Michael Saunders

Dave · June 7, 2012 at 9:42 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Saunders, you may have noticed, is kind of on fire. In his last eight games, he’s 18 for 36 with seven extra base hits, two walks, and only two strikeouts. He’s gotten three or more hits in five of those eight games, something he’d only ever done four times in his career up until a week ago. He’s got his season line up to .277/.346/.462, good for a .353 wOBA and a 128 wRC+. Overall, he’s now been the Mariners best hitter this year.

So, the obvious question is what’s changed? How did Saunders go from being the worst hitter in baseball a year ago to being the team’s best hitter this year? He’s now covering the plate and hitting the ball to all fields.

In spring training, we saw Saunders hitting the ball with authority to the opposite field, which is something he’d never been able to do in the big leagues before, and we were encouraged that perhaps he’d learned how to go the other way with pitches on the outer half of the plate. Last year, Dave Allen graphed Saunders struggles with pitches away, so this had been a huge problem for him, and gave pitchers an easy way to get him out.

To Left: 34 PA, .147/.147/.176, -19 wRC+
To Center: 32 PA, .172/.167/.172, -14 wRC+
To Right: 45 PA.333/.333/.571, 150 wRC+

Now, here are those same numbers from this year.

To Left: 30 PA, .300/.300/.433, 102 wRC+
To Center: 43 PA, .548/.535/.976, 321 wRC+
To Right: 71 PA, .310/.310/.507, 126 wRC+

Last year, Saunders was a productive hitter when he pulled the ball, but he hit like a pitcher when he didn’t. This year, Saunders is still productive when he pulls the ball, but he’s hitting like Babe Ruth when he hits it to center field and is still an average hitter even when he goes to left.

Prefer pictures to numbers? Here’s the run value of swings from Saunders based on pitch location last year, with warmer colors representing better performance and purple representing places where he was about as good at hitting as you or I.

See that big giant purple hole on the outer half of the plate? That was was Saunders huge weakness.

Now, here’s this year’s version of that same chart.

Those big purple spots? All gone. Saunders has basically closed the two giant holes he had in his swing, and is now able to hit balls on the outer half to left field and pitches on the inside corner to center field, instead of just trying to pull every pitch he’s thrown. He’s still pretty good at hitting that down-and-in pitch to right, but that’s not the only thing he can do anymore.

This improvement means that you don’t see a huge change in his plate discipline stats – his contact rate is only slightly higher than it was last year, and he’s actually putting the bat on pitches in the strike zone at pretty much exactly the same pace he was a year ago. However, the difference is what he’s doing when he does make contact.

Saunders is still a pull hitter, and he’s pulling the ball more often this year than last, so he hasn’t really changed his approach at the plate. He’s simply no longer useless on balls he doesn’t pull, which means that opposing pitchers can’t just pound him away-away-away and watch him weakly roll a ground ball to second base.

This specifically shows up against left-handed pitchers, who throw cutting fastballs and sliders that run away from left-handed batters and are often located on the outer half of the plate. Last year, Saunders was hapless against LHPs, hitting .143/.169/.161 – that’s one extra base hit and two walks against 21 strikeouts in 61 trips to the plate. This year? .283/.345/.528, with seven extra base hits and five walks against just 13 strikeouts in 58 trips to the plate. He’s actually been better against lefties than he has been against righties, which is pretty amazing considering that he was an automatic out against southpaws a year ago.

All that said, Saunders probably won’t be able to keep this level of performance up. His BABIP is currently .348, which is at the very top of the range that people can sustain for long periods of time. ZIPS expects that his BABIP will be a slightly above average .308 mark over the rest of the season, which sounds about right for a guy who runs pretty well and hits the ball hard from time to time. A .308 BABIP with his strikeout rate and power means that he’s probably going be an average or maybe slightly below average hitter going forward.

But you know what? Michael Saunders as an average hitter is still a huge win for this franchise, and it’s not impossible that he keeps improving and holds onto more of his gains than we might think. If he keeps hitting for the power that we’ve seen lately, he’ll be a really nice player. The contact rates are always likely to keep him from being a star, but at this point, Michael Saunders is probably the best outfielder in the organization. The fact that we’re saying that right now is pretty amazing, given how unbelievably awful he was last season.

