In August of 2019, Aaron Sanchez exited his fourth start as a member of the Houston Astros with discomfort in his right shoulder. Before the injury-shortened start, he was experiencing one of the better stretches of his big-league pitching career; just a couple weeks prior, Sanchez completed the first two-thirds of the Astros’ combined no-hitter against the Mariners. Unfortunately for Sanchez, an MRI revealed that the discomfort was actually one of the rarest and most severe injuries that can happen to an overhand thrower: a torn capsule.
Though the specifics of Sanchez’s shoulder situation have been somewhat murky, a torn capsule is usually associated with a labral tear that results in some anterior (front side) shoulder pain and a complete inability to throw. An injury to the shoulder capsule, a ball and socket joint, prevents the shoulder head (the ball part) from fully or smoothly rotating as it would pre-injury.
While an incomplete shoulder repair is devastating, a full recovery is possible, and according to this small study, likely, with the proper arthroscopic or open surgical repair and rehab after an average of 13.3 months. Considering Sanchez was unable to pitch again in 2019, and missed the entirety of 2020, he’s already reached the outer rim of the 8-to-18-month recovery window prescribed in the aforementioned study.
Two of the more prominent capsule tears in recent major league history are those of Johan Santana and Julio Urías. While Santana was never able to fully recover, and ended up derailed by a recurrence of the original injury, Urías has become even better since returning from injury — increasing his fastball velocity and improving his accuracy with his whole arsenal. Notably, Santana was 31 when he first injured his shoulder, whereas Urías was a decade younger. Sanchez is 28 now, and almost two years removed from his original injury, nearly splitting the difference between their ages.
Of course, any team interested in Sanchez needs some assurance of his clean bill of health, especially as it relates to his ability to throw hard. Though his velocity has fallen off since his 2014 debut, Sanchez still threw his four-seam at an average of 94 mph in 2019, good for the 60th percentile in MLB. Also, his especially sharp curveball possessed a spin rate better than 90 percent of the majors. If he’s unable to approach what he looked like at full-strength, he’s probably not a major league caliber regular rotation starter. In his last season, outside of the partial no-hitter, Sanchez struggled as a starter for the Jays and then Astros to the tune of a 5.89 ERA and a 5-14 record.
However, in his 59.1 career innings as a reliever, Sanchez was nothing short of dominant, allowing a 1.67 ERA and a .412 OPS to opposing batters. While these appearances all occurred exclusively during the 2014 and ’15 seasons, when he was capable of ramping up his fastball velocity to 98 mph, there’s something to be said for Sanchez’s optimization in a smaller role.
He’s a three-and-a-half pitch pitcher — featuring a four-seam, sinker, change, and curve — ill-suited for multiple rounds through the same order. With an out pitch for either-handed batters, the curve for righties and the change for lefties, batters have an exceedingly easy time picking up his stuff on successive appearances. Against Sanchez, batters have posted an OPS of .636 in their first at bat, .775 in their second, and .825 in their third. Starting out as a well above average arm, Sanchez trends towards pretty poor the longer opponents have a chance to time him up.
Though he’s almost certainly lost access to the elite velo he had in his early twenties, his curve’s still sharp enough to generate swings and misses (36.3 percent whiff rate in 2019), especially when hitters only get a single chance to see it. He’s still only 28 years old, and threw in front of approximately 20 pro teams all the way back in October.
While he’ll likely seek a return to a big-league rotation, he’s best suited to continue his career in a relief role. As he’s expected to command no more than a minor league contract, any team interested in Sanchez could lure him into their organization in by convincing him that the route back to the majors is shorter as a reliever.
After GM Brian Cashman’s bevy of starting pitching acquisitions, the Yankees are probably set at the position. However, they’re still lacking in relief pitching depth, especially after dumping Adam Ottavino’s contract. For the Yankees, a healthy Aaron Sanchez could serve as a nice piece to handcuff to Chad Green. With a similarly narrow, yet powerful arsenal, Sanchez could serve as a successful yet softer throwing long-man in lower leverage situations, or whenever Green is unavailable.