Today’s Fun Fact

Jeff Sullivan · May 30, 2014 at 12:46 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

There are 248 players who have batted at least 100 times this season, who also batted at least 100 times last season. Here are the top five biggest gainers in contact rate, by percentage points:

  1. Ike Davis, +9.8 percentage points
  2. Dan Uggla, +8.8
  3. Pedro Alvarez, +8.4
  4. Michael Saunders, +8.2
  5. Dioner Navarro, +8.1

Last year, and for his career to that point, Michael Saunders missed once for every four swings. This year, he’s missed once for every six swings, which is a substantial gain. That doesn’t always mean it’s a substantial improvement — one can, in theory, make a lot more bad contact, which is worse than no contact — but Saunders doesn’t seem to be making bad contact. Saunders is delivering, and more consistently than he did before.

A related way of looking at this: the two years previous, 36% of Saunders’ swings resulted in a ball hit fair. So far this year, 45% of Saunders’ swings have resulted in a ball hit fair. Back when Saunders first emerged in 2012, the announcers couldn’t say enough about his new and heightened aggressiveness. Saunders isn’t as aggressive as he was in 2012. He’s almost back to what he used to be, in terms of his swing patterns. But he’s better than ever about knowing the zone, and he’s better about finding the baseball with the bat.

Saunders has made more contact out of the zone, and he’s made more contact within it. But maybe the biggest difference is this: between 2012-2013, Saunders made 59% contact against high pitches. This year, he’s at 84%, no longer so vulnerable to being blown away. While I’m not an expert when it comes to swing mechanics, it stands to reason Saunders has probably shortened things up, as his swing used to be exploitably long. His swing has long been a work in various progresses, and now he’s finding a balance between adding contact and preserving power.

Saunders hit a few mammoth home runs back in 2012. Four of them went at least 430 feet. He hit no such home runs in 2013, and he’s hit no such home runs in 2014. But he’s still running a decent ISO, and he just went deep last night. If you think about it, there were only so many ways for Saunders to get better at the plate. He could’ve increased his walks, decreased his strikeouts, or increased his power. His walks right now are fine, and his power isn’t absent, and where before Saunders struck out a quarter of the time, this year he’s at 18%. He’s better against both righties and lefties, and in this way Saunders has altered his own profile. He was fine in 2012, and now he’s differently fine, perhaps with some upside.

A very simple comparison:

Average Outfielder: 8.4% walks, 21% strikeouts, .147 ISO
Michael Saunders: 8.5% walks, 18% strikeouts, .154 ISO

So Saunders looks like something in the neighborhood of an average bat. And he might become an above-average player if you’re a believer in his power potential, his baserunning, or his defense. He’s only now 27 years old, and he’s doing something he’s never done before at this level. Lloyd McClendon is of the belief that Saunders is starting to put everything together, and while McClendon is a believer in a lot of his guys, it’s nice to see Saunders in a manager’s good graces for once. He’s not a great player, and he’ll presumably never become one, but what we’re seeing might be Michael Saunders as an actual legitimate regular. If he adds more power he could be real good. If he doesn’t, he can at least be steady, a non-negative contributor in all areas, including handsomeness.

So this is Michael Saunders with bat control. Unless it’s sample-size noise, which it might be, but which it probably isn’t. It isn’t a sign that Saunders is taking a massive leap forward in value. He’s simply reducing an old vulnerability, and while I’ve always been biased in Saunders’ favor as a player, it’s nice to be biased in favor of a player who’s not getting worse. I like when Mariners don’t get worse.


7 Responses to “Today’s Fun Fact”

  1. Westside guy on May 30th, 2014 1:03 pm

    I’d noticed that Saunders had changed a few things, like increasing his swing rate in the zone, and was making more contact. Fortunately his O-Swing% has stayed down – he’s one of the better players when it comes to strike zone judgement, but it always seemed like a low contact rate was probably costing him a bit.

    Anecdotally (uh oh!) it would make sense that, if he was working on a new approach, his power might take a hit for a while and then gradually come back. That seems to be the trend for him so far in 2014. I don’t know if it’s realistic, but IF he can maintain the new approach and still get back to his previous power levels, he would be a definitely above average hitter.

    I’d think dropping your walks from 10% to 8% is probably acceptable when your strikeout rate drops 8%, but I have nothing statistical to base that on!

    As an admitted fan of Condor’s, I also find the following interesting:

    2012 1st half: 110 wRC+
    2012 2nd half: 104 wRC+
    2013 1st half: 82 wRC+ (this was when he borked his shoulder)
    2013 2nd half: 118 wRC+
    2014 1st half so far: 110 wRC+

    Not a world beater, but also not the guy some people think he still is.

  2. heyoka on May 30th, 2014 1:38 pm

    2014 2nd half: 250 wRC+

  3. Microsoft Zunino on May 30th, 2014 2:05 pm

    Yet another Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.

    Thanks, Jeff!

  4. PackBob on May 30th, 2014 3:55 pm

    McClendon has said he thinks Saunders plays best with a day off every so often (was it every 4 games?) and looks to be wanting to play him like that. But looking at Westside guy’s rundown, it looks like Saunders has done fine before, at least no worse than under McClendon.

    If Ackley gets his offense back to average, the M’s could have a league-average outfield with Saunders and Jones. All three can run! They are like real outfielders!

    If Miller/Franklin/whoever could hit at SS, the M’s could maybe get to a league average offense. That would be something.

  5. Woodcutta on May 30th, 2014 4:11 pm

    There was another article today that the M’s should trade for Kemp. Looking at the outfield as it is currently constructed, how would the playing time shake out if the M’s did trade for Kemp? Jones seems to have the CF job on lockdown for the moment and Saunders is playing too good to sit. Ackley isn’t hitting at a high level so would that mean an Ackley/Kemp platoon? If the M’s could get the Dodgers to eat 7-8 million per year of Kemp’s contract then I think the time to trade for him is now as the asking price is probably at an all-time low but with Morrison and Hart coming back, would it be too much of a juggling act to keep everyone happy and producing?

  6. Kazinski on May 30th, 2014 4:48 pm

    I’d be ok with Saunders giving up a few home runs to get more hits including a fair amount of doubles and triples. Its not like he’s become a banjo hitter, his line drive rate is at 26% compared to 19% for his career, all at the expense of his GB rate, his FB rate is unchanged.

    But Batted Ball profiles change quite a bit from year to year, so I don’t think his 2.6 IFF% is a true skill, especially since his career IFF% is 10.6%.

    I think Lloyd is giving him time off more to give Romero AB’s than to rest Saunders. I’d much rather see Ackley get pine time. If we had the opportunity to upgrade an OF spot right now, Ackley would be my vote for the odd man out.

    But I’m willing to be patient, in April the M’s OF ranked 26th at -.1 fWAR. In May they are 20th with 1.0 fWAR. Not great but a lot better than the last few years. If an opportunity exists, like say if we get Walker and Paxton back and can flip Young (and Ackley and/or Franklin) in July for a good young OF, then I’d be all for it.

  7. Kazinski on May 30th, 2014 5:05 pm

    If you could get the Dodgers to pick up that much of Kemp’s salary. Who cares what Morrison or Hart think?

    Problem is Kemp is pouting because his defensive value has collapsed and he was moved to LF. How’s he going to feel if he’s moved at a discount to a second tier team, and still put in LF to boot? I’m not sure its worth the risk.

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