Today’s Fun Fact
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:
- Ike Davis, +9.8 percentage points
- Dan Uggla, +8.8
- Pedro Alvarez, +8.4
- Michael Saunders, +8.2
- 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.