A longshot journey to the majors for Jake Sanchez might have begun with a short trip to his mother’s hometown.
Sanchez, a nondrafted free agent who spent time in the independent Frontier League, is creating buzz for his big league dream with a dominant winter ball stint in Mexico.
Sanchez, a 27-year-old righthander in the Athletics organization, was 1-0, 0.28 with 21 saves and 27 strikeouts against just five walks for Mexicali, helping the club win the Mexican League championship series against Los Mochis. That followed a breakout season for Double-A Midland after the Athletics moved him to the bullpen in 2016.
But the real breakthrough came in the winter of 2015 when the Iowa Wesleyan alum decided to play in Mexico after going 10-8, 4.50 as a starter for Midland that summer. He wanted to continue pitching despite throwing a career-high 142 innings, and the choice of where to play was easy.
“My mother was born in Mexicali (and) I picked Mexico because I have relations here,” he said from Mexicali in late January, a day after he struck out four in two scoreless innings against Los Mochis.
“I grew up (in the Southern California border town of Brawley) about 20 miles from where I play. That’s the reason I wanted to come down here. And also it’s pretty strong competition, a lot of ex-big leaguers in this league. For example, Yuniesky Betancourt is my teammate.”
After being a starter for most of his career, Sanchez pitched out of the bullpen for Mexicali in 2015 as the A’s tried to limit his workload. But he pitched so well—and his velocity spiked so much—that Oakland decided to move him to the bullpen for the 2016 season. Sanchez was completely supportive of the plan.
“When I went back to spring training (in 2016), at first I thought I’d go back to starting,” Sanchez said. “When they told me I was going to be back in the bullpen, I was up for whatever. I had been working out all winter, just getting my arm back to be able to throw 100 pitches. So then they told me I was going to be a reliever, I was good to go with whatever.”
Sanchez didn’t have much to lose. His fastball sat 88-92 mph as a starter, the kind of velocity that didn’t draw much notice, especially coming from an NAIA school. He pitched well, showing above-average command, and some scouts came around, including from the Orioles and Diamondbacks. There really aren’t many sleepers these days in the era of ever-connectedness, but a righthander who doesn’t throw hard and wasn’t at one of the NAIA’s power schools got overlooked.
“Scouts were around, they were just looking for more of the other guys playing against stronger conferences,” Sanchez said. “If I remember correctly, it was an Orioles scout. I first started seeing them against Faulkner (Ala.). It was a team of (Division I) bounce backs and I ended up throwing really well and it ended up being a big win against Faulkner.
Still, Sanchez went undrafted in 2012, then signed with Joliet in the Frontier League. His above-average command and deceptive, low three-quarters arm slot attracted a couple of teams, including the Orioles, Diamondbacks—well known for their indy ball discoveries—and the White Sox, who signed him in 2013.
For Sanchez, signing with the White Sox wasn’t about money.
“They just offered me a chance to minor league ball, and that’s what everybody works for,” he said.
After two solid seasons in Rookie ball and low Class A, the White Sox in June 2014 traded Sanchez to Oakland for Michael D. Taylor, by that time a well-traveled outfielder who Chicago saw as Triple-A depth.
It wasn’t a ringing endorsement for Sanchez, and A’s coaches weren’t expecting much.
“Nothing stands out,” said Triple-A Nashville manager Ryan Christenson, who previously managed Sanchez at high Class A Stockton and then Midland. “I was told, ‘we got a new pitcher.’ I usually just let the performance dictate. But I knew right away we had a competitor, almost to a fault.”
Christenson, who was not recruited out of high school and walked on at Pepperdine before embarking on his own longshot journey to the majors with the A’s, could empathize with Sanchez.
“I didn’t have any draft status,” Christenson said. “I earned playing time. It’s not totally unheard of. But he’s the only person I have heard about from Brawley. It’s not exactly a hot bed of Southern California.”
Three big leaguers have come from Brawley—lefthander Sid Monge, who was born in Mexico but attended Brawley High School—longtime righthanded reliever Rudy Seanez, and former Giants closer Sergio Romo, who reportedly will sign with the Dodgers. Brawley, a tiny desert town 130 miles east of San Diego and 70 miles west of Yuma, Ariz., isn’t heavily trafficked by scouts. But what it does have is proximity to Mexico, specifically Mexicali, the birthplace of Sanchez’s mother.
After the 2015 season, Sanchez wanted to keep pitching, and Mexico—because of its proximity to Brawley and the connection to family—was an easy choice.
The A’s were wary of his workload, but they understood the financial realities.
“You can’t really, as an organization, stop him from playing winter ball,” said Orioles minor league pitching coordinator John Wasdin, who worked with Sanchez in the A’s organization. “He has to supply food on the table for his family, and it’s hard for the organization to say don’t play. It’s hard on the body, but it’s part of the baseball world.”