When Franklin Gutierrez comes back, Saunders won’t be the full time center fielder anymore, but he’s played well enough to deserve an everyday gig. With Mike Carp and Ichiro both struggling and Guti unlikely to be able to play everyday, there will be plenty of playing time to go around, but given what he’s done lately, Saunders should be the one guy who sees his name in the line-up card every day from here on out. He’s earned the right to keep playing regardless of what anyone else is doing.


44 Responses to “Michael Saunders”

  1. gwangung on June 7th, 2012 9:57 am

    but given what he’s done lately, Saunders should be the one guy who sees his name in the line-up card every day from here on out. He’s earned the right to keep playing regardless of what anyone else is doing.

    Yeah, I think even the staunchest traditionalist would agree with that.

    (Damn! Pretty color pictures!!!)

  2. Westside guy on June 7th, 2012 10:03 am

    Amazing, isn’t it? If, last year, anyone had predicted we’d be talking about Saunders with phrases like “best outfielder in the organization”, that person would’ve been laughed off the board.

    I’ve been pulling for the guy since his first call-up… got teased (good naturedly) about it here over the past season or two. But, after last season, even I thought he was done. So it is great to see him finally succeeding!

  3. vertigoman on June 7th, 2012 10:07 am

    Great writeup. Up there with the open letter to Felix years ago.
    Saunders as the everyday LFer (assuming he’s displaced by a healthy and productive Guti) helps this team at the top and bottom of the inning. What a nice turn of events. Thank you Josh Bard’s brother.
    I like colors, but not all colors. Purple is aweful. Hopefully Chambliss likes colors too and can show the pretty colors to some other “hitters”.

  4. Klatz on June 7th, 2012 10:17 am

    You have to credit his determination to improve his performance and the effort, which has appeared to pay off.

    Now if only he could hit at home (like most of the other Ms hitters as well)

    Home: .185 .297 .222
    Away: .312 .366 .553

    As a team
    Home: .193 .278 .305
    Away: .257 .307 .417


  5. easternWAmsfan on June 7th, 2012 10:23 am


  6. hoiland on June 7th, 2012 10:28 am

    This is amazing. Great write up Dave.

    Saunders is by far my favorite Mariner, I have never pulled for or wanted a guy to succeed more than Saunders. Don’t know if it is one thing in particular about him, I just love everything about him.

    Now about his Safeco stats…lets get it done Condor!!!

  7. GM42 on June 7th, 2012 10:30 am

    Safe to say the team’s home/road splits will stabilize as the season goes on. It also doesn’t seem like Safeco should be too much of a drag on Saunders’ numbers given that he’s a lefty.

  8. maqman on June 7th, 2012 10:31 am

    I’ve wished he would figure it out eventually, as have many others. After his terrible winter league efforts the past off season I figured he was toast. I forgot there is always hope and sometimes the good guys do win.

  9. gwangung on June 7th, 2012 10:40 am

    Safe to say the team’s home/road splits will stabilize as the season goes on. It also doesn’t seem like Safeco should be too much of a drag on Saunders’ numbers given that he’s a lefty.

    Maybe yes, maybe no. There might be other factors that impact batters (like the hitter’s eyes, etc.); such factors have impacted bats previously.

    Wonder if there’s something real to this or if this is mental.

  10. bat guano on June 7th, 2012 10:43 am

    Nice post. I’m becoming a big fan of Saunders’ all around tools/skills. The last paragraph makes me wonder what Dave’s Mariner outfield of 2013 would look like. Where would Saunders fit best?

  11. Miles on June 7th, 2012 11:16 am

    Enough with the Condor, please. The condors may have long wing spans but that doesn’t do justice to Mr. Saunders. Mr. Saunders is from Britich Columbia. In BC they have native folklore of the Thunderbird. Saunders is lightning fast and rains thunder and destruction down upon opposing pitchers. He soars thru the outfield skies hunting down swiftly anything that comes his way. Please, no more references to carrion eaters.

  12. Westside guy on June 7th, 2012 11:20 am

    ^^ If that carrion is dead rally monkey, I’m all for it.

    (I don’t really want to know where Sullivan found that picture)

  13. GLS on June 7th, 2012 12:00 pm

    This is an amazing writeup. Tremendous stuff Dave.

