Let’s Talk About Michael Saunders

Dave · July 1, 2010 at 9:53 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Comments

53 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Michael Saunders”

  1. GoldenGutz on July 1st, 2010 10:14 pm

    I’m not too worried about the K% because he is so young and most of the time young hitters have a high K% and same with him facing lefties, he will develop to hitting lefties over time. But I still love his potential and if he can fix his flaws then he could be seeing an ASG in a couple of years. I believe you wrote an article on Fangraphs about how “Patience Pays” well hopefully he can learn to fix these problems and become a consistent bat.

  2. SonOfZavaras on July 1st, 2010 10:15 pm

    I see what you’re saying, Dave, and have noticed the pronounced lefty “yoink swing” myself.

    I think one thing that’d be intriguing to find out is exactly how long Saunders has had this swing. His minor-league power numbers have always been pedestrian, and it makes me wonder if the swing is a fairly new advent designed to increase his power production.

    I just remember him being overanxious and an easy out last year, with no power shown. I don’t remember if he had the swing that we’re seeing now.

    I do know that if I were a pitcher against him, I’d pound the zone down and away with breaking balls. At this point in his career, he’ll swing eventually.

  3. Dave on July 1st, 2010 10:17 pm

    He’s always swung like this. He’s got better leverage now than he did a year ago (when he was almost bending over when he swung at pitches down in the zone), but it’s just a variant of the swing he’s always had.

    It can work, but he’ll just have to be very selective and not swing at pitches he can’t pull too often.

  4. spankystout on July 1st, 2010 10:17 pm

    He will also need to learn how to hit LHP at some point. But he shows signs of improving, and he is only 23.

  5. Dave on July 1st, 2010 10:20 pm

    If only I had touched on his platoon split in the post… what was I thinking?

  6. portablestanzas on July 1st, 2010 10:42 pm

    check out Jayson Werth’s first four or five professional seasons in comparison to Saunders’. Like mirror images they are – with Saunders displaying more power.

  7. SonOfZavaras on July 1st, 2010 10:57 pm

    Frame-wise and in terms of type of athlete, I always thought Jayson Werth was a pretty good comp for Saunders.

  8. Dave on July 1st, 2010 11:04 pm

    Yeah, that is essentially what we hope Saunders turns into, though Werth has significantly more opposite field power than Saunders and never demonstrated an extreme inability to hit same handed pitching, since his swing is more traditional.

    But, overall, yes, the hope is that Saunders gets his walk rate up by 50 percent or so and cuts the strikeout rate a little bit, and then the whole package works.

  9. SonOfZavaras on July 1st, 2010 11:10 pm

    For the rest of 2010, my line on Saunders is : “Put the kid in LF and leave him alone. Either he swims or he doesn’t, but put him in the water.”

  10. portablestanzas on July 1st, 2010 11:15 pm

    too true. Werth’s opposite field power is prodigious – now. I wish I could find video of his minor league days to see what, if any, changes his swing has undergone.

  11. Liam on July 2nd, 2010 12:27 am

    Dr. Marcus Elliott on Michael Sanders.

  12. greentunic on July 2nd, 2010 1:40 am

    Interesting link Liam. I wonder how legitamite all that fine analysis is regarding how much it can actually help. Such a strange and non-traditional approach to conditioning. How do you test the effectiveness of something like that anyway? wierd stuff.

  13. spankystout on July 2nd, 2010 2:49 am

    Its ok Dave, we all forget something. Maybe he will fix some of his troubles with LHP if he isn’t opening up so early.

  14. joser on July 2nd, 2010 3:21 am

    *whooosh*
    The comment about the platoon split was sarcasm. Read Dave’s post again. Your comment about Saunders needing to “learn how to hit LHP at some point” is redundant because it was explicitly addressed in the post. In fact, that’s what roughly the entire second half of the post is about.

  15. SODOMOJO360 on July 2nd, 2010 7:02 am

    Who do you think is the better prospect, Halman or Saunders?

