MLB

After a season of injuries, Jays' ace Sanchez feeling optimistic early in spring training

Aaron Sanchez is feeling like the pitcher he was back in 2016. And his new manager can't stop smiling about that.

New manager Charlie Montoya says he sees the pitcher who used to beat his former Tampa team

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) throws a bullpen session as pitching coach Pete Walker watches during workouts in Dunedin, Fla., on Friday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Aaron Sanchez is feeling like the pitcher he was back in 2016. And his new manager can't stop smiling about that.

The Blue Jays right-hander, who dealt with finger injuries over the last two seasons, threw his first bullpen session of spring training on Friday as manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker looked on.

"I told him after he finished with the bullpen, I saw the guy that he was two years ago," Montoyo told reporters at Dunedin Stadium Friday afternoon. "He looked good and I'm very happy about his bullpen today.

"I was on the other side (as a coach with the Tampa Bay Rays) and I told him: 'I'm hoping you get back to the way you used to be,' because he was nasty. ... If we get that guy back I'm going to keep smiling like this."

Sanchez was just as pleased with his first throwing session of 2019, even if he looked less enthusiastic about it than his naturally energetic manager did.

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez, centre, arrives with teammates for workouts in Dunedin, Fla. this week. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"I felt good. For me I feel like I'm back to normal," Sanchez said calmly. "There were a few years there I was battling things with my hand that didn't allow me to be who I wanted to be.

"It's nice to finally feel like I'm back to who I am."

The 26-year-old Sanchez had surgery on his right middle finger in September, ending a disappointing season that included a lengthy stint on the disabled list after he got his finger stuck in his suitcase in June.

Sanchez was shut down for 12 weeks after the surgery, meaning he couldn't participate in any baseball activities, but he said he felt better immediately after undergoing the procedure.

"My finger was killing me for the longest time so I felt it instantly," Sanchez said. "At that point it was like: 'all right, you have to relearn to move this finger in a way you haven't been moving it for months now,' so you just set your mind to it and realize how much work it's going to take.

"There's a lot out there on the table that's waiting for me to go grab so that was the easy part, going through that. ... I knew probably two or three weeks after surgery when I could finally put my finger around a baseball, I think that was the point where it was like 'all right, I'm back."'

Sanchez had struggled with blisters and nail-related issues on his throwing hand since 2017.

He finished 2018 with a 4-6 record, a 4.25 earned-run average and 86 strikeouts over 105 innings pitched.

That was a far cry from his breakout 2016 season where he played in the all-star game and had an American-League best 3.00 ERA and 161 strikeouts over 192 innings.

Sanchez said Friday that he noticed some changes in his delivery over the course of the last two years that contributed to a dip in performance.

Altered release point

"Just subtle things, nothing crazy but things that altered the plane, altered the release point, things you don't really know you do when you're doing it," Sanchez said. "It wasn't anything major or drastic but it was something I found that needed to be cleaned up."

Sanchez's first throwing session — which consisted of a few dozen pitches thrown to catcher Danny Jansen at Bobby Mattick Training Center — was recorded by small cameras attached to the bullpen fence.

Montoyo said Walker would go through the data with the team's analytics department and discuss their takeaways with the pitcher.

But Sanchez didn't seem too interested in that process, at least not right now.

"I don't really (use advanced data). I just do it myself," he said. "If I have questions I'll ask but I haven't really dipped into that yet."

Sanchez said he's using this training camp to get back to his pitching fundamentals and boost his velocity back up to where it was during his most dominant seasons.

And he doesn't foresee any problems with that.

"Yeah I got no concerns about that. ... I feel good," he said. "I didn't leave, I just had a setback. What you guys have seen and what you guys witnessed in the past has not left, it's not gone.

"It's just a matter of getting my arm back in throwing shape and we'll see how it all shakes out."

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