Let’s Talk About Michael Saunders
Despite having just 119 plate appearances, Michael Saunders is second on the Mariners in home runs, just one behind team leader Milton Bradley. After last year’s debut performance where he didn’t hit for any power at all, watching him drive the ball with regularity has been very encouraging, and he’s showing some of the ability that made him the team’s best prospect. His tools are obvious, and he has the ability to become a good player, but there are also a few pretty glaring flaws that he needs to work on.
His two biggest problems are actually kind of the same issue, as both are the direct result of the type of swing Saunders takes. He doesn’t just swing the bat with his arms; He may turn his body towards the pull field when he swings more than anyone I have ever seen before. Rather than sitting back and letting his hips generate power, Saunders basically reorients his body during the swing and ends up essentially pivoting at the plate. It works, as when he gets around on a ball, he can give it a ride, but it comes with a pretty significant downside – he is extremely vulnerable to anything on the outer half of the plate, especially pitches down and away.
This creates two problems – one, his contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone is among the worst in the league. In what amounts to half a season’s worth of major league playing time, he’s made contact with just 41.6 percent of the pitches he’s chased out of the strike zone. Over the last year, the only batters with at least 200 plate appearances who have made contact less often on pitches out of the zone are Kelly Shoppach (a catcher), Elijah Dukes (out of baseball), and Kyle Blanks (struggling rookie). Right behind Saunders are guys like Ryan Howard and Mark Reynolds, two of the most prolific strikeout artists of all time, who compensate for their whiff rate with monstrous, 40+ HR power.
Saunders doesn’t have that kind of thump and never will, so he won’t have the same ability to offset the strikeouts that those guys do with production when he does make contact. Instead, he’ll have to simply get better at either getting the bat on the ball when he does chase, or simply chase less often. The latter is probably more likely to be a long term solution, but it’s not an easy fix for an aggressive young hitter. The Mariners will have to work closely with Saunders to convince him of the need to be more selective in what he swings at, and get him enough at-bats so that he can begin to discern which pitches are worth offering at.
The other problem that his swing creates is an almost total inability to handle pitches that are diving away from him. This shows up in both his performance against left-handed pitchers (13 for 79, 2 XBH, 1 BB, 33 K) and his performance on balls hit to left field (10 for 44, 1 XBH). The way he swings the bat just doesn’t leave any room for opposite field power, as the swing itself is made to turn on a pitch and drive it to right field. If he hits it to left, its an accident and almost certainly will result in an out. In fact, 27 percent of all his balls hit to left field have been infield flies, which are basically no better than a strikeout.
His extreme pull swing makes it very tough for him to go the other way with any authority, and so lefties who pound him away can rest assured that he won’t do anything with it, even if he does get the bat on the ball. While Saunders is a talented guy, he’s definitely never going to be an Edgar Martinez type, who just went with whatever he was thrown and confounded pitchers with his ability to use the whole field. Saunders is as much of an extreme pull hitter as Jose Lopez, and while it’s definitely better to have a left-handed version of that kind of hitter in Safeco, it still makes him pretty easy to pitch to, especially when he’s willing to swing at pitches out of the zone.
Put simply, for Saunders to be a successful big league hitter, he’s going to have to develop a better approach at the plate. He can do this, but it will take some time and patience from the team. Pitchers will exploit his weaknesses as the reports on him get around the league, and he’ll have to make adjustments. How long it will take him to make those will likely end up determining whether he’s able to hold down the LF job for the Mariners next year.