  16. Coach24 on July 2nd, 2010 7:32 am

    I will start out by saying I love Saunders. He is a gamer and does the little things like taking extra bases. He seems to have a head for the game. Many players with a head for the game and his athletic ability are able to make adjustments to their swings to make them better. Hopefully he is one of those guys, if not, lets hope improving approach works well. As for rotational hitters, they generally are not successful the higher they move up….Unless they are able to rotate late(and fast) and are really really special players. Guy that jumps out is Barry Bonds(No I am not comparing Saunders to Bonds, just talking rotational hitting).

  17. Carson on July 2nd, 2010 8:04 am

    Speaking of Dr. Elliott, I’d love to hear what, if any, results players are seeing from his program. Major and minor leaguers alike.

  18. MrZDevotee on July 2nd, 2010 8:06 am

    Saunders swing is the precise reason I was worried about him making it at the big league level early on (even last year). But I think what has turned him around is exactly that he has become more patient at the plate recently… Not enough yet, but it’s an obvious change from his early concept of “try-to-hit-anything-close-to-the-plate” (a’la Yuni or Beltre) to actually taking strikes now.

    I couldn’t find anywhere to compare his swing % for his first 75-80 AB this year, to his more recent 30+ at bats… Or BABIP for the same breakdown… (Anyone know a site where you can compile the stats with such a breakdown?)

    I’m very interested to see if I’m just imagining he’s more patient (’cause he’s having more success) or if it’s actually true.

    He definitely has the talent to be a candidate for a new hitting coach’s pet project.

    I guess the real breakdown that would be interesting is to make the break point when he started playing regularly (as in, Griffey’s retirement date). Perhaps that’s when his at-bats got better, when he was getting more consistent looks at Major League pitching.

    There’s a similar post on Seattle Sports Insider that supposes Saunders could pencil out to be a lesser version of Darryl Strawberry– pure pull lefty hitter, fast bat, decent speed, and a little more power for Saunders.

    I’d take that. For sure. Even 70% of that. (As long as he DOES learn to “lay off the junk”– as in the “junk” that sidelined Strawberries career at 25 years old.)

  19. Rick Banjo on July 2nd, 2010 8:19 am

    Agreed on the swing, Dave– but if you look at the history of any successful big leaguer, it all starts with a raw crappy swing (unless it was Griffey, and even then…), and graduates to something better. Think Buhner. Look at film from 1990, and then 1995. BIG difference. Saunders will learn–or he’ll go back to TAC.

  20. GoldenGutz on July 2nd, 2010 8:40 am

    Who do you think is the better prospect, Halman or Saunders?

    Well since Saunders is no longer a prospect I’ll go with Halman. Halman has all the tools to succeed but he K’s way to much. If he get could get his K% down he could have a lot of success. Or so I’ve heard.

  21. Paul B on July 2nd, 2010 8:41 am

    His BABIP in June was only .225. So he’s even better than how he hit recently.

  22. diderot on July 2nd, 2010 8:41 am

    This is very depressing.
    If I’m reading this right, the idea is to have him lay off pitches that are outside the strike zone away. But what about pitches that are on the outside corner? Is there any evidence that these won’t continue to give him problems?
    And I wonder if Dr. Elliott’s ‘big explosive move’ theory doesn’t actually exaggerate the problem…having him pull out even sooner than before.

  23. marinersunbird on July 2nd, 2010 8:49 am

    I’ve seen Michael make a couple great defensive plays recently. Do the stats indicate that he’ll be an above average outfielder?

  24. robbbbbb on July 2nd, 2010 8:57 am

    So, what have we got with Michael Saunders? Well, he’s going to be a high-strikeout guy. He’s going to hit for modest power. He’ll be above-average defensively in left field.

    Honestly, to be an asset to this team, Saunders has to put up a league-average bat. To do that, he’s going to have to limit the strikeouts and walk some.

    If he learns to lay off bad pitches, increases his BB rate to ~10% and cuts his K rate to ~25%, and maintains that ~20 HR power, then he’s going to be a league-average hitter. Like Dave says: It’s all about his approach at the plate. As long as he doesn’t swing at the worst crap, then he’s got a future in this league.

    I continue to maintain that Saunders is going to have stretches where he looks absolutely awful. The guy’s going to have 3 and 4 K games a few times a year. As long as we all accept that, and enjoy the games where he hammers the ball, he’ll be just fine in a Mariner uniform.

