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.