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Aaron Sanchez is pitching like an ace, and it might not be a fluke

Sanchez has been one of the most dominant arms in Toronto's starting rotation this season.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT -- Aaron Sanchez was not expected to make the Blue Jays' starting rotation going into spring training. Offseason work changed expectations, though, and while Toronto lost a solid bullpen arm, it gained a young, dependable arm in the starting five. He is still a work-in-progress, but Sanchez is already performing above and beyond anyone's expectations.

The Blue Jays' long-term goal for Sanchez was always to be a starter. However, he was slated for a relief role to start the 2015 season, pushed into a starting role for a time, suffered a lat strain and went on the disabled list, then finally returned to the bullpen following his return from injury. He was, essentially, a one-pitch pitcher with too many secondary-pitch inconsistencies.

Sanchez had no shortage of pitches to choose from, but the Blue Jays needed quality rather than quantity. Without better command, he wasn't going to make it as a starter. The sinker is deadly now, but it lacked the same command in 2015, and his curveball and changeup both needed plenty of work. He also had a four-seamer and a cutter/slider just lying around.

"The changeup is like an art, and I don't know if everybody can do it. His changeup is like night and day." -Russell Martin

Sanchez had no problem throwing hard, but his current pinpoint accuracy was lacking. After improving that, working on two secondary pitches -- the curveball and changeup -- became the team's top priority, and it paid off. Sanchez went from making small adjustments over a long period of time, to improving on a game-by-game basis, and for catcher Russell Martin, it's been noticeable behind the plate.

"He's always had a decent curveball, it just wasn't consistent," Martin said. "Now, it's just like he's playing with it. He just has the feel for it. But the changeup is probably the most improved pitch. The changeup is like an art, and I don't know if everybody can do it. His changeup is like night and day.

"Before, it was a pitch that you don't think about using (for an out pitch). But now, he's got great movement on it and he still has 97 (mph) arm speed on it, so as a hitter, you see the same arm speed and that's what gets you to miss, is the deception of the arm speed."

During the offseason, the 23-year-old Sanchez came up with a new training regime, added 15 pounds of muscle, and dedicated his time to improving a more limited repertoire in spring training. None of the inconsistencies, high walks, or leftover issues from last year's injury were evident when he got to spring training.

The Blue Jays had a new pitcher on their hands, and a decision to make. At the time, Sanchez was a strong consideration for the bullpen and even with his performance, nearly started in relief anyway, according to manager John Gibbons. Ultimately, though, Sanchez forced Toronto's hand with his performance and he earned a rotation spot.

Meanwhile, pitching coach Pete Walker and Sanchez worked almost exclusively on the sinker, curve, and changeup with Sanchez. The four-seamer is no longer a priority beyond changing a hitter's eye level, and they scrapped the cutter/slider entirely.

"We just found it was one of those pitches that was not quite where it needed it to be," pitching coach Pete Walker said. "And obviously, still working on the changeup and the curveball, as well. It was just, almost three pitches that he was working on.

"So, we wanted to simplify, consolidate his pitch selection and really master two (pitches, the sinker and curveball), and then the third would be his changeup. Maybe down the road we can look at the cutter/slider pitch. But really, right now that's all he needs is three pitches."

The curveball has a devastating drop to it that, when he has command of it, can have opposing batters looking silly at the plate. He's grown fond of pitching down and away to right-handed batters with success, and he's starting to have some success versus lefties. The team has been working on getting Sanchez to better locate pitches, and with the life on his pitches, he's done so with ease of late.

Sanchez is still walking nearly three batters per nine innings, but for a ground ball pitcher that's not a surprise. He's making up for it by striking out a career-high 8.5 batters per nine on average, significantly higher than the 5.9 last year. And his walks did drop from 4.3 to 2.9 per nine innings this season, and he cut his rate of home runs allowed from 0.9 to 0.4 per nine, so there is clear progress there, too.

He's only in his third season at the big league level, but Sanchez has been holding his own against some powerful lineups. His 2.88 FIP is the best it's been at any professional level -- meaning, he's been as good as advertised -- and on Tuesday night he held the Detroit Tigers to one hit through eight innings until his two-hit, two-run ninth.

Today, the bullpen consideration appears to be a thing of the past. Sanchez has proven himself as a starter to this point, but there's still plenty of work to be done. The changeup and curveball, while greatly improved, still needs some refinement, and he will be tested later in the year when he blows past his MLB career-high of 109 innings. His season may seem like a fluke, but it's just taken a little longer than expected for him to get here. It took patience and refinement, but the results are finally paying off.