  25. mutpup on July 2nd, 2010 8:58 am

    Doesn’t just about every guy play this game of cat and mouse with the pitchers until they eliminate enough holes in their swing that pitchers miss their spots often enough to give the hitter an AVG between .250 and .350?

  26. joser on July 2nd, 2010 9:52 am

    Fielding data for the minors is still pretty primitive (and I certainly wouldn’t venture to interpret it — I’ll leave that to someone with actual knowledge and skill). He’s been a net positive so far in the majors, though. Given that LF in Safeco is more like CF-jr (and the long history of black holes out there for this team), that’s something.

    If Saunders grows into his frame he might have a bit more than modest power (depending on your definition of “modest” I guess). Of course it’s not so easy for guys to do that anymore (ahem) and natural power seems to arrive in the late 20s, so that’s still some years away. But if he’s going to be a pure pull hitter, at least he won’t be in exactly the wrong home park for that like Lopez is.

    Speaking of Dr. Elliott, I’d love to hear what, if any, results players are seeing from his program. Major and minor leaguers alike.

    Well, as Jay has labored to point out, there was no requirement that the major-leaguers participate in his program, just the minor-leaguers. I’d be interested just to know how many of the Mariners even took a taste of the koolaid. Though I think it’s probably too early to be looking for results no matter how miraculous the program.

  27. Kazinski on July 2nd, 2010 10:06 am

    I’ve seen Michael make a couple great defensive plays recently. Do the stats indicate that he’ll be an above average outfielder?

    You don’t get a nickname like “The Condor” without being a good defensive player. I hope you noticed that when Guti was out with his stomach problems that Saunders was moved over to CF. He may be the best 2nd best defensive LF in the league, behind Carl Crawford.

  28. joealb1 on July 2nd, 2010 10:18 am

    Luks Scott with better defense. Prett good upside. Downside, Ryan Langerhans.

  29. Paul B on July 2nd, 2010 10:19 am

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Mike Cameron in this thread.

    24% K, 11% BB for his career.

    .250-.340-.446

    Saunders might turn out to be at about his level as a hitter, although of course not quite as good in the field.

  30. SonOfZavaras on July 2nd, 2010 10:22 am

    Who do you think is the better prospect, Halman or Saunders?

    Taking your question the way that it was meant to be answered…in terms of physical potential, Halman.

    Halman is a nightmare paper tiger in the eyes of many. Premium athlete with tools galore, and no real ballplayer instincts that anybody can detect. Strikes out way too much, and always has. But he’s still quite young, the book is not closed on him yet.

    In terms of what you’re likely to get in productivity out of a guy’s ability, the safe money is on Saunders having the longer and better career.

  31. Dave on July 2nd, 2010 10:35 am

    Come on. Halman isn’t anything close to Saunders. Saunders is a legitimate potential MLB player – Halman is a clown show.

  32. Carson on July 2nd, 2010 10:37 am

    Though I think it’s probably too early to be looking for results no matter how miraculous the program.

    True. Perhaps what I really meant by results was, 4-5 months is probably enough time for an athlete to determine if they hate a workout, enjoy it, or feel something different.

    For guys like Saunders who have spent some time at both levels this season, I wonder if they are required to use the program during their minors stints or if having been at the major league level before/during this season they are exempt.

    Those are the guys I’d like to hear from the most. Did they immediately ditch it upon being called up? Did they continue? Any noticable benefits, even this early?

  33. SonOfZavaras on July 2nd, 2010 11:28 am

    Come on. Halman isn’t anything close to Saunders. Saunders is a legitimate potential MLB player – Halman is a clown show.

    We are in general concurrence, Dave.

    True quote from a friend who has an associate in scouting, after seeing Halman at Tacoma.

    My Friend: “So..what do you think of Halman?”

    Scout: “Greg Halman pisses me off.”

    “Nightmare of a paper tiger” is my official snap description of Halman, until proven otherwise.

  34. GoldenGutz on July 2nd, 2010 12:11 pm

    Halman should piss everyone off. He has ALL the tools to be a star. Speed defense, power everything. But I wish he would cut down the K%. But he is only 23 so I’m not giving up on him yet.

