the lineup? Granted, there is some strategy in having pitchers hit (bunting, intentionally walking the 8th hitter, etc.), but the product is not as good as it would be if both leagues had a Designated Hitter.

But even if that’s not going to happen, can we just have the same set of rules for each league? It’s much fairer and would create a better, more unified product for the fans and players. More importantly, it would make interleague play much easier and would remove questions about what each team would do if it played in a ballpark of the other league.

But we know that this won’t happen, so let’s just roll with the current system and pray for another #BigSexyBomb in the very near future.

What Would a Pitcher Home Run Derby Actually Look Like?

Photo Credit: Jose Luis Villegas/The Sacramento Bee

Recently, there has been much discussion in and around baseball about whether or not Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner should participate in this year’s Home Run Derby.   It seems like a fun idea, but San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, along with many others, is concerned about the injury potential that comes with swinging the bat as hard as possible once every 15 seconds (as we saw in last year’s Derby).

That being said, it looks like Bumgarner’s participation in this year’s event is at least slightly possible; he told reporters that he would “absolutely” want to take part if he was invited to participate.

I’ll say this right now: it’ll never happen.  There are too many people in the Giants organization telling him not to and the risk of injury is too present.  Both he and the Giants have too much to lose by doing this.  But the debate about Bumgarner got me to thinking: if we were to have a Home Run Derby with pitchers only, who would participate?

I thought it an interesting question; after all, there’s a reason why #PitchersWhoRake is a thing.  So I set out to find eight pitchers to fill my hypothetical, pitcher-only Derby.

So let’s start with the obvious…

Madison Bumgarner

Duh.  This guy is the best-hitting pitcher in baseball; in fact, he leads all active pitchers in home runs… and he’s only in his sixth full season.  His home run rate is comparable to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper (no, seriously) and he has the bona fide power needed to win a Home Run Derby.

For instance, listen to this account of a recent batting practice exhibition in St. Louis, as told to ESPN’s Buster Olney and relayed by Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe:

Prior to Sunday night’s ESPN-televised game between the Giants and Cardinals, Bumgarner put on a show in batting practice at Busch Stadium, hitting more than a dozen homers, including two into the third deck and one into the uppermost fourth deck. A groundskeeper told ESPN’s Buster Olney that Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz is the only other player he can recall reaching such rarefied territory.

That would be perfect for the Derby.  And Petco Park has become more hitter-neutral since its fences were pulled in three years ago; this would give MadBum at least a fighting chance to get his share of dingers.

And that’s exactly what all of us would want to see.

Noah Syndergaard

Here, our Derby gets a solid injection of THOOOOOOORRRRRRRR…..

In any event, Syndergaard hits like a poor man’s Bumgarner; while his strikeout rate is awfully high, he usually finds a way to hit the ball hard when he makes contact.  And when he’s not throwing 100 MPH heat behind people’s backs or at their faces, he’s hitting impressive home runs to the deepest parts of the park (three, to be exact).  In fact, all three of his home runs have approached 400 feet.

While he might struggle trying to hit home runs to center over a wall 400 feet from home plate, a more friendly right field gives him a legitimate chance to compete.

So yeah, Syndergaard is a must for this event.

Jake Arrieta

Here’s another pitcher who seems to want in on the Home Run Derby fun.  This is what Arrieta had to say after Saturday’s win over the Braves, his tenth of the season:

If he’s in it, I need to be in it [….] That’s for sure. He can hit the ball a long way, but I can too.

Arrieta has impressive power to all fields; in a game last season against the Pirates, he hit a home run and a warning track fly at Wrigley.  His power has been majestic at times, and he would surely make the Derby more interesting.

He’d also give it some name recognition; after all, he’s only one of the two best pitchers in baseball.

Zack Greinke

A low-risk, potentially high-reward choice here.  Greinke has six career home runs, including two in the span of ten days last season with the Dodgers.

There’s not a whole lot more to say about this; Greinke has been one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball for several years, so he should be a safe pick for the Derby.

Adam Wainwright

And yet another pitcher seems to want a piece of the Home Run Derby pie.  This is what Wainwright tweeted in the wake of the news about Bumgarner and Wainwright:

Wainwright would be an excellent choice, with seven career home runs to his name.  And if he seems to want to do it, why should he be denied?

Yovani Gallardo

This is another safe choice.  But it brings another layer to this debate: Gallardo has not pitched in the National League since leaving the Brewers after the 2014 season.  He boasted tremendous power during this time, hitting 12 home runs and four in the 2010 season alone.  But how will he fare doing something that he hasn’t really done in almost two years?

He should be able to do pretty well; let’s just hope he isn’t too rusty.

Jose Fernandez

I don’t know about you, but I like my home runs with a little sauce.  This is what Fernandez did (and what ensued) when he hit his first career home run in 2013:

Fernandez in a Home Run Derby would be awesome.  Imagine a more high-energy, emotional version of Yoenis Cespedes from three years ago.  If that’s the Fernandez we get, we’d be in for a very fun night.

And that’s what this is about, not playing the game “the right way”.

Finally, for a bonus…

Bartolo Colon

Please, just please let this happen.  Please?

This would undoubtedly be the best part of a pitcher Derby.  Not much would be expected from Big Sexy, and any home run he hits would bring Petco Park to the ground.  Add that to the fact that he hit his first career home run at Petco and you get a no-brainer pick who would become the sentimental favorite just by stepping onto the field.

And we know that even if he doesn’t make contact, he’s still going to try really hard.  Sometimes even laughably hard.

But he’d make this Derby even more fun than it already is.

This is the Home Run Derby we will never have, but it’s the one we need. But according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, maybe there is a chance of it happening after all:

So you’re saying there’s a chance?  Count me in.

Let’s make this work and make baseball fun again in the process.