BRADENTON, Fla. – It was August 7, 2015 in Norfolk when Angel Sanchez threw a pitch that was followed by his fingers becoming stiff and a warm sensation overtaking his arm. That fourth inning pitch to Elias Diaz would be the last in a game for Sanchez until Wednesday afternoon, when he threw in a competitive game for the first time since having Tommy John surgery in the fall of 2015.
I was able to talk with Sanchez before his outing, and he was ecstatic to be able to get back on the mound.
“I am super excited to get back on the mound,” Sanchez said on Tuesday morning at LECOM Park. “It was really tough to have a year and a half just watching baseball and not being able to do anything — the things that you love to do. As soon as the rehab was over, I was just ready to get back and pitch on the mound. I am just so excited to get in a game.”
For those who don’t remember his story, Sanchez was claimed by the Pirates in 2014 from the White Sox after bouncing around with three other teams who claimed him off waivers before the Pirates. They snuck him through the waiver process during the off-season and gave him a spot in the starting rotation for the Altoona Curve in 2015. Before landing with the Pirates, he was a top ten prospect with the Dodgers entering the 2013 season, and ranked as the number 16 prospect for the Marlins going into 2014 (going over to Miami in a trade).
Before the injury in 2015, Sanchez was on a trajectory straight towards the majors, as he was having a great season in Double-A and Triple-A. He put up a 2.79 ERA in 77.1 IP in Altoona, including a 49:19 K/BB ratio. Those numbers honestly don’t even reflect how dominant he was pitching in the league before his promotion, as his stuff looked fantastic, and he was going deep into games consistently.
The emergence of an effective cutter was the separator for Sanchez, earning him a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis mid-season 2015. He put up a 2.55 ERA and 50:15 K/BB ratio in 60 innings for the Indians, putting him in line for strong consideration of joining the Pirates as insurance in September. That time, of course, never came, as he tore his UCL during that August 7th start.
“I threw a bullpen [after two weeks of rest and rehab],” Sanchez said, “and I couldn’t really throw any of my pitches. That’s when I knew what was going on.”
The news that he’d need surgery was devastating to hear, mostly because all of the hard work he had put in was translating to success on the field.
“I was definitely a little off when I heard that I needed surgery on my arm,” Sanchez said. “I was starting to do my best. I was controlling the things that I could control, and I was doing much better as a pitcher.”
Now, all of that is behind him, as Pirates Head Athletic Trainer Todd Tomczyk explained that Sanchez’s recovery was nothing short of tremendous due to the work that the young man put in during rehab.
“It’s very exciting for him and for us,” Tomczyk said. “The amount of work that this man has put in up to this point is unexplainable.”
Both Sanchez and Tomczyk credited Minor League Rehab Coordinator A.J. Patrick for the time and effort put in working with Sanchez during the rehab process.
“I was in contact with A.J. the whole time,” Sanchez said.
He began throwing fastballs last year, and his arm felt fine during that time. The hardest part of the recovery was when he added in breaking balls after Christmas while working out in Phoenix. He dealt with some arm soreness due to the strain on his arm from throwing the breaking pitches, but that soon wore off once the new year rolled around. The Pirates had him mostly throwing fastballs and changeups when he first arrive in Bradenton in January, then he slowly progressed to throwing all of his pitches in bullpen sessions. Once everyone arrived for Spring Training, everything was a go.
“The first days were really tough, getting back on track,” Sanchez said. “My body feels like I wasn’t all the way back in. I was working a lot and doing a ton of stuff with the everyday schedule, but now my body is getting used to it.”
All the hard work paid off, as Sanchez has added 19 pounds of all pure, lean muscle mass to his frame, and he said that his arm actually feels stronger than it ever has. Tomcyzk said that he is in extraordinary shape in both a cardiovascular and physical sense.
It all came into play on Wednesday afternoon when he had the opportunity to pitch against the Dominican Republic WBC team, something that had a little extra special meaning to him.
“I’m pretty excited to get out there for the first game after a year and a half off,” Sanchez said. “Today, I have the honor to pitch against my home country. It is special. They are an elite team. I’m excited to get back to competing and doing my best again.”
Sanchez threw two-thirds of an inning, induced two ground balls, and walked two batters. He said that he was a little amped up because of the situation, so his breaking ball control wasn’t exactly where it needed to be, but altogether, he was very happy with him performance. More impressively, his four-seam fastball had some good velocity, sitting in the mid-90s.
“I’ve been out for a long time, and I’ve been working so much. I have no words to really explain it right now, but I feel super happy to get back on the mound.”
The addition of Sanchez is an underrated important one for the Pirates, as he adds more depth to their Triple-A pitching staff. The plan, for now is to have him throw out of the bullpen; however, the option to stretch him out is still there. They simply want to monitor his quality pitch count during the step in the process of coming back from Tommy John surgery. If Sanchez can get back to the way he was throwing in 2015 pre-injury, he could easily find his way onto the Major League club.