  35. Dave on July 2nd, 2010 12:30 pm

    Pitch recognition is a tool. He doesn’t have that one.

  36. Leroy Stanton on July 2nd, 2010 1:06 pm

    Pitch recognition is a tool. He doesn’t have that one.

    I thought pitch recognition was a skill.

  37. SODOMOJO360 on July 2nd, 2010 1:12 pm

    Come on. Halman isn’t anything close to Saunders. Saunders is a legitimate potential MLB player – Halman is a clown show.

    Little harsh for a 22 year old. Yes he k’s too much but it is improving. I saw him hit an opposite field homer last night and have heard he has good opposite field power. You’re telling me if he stays in AAA until he’s 24-25 that he couldn’t be an above average major leaguer?

  38. HititHere on July 2nd, 2010 1:13 pm

    You don’t get a nickname like “The Condor” without being a good defensive player. I hope you noticed that when Guti was out with his stomach problems that Saunders was moved over to CF. He may be the best 2nd best defensive LF in the league, behind Carl Crawford.

    Scouting reports called him “a natural center fielder” and he’s got a gun for an arm–he apparently hit 92 mph as a pitcher in high school.

    The reason he’s in LF is not because defensively he belongs there (usually your weakest OF is in left), it’s because we have monsters in CF and RF already.

    He should be well above average in left.

  39. Dave on July 2nd, 2010 1:41 pm

    Pretty much the only major leaguer to make Halman’s skillset work is Alfonso Soriano. Everyone else who has tried this “swing at everything” approach has flopped. It just doesn’t work.

  40. Paul B on July 2nd, 2010 1:45 pm

    Everyone else who has tried this “swing at everything” approach has flopped.

    Well, Kirby Puckett.

    But yeah, he was a special case, too.

  41. Dave on July 2nd, 2010 1:52 pm

    Kirby Puckett made contact. There’s a huge difference between guys like him (and Magglio Ordonez, Vlad Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, etc…) and these swing-at-anything hacks who don’t have the ability to get the bat on the ball.

  42. Kazinski on July 2nd, 2010 2:17 pm

    Player A:
    O swing% 35.6
    O contact% 55.8
    HR/FB 20%
    BABIP .386

    Player B
    O swing% 29.1
    O contact% 53.3
    HR/FB 20.6%
    BABIP .242

    Both are LH left fielders in the AL West.

    Player A: Josh Hamilton
    Player B: Micheal Saunders

  43. Dave on July 2nd, 2010 2:27 pm

    Infield Fly Ball Percentage:

    Josh Hamilton: 3.3%
    Michael Saunders: 29.4%

    Low BABIP is not always bad luck. Sometimes, its bad hitting.

  44. Kazinski on July 2nd, 2010 2:56 pm

    Looking a little further at the plate discipline comparison between Josh Hamilton and Micheal Saunders, there is one striking (pun intended) difference Hamilton only strikes out 21% of the time, while Saunders strikes out 33% of the time. This is despite Hamilton’s very high 14.8% swinging strike rate as compared to Saunders 11.2%.

    The reason Hamilton doesn’t strike out as much as Saunders despite swinging at and missing more pitches, is because Saunders takes almost 40% (38.5), of the pitches he gets in the zone, while Hamilton only looks at 18.1% of the strikes he sees.

    It’s pretty clear to me that Saunders is showing too much patience at the plate, at least in terms of looking at strikes, and he needs to be more aggressive with balls in the zone.

    I also think Dave is confusing things a little by putting Saunder’s 2009 numbers in there with the 2010 numbers, it is obvious that Saunders is very different this year than last, 0HR vs 7HR in essentially the same number of PA will tell you that. Last year his O contact % was 32.8, this year it’s 53.3, which is still below league average but it is not such an outlier.

  45. philosofool on July 2nd, 2010 3:45 pm

    It’s pretty clear to me that Saunders is showing too much patience at the plate, at least in terms of looking at strikes, and he needs to be more aggressive with balls in the zone.