To ease their concerns about overuse, the A’s decided that Sanchez would pitch out of the bullpen for Mexicali. To their delight, it worked out for all parties.
“My first year as a reliever, that was when I had my velo jump,” Sanchez said. “It was a different mentality and I let it all hang out. You’re not trying to pace yourself. That was the biggest difference. I knew I had to pace myself to get six or seven innings as a starter. But as a reliever, it was, ‘Here it is.”’
While he sat 88-92 as a starter, Sanchez’s fastball sat 94-96 mph and touched 99 as a reliever. That also resulted in a renewed confidence, aided by his doggedness.
All of those factors made moving Sanchez to the bullpen permanently in 2016 an easy choice.
Command and Control
While his velocity spiked, Sanchez maintained excellent control of his fastball, slider, sinker and newfound splitter.
More importantly, Sanchez got control of his emotions as well.
“I have seen the improvement in demeanor the last few years,” Christenson said. “Not throwing his glove when there’s an error behind you . . . just being a pro. I’ve seen him constantly growing in maturity and being a student of his craft.”
Sanchez agreed, repeating the mantra of his mentor, Wasdin.
“It’s about controlling the controllables and showing them that I’m ready,” Sanchez. “I’m just trying to do my job, keeping trucking.”
“I totally think a lot of it was he grew up a little bit,” Wasdin said. “He has so much intensity and just fierceness, which is great trait, but he was able to channel that intensity into controlled aggression; channel that into one pitch at a time. Control your controllables.
“He was able to corral that all together. Watching what he’s done, he’s putting it all together. It’s awesome to watch.”
Shifted full time to the bullpen in 2016 at Double-A Midland, Sanchez dominated, with a 25.9 percent strikeout rate and a 6.5 percent walk rate. His considerable velocity played up even more with his low three-quarters arm slot that makes it difficult for the batter to pick up the ball.
“It is a funky arm slot,” Christenson said. “It looks like the ball is kind of slung at the hitter. There’s some deception in that arm slot.”
Wasdin compared Sanchez’s loose, slingy delivery to a young Pedro Martinez, with the caveat that no one compares to Martinez talent-wise, and A’s pitching coordinator Gil Patterson said there is some semblance to Jeff Nelson, the former Yankees and Mariners reliever.
In addition to his newfound velocity and confidence Sanchez added a new pitch: a splitter after working with Wasdin and Patterson.
“What happened early on was, he came to John and I, when in April and into May, he was not getting the strikeouts he wanted. He told us, ‘I’d like to create more swing and miss.’ Well, the split is like a two-seamer but when you throw it more aggressively, it can create more swing and miss. It did play out for him.”
Since Sanchez’s slider is so firm at 89 mph, not a big variance from his fastball, Patterson and Wasdin figured a split at 86 mph would be a good compliment.
“For Sanchy, it’s almost like a changeup,” Patterson said.
Back To Mexico
After his stellar 2016, there was no doubt in Sanchez’s mind that he wanted to go back to Mexico, even though that would mean he had pitched in 20 of the past 24 months.
“It’s a big rush (pitching in the Mexican League),” he said. “Sold out, 22,000 people, so it’s not a minor league feeling, and the adrenaline is there. The atmosphere is completely different.”
Sanchez capitalized on the adrenaline, allowing just one earned run in 31.2 innings during the Mexican League regular season.
Wasdin believes moving to relief also unlocked another part of Sanchez’s toolset.
“It’s the mental game, that’s the key part of baseball,” Wasdin said. “A lot of people have the physical part, but once you have the mental part, you think ‘the umpire can’t control my thoughts, a play behind me can’t control my thoughts.’ You have 100 percent conviction in a three-out or four-out save and can block out all the negative attacks.”
The Next Step
Despite his success in the States and Mexico, Sanchez did not get an invite to big league spring training, although he is on a provisional list for Mexico’s WBC team.
He admits he was a “little disappointed” about spring training, but the coaches who know him best expect it will motivate him further.
“I’m sure that was disappointing for him . . . maybe it puts a chip on his shoulder,” Christenson said. “It might be a situation like Ryon Healy, who didn’t get a big league invite, but then dominated (Double-A and got to the majors). Maybe Jake can learn from that.”
Wasdin cautioned against counting out Sanchez, who has already outplayed his profile.
“Go back to (former A’s closer) Billy Taylor, who was 32 when he got to the majors; (Nondrafted free agent) Carlos Reyes finally got a shot,” said Wasdin, himself a former big league righthander.
“Without a doubt, Jake can get big league hitters out.”