  14. GM42 on June 7th, 2012 12:07 pm

    Good point gwangung, I was admittedly being reductive about Safeco and lefties. Certainly seems like it might dampen some of his new-found effectiveness hitting the ball the other way.

  15. Glen on June 7th, 2012 12:11 pm

    Personally, I have been calling him the Phoenix this year, because Saunders has been reborn to kill the baseball.

  16. broyld on June 7th, 2012 12:16 pm

    What is with this trend where one of the young guys gets hot, and then another heats up as he cools off? It’s gone Seager —> Smoak —> Saunders recently, but it’s been going on before that. I find it kind of maddening.

  17. Johnny Slick on June 7th, 2012 12:39 pm

    I think we should call him The Capybara because I like capybaras.

  18. MrZDevotee on June 7th, 2012 12:45 pm

    It’s pretty interesting to see that belly high, over the plate is his weakest spot… Most guys call that the “meat zone”… Although, maybe he doesn’t get thrown many pitches there, so doesn’t anticipate many chances there?

    It’s been fun to watch Saunders get some confidence and build on it.

  19. DarkKnight1680 on June 7th, 2012 12:49 pm

    I’m actually starting to be very excited…about the 2014 Mariners. I could see a lineup that includes Ackley, Seager, Saunders, Montero, Smoak, Franklin, and Zunino and a pitching staff with Felix, Hultzen, Walker, Ramirez, and Paxton and a bullpen anchored by Pryor/Capps/Wilhelmsen. Odds that all those guys stay healthy and continue improving? Not great. But still, just looking at that list and knowing there are 2 corner outfield spots you could fill with solid bats, and that everyone on that list would be solidly on the good side of 30…it makes you hopeful about this organization for the first time in a long long time.

  20. goat on June 7th, 2012 1:36 pm

    I like the colors.

    Is there similar good news regarding Smoak’s recent hitting streak, or is it all just luck?

  21. jephdood on June 7th, 2012 2:03 pm

    Softy on KJR has really been pushing “The Colonel” for Saunders. SUPER creative, man.

  22. jorax on June 7th, 2012 2:14 pm

    Slick – when I think about capybaras, Olivo comes to mind more than Saunders…

  23. californiamariner on June 7th, 2012 2:17 pm

    Speaking of Guti, do you guys know when he’s expected back?

  24. TherzAlwaysHope on June 7th, 2012 2:30 pm

    The thing that is so promising about Saunders is that he has demonstrated that he is willing to work hard in the off season. I bet that will continue. The guy is on a mission.

  25. Westside guy on June 7th, 2012 2:41 pm

    Isn’t a rehab assignment limited to 20 days? If so, expect Guti back in less than 20 days.

  26. Rick L on June 7th, 2012 3:02 pm

    As a team
    Home: .193 .278 .305
    Away: .257 .307 .417

    Does anyone know if other teams have similar splits at Safeco? There is a lot of talk about moving the fences in, but other teams don’t seem to have a lot of problems getting hits and scoring runs at Safeco.

  27. rth1986 on June 7th, 2012 3:09 pm

    I wonder if Josh Bard’s brother can spend some time with Smoak….I swear I’ll go nuts if Smoak pulls one more lazy grounder to second or swings at one more low curveball out of the zone.


  28. 9inningknowitall on June 7th, 2012 3:37 pm

    I have to admit the nick names Phoenix and Thunderbird both sound really good. I would go with Phoenix and hope that we get another OF that hits for power that we can call the Thunderbird, or if Guti ever gets healthy we can call him the Phoenix, Saunders = Condor and then the other OF Thunderbird. We could have the all bird outfield.

  29. Kazinski on June 7th, 2012 3:59 pm

    you missed the one thing that is different in Saunders Plate discipline numbers this year over previous seasons, his Zswing number is up significantly at 68% this year and his previous high was last year at 57%. He is taking fewer called strikes and that is one of the biggest reasons for his improvement.

    Of course I said the same thing in 2010:

    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.

    The heat maps tell quite a story too, so its not just taking fewer called strikes. He’s changed himself from a flyball hiter to a groundball hitter with a lot more line drives too:
    LD% – GB% – FB%
    2011 – 14.9 % 35.6 % 49.5 %
    2012 – 20.9 % 47.5 % 31.7 %

  30. just a fan on June 7th, 2012 3:59 pm

    Let’s hope Death to Flying Things doesn’t kill the Condor!