    This is not patience, it’s having a bad eye. Patient hitters with an eye don’t swing at out of zone pitches at half the rate of pitches in the zone. Brett Gardner, Bobby Abreu and Kevin Youkilis are patient; Saunders can’t recognize pitches and swings at shit, while laying off pitches in the zone because he can’t tell that they’re in the zone. I’m not saying he can’t improve, but right now he’s not really selecting pitches.

    I also think Dave is confusing things a little by putting Saunder’s 2009 numbers in there with the 2010 numbers

    Meh. The guy has 247 total MLB plate appearances. Lump them all together because 247 isn’t even really enough to say that much with any confidence. The reason we can draw any conlusions at all is because we know how he faired in the minors and can see somethings that don’t come out in the stats. If you don’t like the lumped strategy, multiply last season by two, this season by three, sum it, and divide by five. That’s still giving too much weight to the recent season, but don’t ignore last season’s numbers while projecting.

  46. Kazinski on July 2nd, 2010 4:15 pm

    The guy has 247 total MLB plate appearances. Lump them all together because 247 isn’t really enough to see that much with any confidence.

    Of course there is going to be a small sample size problem, but last year they gave Saunders a look and then shut him down for the rest of the season to re-tool his swing. In a normal case I would agree with you but his numbers in some categories are so starkly different that I don’t think averaging them is giving a true picture.

    As for Saunder’s IFFB%, that is pretty interesting, I looked around for comps on that and came up with Vernon Wells (2010- 22%, career 16%). Wells has very similar contact rates with Saunders, low BABIP, etc. I’d settle for Vernon Wells as a comp, as long as the M’s don’t sign Saunders to similar contract (7 years 126M).

    But obviously we’ll need another year or 2 to figure out what we have in Saunders.

  47. joser on July 2nd, 2010 5:33 pm

    Pretty much the only major leaguer to make Halman’s skillset work is Alfonso Soriano. Everyone else who has tried this “swing at everything” approach has flopped.

    Well, and Vlad. Of course not only has Vlad been swinging at more than 45% of pitches outside the zone over the last four years (he’s at 49% so far this year!) he also has made contact with those pitches over 70% of the time. That’s insane. He’s a bigger freak than Ichiro.

  48. dchappelle on July 2nd, 2010 6:18 pm

    That’s insane. He’s a bigger freak than Ichiro.

    No kidding. I have to think there would be nothing more demoralizing for a pitcher than having Vlad hit a home run on a ball 6 inches off the plate away or just above his shoetops (or both!)

  49. SODOMOJO360 on July 2nd, 2010 8:52 pm

    Pretty much the only major leaguer to make Halman’s skillset work is Alfonso Soriano. Everyone else who has tried this “swing at everything” approach has flopped. It just doesn’t work.

    Again, he’s 22 and has already almost walked as much as he did all of last year.

  50. SODOMOJO360 on July 2nd, 2010 9:45 pm

    Still gonna tell me Halman doesn’t have a future? 3HR last 2 games with 2 going to the opposite field.

  51. Dave on July 2nd, 2010 11:04 pm

    Yes, because there’s more to life than HRs. Stick around for a while and learn something.

  52. Naliamegod on July 2nd, 2010 11:21 pm

    Again, he’s 22 and has already almost walked as much as he did all of last year.

    And he’s not making good contact and is still striking out way too much. Massive power doesn’t mean anything if you have no pitch recognition, which is Halman’s problem.

    This isn’t a physical tool that develops with age or a skill that can be easily gained through experience, but a basic requirement to be even a passable baseball hitter. Halman still has a long long way to go and isn’t showing enough improvement to really be counted on.

  53. GoldenGutz on July 2nd, 2010 11:25 pm

    I looked up Halmans numbers and they make me stupid. This year 38% K%. Yet he has 17 HR’s. I just ask myself why? Why can’t he learn to lay off these pitches? It’s pretty sad when have a 50% chance of K’ing or walking and you walk at a 11% rate. So pretty much when Halman steps to the plate you have a good idea of what he will do. If you guess walk strikeout or hit for extra bases your going to be right about 70% of the time based on pure estimate.
    He is the type of prospect many scouts just ask themselves “Why?” I just wish he could atleast bring his K% down to a ~25% he would be much better if he did.

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