Defending the Defensible Saunders
A few days ago and already a few months late, the Mariners made the announcement that Joe Saunders would not be starting another game this season. A relief to me at least, with one fewer game that I purposefully ignore, and a sure sign that we’ve made up some ground since the dog days of him, Harang, and Bonderman as 60% of the starting five. Ryan Divish made a tweet a few weeks ago to the effect of the Mariners going thirty seconds without being on the wrong side of things, with Joe giving up a leadoff home run on the first pitch. It felt about in line with my own sentiments. Joe Saunders has been terrible. Everyone who’s been paying attention knows that. Some people have not been paying attention partly because of it.
There’s also another Saunders we have, the more Canadian one, whom a lot of people probably regard as being also terrible this year. Because the Mariners have been awful for many years, and because Michael Saunders was a homegrown, young, and somewhat local player who had also been awful for many years, everyone started to rally around him when he started to turn in what was only an average offensive performance last season. Remember all those jokes we made about rubber bands and Josh Bard’s brother and how we were going to hire them to be our hitting coach? It seems like only a year ago.
Trouble is that the Mariners field mentality for under the current field staff has been to play though any injury to the detriment of, I don’t know, everything. Just rub some dirt on it, you’ll be fine. Hultzen probably went to the team’s doctors and they told him there wasn’t enough dirt in his shoulder. And he was all like “that’s not a real diagnosis!” and they were all like “you didn’t go to med school, you only had that mysterious story universally reported about millions of dollars of inheritance money if you did, which was totally a lie.” Why, Michael Morse rubbed some dirt on that busted finger of his and hell, he’s hit more home runs since than he did before. Wait, he’s actually hit fewer? And with almost twice as many plate appearances? Criminy.
Michael Saunders probably got sucked into that mentality too. Back in April, when there were still hopes of not finishing with a protected pick, Saunders smashed into an outfield wall and busted himself up but good. Eighteen days later, he was back on the field for the Mariners after a short rehab in Tacoma, playing at his presumably not-best. Up through the end of the first half, he had a 82 wRC+ and looked as bad as he’d previously been all these years. A number of people jumped up and declared his 2012 season to be not steps in the right direction, but wholly a mirage, and started to float the idea of him as a redundant piece and a potential non-tender candidate.
Others of us, who listen to games for want of evening radio programming, have remembered that he was also hurt and came back way too quickly. Let’s look at some numbers for a moment.
2012 Saunders: 553 PA, .246/.306/.432, 7.8% BB, 23.9% K, 108 wRC+
2013 Saunders (1H): 265 PA, .225/.303/.364, 10.6% BB, 26.8% K, 82 wRC+
2013 Saunders (2H): 195 PA, .263/.364/.461, 13.3% BB, 22.6% K, 128 wRC+
To give some context to this, Saunders’ first half wRC+ over the course of a season would put him in the company of Alexei Ramirez and the surprisingly not-good Elvis Andrus of late. Erick Aybar and Jose Altuve would have produced more. His second half similarly stretched would land him around the 34th highest wRC+ in baseball and would have him keeping company with guys like Justin Upton, Evan Longoria, and Prince Fielder (really?), and better than Chase Utley, Jason Kipnis, and various others. I’m not cherry-picking numbers either; month-to-month in the second half, his wRC+ has been 141 in July, 126 in August, and now 129 in September after last night’s home run/walk combo. And that walk rate, extended to the length of this season, would land eighth for all of baseball, sandwiched between Miguel Cabrera and Dexter Fowler. Boy howdy.
The Good Saunders is looking at arbitration for the first time this offseason, which is expected him to make him marginally more expensive. But we’re also expecting to see Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez on the outs, along with Raul if we have enough sense [we probably don't]. There are only so many internal options after that, and only so many players on the free agent market that are going to be worth pursuing.
Michael Saunders isn’t a great player or anything. His defense has some flaws, he’s had some trouble with lefties this season, and he really doesn’t seem like he uses his speed as much as he could. But he could be a good player, reasonably priced. Given that his second half has trumped even his previous breakout, I think that it stands to reason that he should be given his opportunities with the Mariners next season and we can see where things go from there.