  31. Kazinski on June 7th, 2012 4:11 pm

    wonder if Josh Bard’s brother can spend some time with Smoak….I swear I’ll go nuts if Smoak pulls one more lazy grounder to second or swings at one more low curveball out of the zone.

    Smoak is just fine now, last thirty days:

    .284/.342/.510 with a .310 BABIP

    He just needs to keep doing what he is doing. His career BABIP is .263 so there maybe a little luck involved in his hot streak but it isn’t the dominant factor.

  32. IwearMsHats on June 7th, 2012 5:33 pm

    when standing up and looking at the lower heat chart, a lot of the blue turns purple.

  33. Breadbaker on June 7th, 2012 5:48 pm

    I’m just happy we didn’t trade him to get the ghost of Dave Hollins or something so we could watch him do this for another team. Patience with young players is good.

  34. Steve Nelson on June 7th, 2012 6:25 pm

    When Brad Adam did his post-game interview with Saunders last night, Adam called him Condor. I think Condor might stick.

  35. Faceplant on June 7th, 2012 6:39 pm

    “you missed the one thing that is different in Saunders Plate discipline numbers this year over previous seasons, his Zswing number is up significantly at 68% this year and his previous high was last year at 57%. He is taking fewer called strikes and that is one of the biggest reasons for his improvement.”

    Perhaps, but you have to consider that perhaps Saunders wasn’t as aggressive in the zone because he KNEW that he was helpless against anything thrown on the outer half. So instead of flailing away at anything outside, he would take the pitch and find himself in a hole.

    In other words, perhaps the cause of Saunders struggles wasn’t that he was too timid at swinging at anything in the zone. Perhaps it’s that the inability to handle a pitch on the outer half was the cause, and lower swing rates were the effect.

  36. gerrythek on June 7th, 2012 6:40 pm

    As someone who is color blind and doesn’t see purple (I see it as blue) those charts left a lot to be desired.

    Nevertheless, great writeup on Saunders.

  37. Wolfman on June 7th, 2012 6:40 pm

    Fascinating read, Dave. Like many of the posters here, I have rooted for Saunders from day one. Glad to see him developing into a good player.

  38. eastcoastmariner on June 7th, 2012 9:38 pm

    Safe to say Saunders performance this year is fulfilling the Will Venable off season dream?

  39. Gamer on June 8th, 2012 8:57 am

    Dave: I noticed his K rate during the road trip is way down, 2 K in 39 AB. His previous 38 AB he had 12 K. Is there anything to make of this stat? Will this low K rate trend continue?

  40. goat on June 8th, 2012 10:51 am

    We could have the all bird outfield.

    I think that would have to involve Bradley. Not sure I want him back.

  41. Rainiers_fan on June 8th, 2012 11:16 am

    I couldn’t be happier for Saunders. At spring training this year he was one of the Mariners that would sign autographs for fans, especially the kids, for as long as they wanted. He took his time and would talk to fans. He came across as a genuinely nice guy. Brendan Ryan and Kyle Seager were the same way. In fact at the four Mariner spring training games I went to Brandan Ryan signed autographs for kids for at least an hour after every game. Classy classy guys who know what the game is all about. I can’t help but pull for the nice guys like that so I am hoping Saunders has turned the corner. I agree that because of his defense and his speed he doesn’t need to hit as much as Carp does to get his WAR up and be valuable.

  42. make_dave_proud on June 8th, 2012 11:49 am

    It’s just so refreshing to see someone who has looked so over-matched to begin to show some improvement.

    Saunders and Seager are my team favorites — underdog achievers. Good job, guys.

  43. Johnny Slick on June 8th, 2012 12:00 pm

    It’s a really nice story. I wonder if anyone in major league history has looked as awful as Saunders looked last year at the plate but still turned into a decent player for several years. My first thought was Mike Schmidt, who was bad for a longer trial, but not “pinch hit for that guy with a pitcher” bad like Saunders was.

  44. stevemotivateir on June 8th, 2012 2:10 pm

    I love that Michael never gave up, didn’t allow himself to be a bust!

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