Michael Saunders and Perceived Value*
I have a clever memory when it comes to the failed experiments of the Mariners organization. I remember fondly the year where the Tacoma Rainiers tried to field six to seven DHs. I was overjoyed that minor league season when we tried to convert at least five position players to the mound, which culminated in trying to teach a career catcher the knuckleball. And I recall, with less fondness, the beginning of that three-year span where the Mariners initiated a supposedly revolutionary conditioning program that later fizzled out and went unmentioned for the last two years of its implementation. Since baseball remains that sport where from a mechanical standpoint, no one has a clear idea of what’s right or wrong, it certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, unlike the other trials, which were fun!, but not well-advised.
A story that I read during that period but now can’t find in archive (edit: Reader and LL author Colin O’Keefe tracked it down) made comparison between two kinds of strengths, a “lateral” strength, which was presented as the good kind, and the “vertical,” which was bad I guess unless you were Russell Branyan. For the purposes of illustration, the Mariners trotted out two of their younger hitters and demonstrated that one Dustin Ackley was a good boy for having the right, lateral kind of strength, and that Michael Saunders was suspect for having the wrong, vertical kind of strength. A weird spectacle to go through, but surely the Mariners were proud of their recent draft pick and wanted to use the example to vet both him and the new method.
The reality of Mariners fandom is that since Ackley debuted in 2011, he’s accumulated 6.3 in offensive WAR according to B-R and in the same span, Saunders has had 6.4 in oWAR, which includes a rather disastrous -1.1 2011 and fewer opportunities both that year and in 2014. And Ackley gets the boost of a 2.7 oWAR in 90 games in 2011, a clip he has never come close to repeating. The past three years, of course, provide few metrics you can look at that wouldn’t say that Saunders has been the superior offensive performer (7.5 oWAR vs. 3.6 oWAR, as one example). These are facts that exist as we enter the offseason and rumors begin to emerge that the Mariners will be expected to shop Michael Saunders around on the heels of them calling him out earlier in the offseason. Swell timing, guys.
Jeff and Matthew and others have discussed the matter of general management and how, as multiple organizations have gone out to develop their braintrusts and start implementing methods previously relegated to use by nerds, the gap of talent amongst GMs has closed and it’s no longer an easy inefficiency to take advantage of. But the Mariners are not a team that is presently perceived as having management on that cutting edge, instead they use their old methods, have their old favorites, and sometimes things work out for them. Sometimes things work out for the Giants and the Royals too. Sometimes things don’t work out in the same way.
We talk about organization blind spots and how one group might prioritize this or that and do it exceptionally well and another might be deficient. One recurring sentiment, I would guess, amongst new GMs is a tendency to value the players they’ve inherited somewhat differently from the players that they themselves acquire. It’s natural, different philosophies and all. And one thing that we saw as the Zduriencik team got settled was that there was an inclination to remove players who were holdovers and retain those who had the present administration’s stamp of approval.
I don’t know what changed particularly in the trajectories of Ackley and Saunders. We know that Ackley has messed with our hearts and minds so much that we have taken a .245/.293/.398 batting line from last season, as a corner outfielder, and ascribed to it new hopes of improvement. We also know that Saunders re-invented himself as an offensive player a few years back thanks to Josh Bard’s brother and his rubber bands (remember those? remember when we wanted to hire them as our hitting coach?). The lateral/vertical thing of 2010 may not hold true in the same way now. But we are also aware that Saunders has had difficult stretches, last year on account of rushing back from a shoulder injury a bit too quickly and this year, partially on account of a freak illness that caused him to lose fifteen pounds which he contracted from his baby daughter. The shoulder and oblique injuries that preceded that? Maybe those are on him and his conditioning. Maybe they aren’t.
What we also know is what we’ve rehashed the past month+. Saunders was called out by the organization for his work ethic in a 2014 wrap-up press conference. This was the first time Saunders became aware of any dissatisfaction with his personal upkeep. And if we know that much, we can also conjecture as to whether or not the Mariners sat down with Saunders and said “look, what can we do to work together to try to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?” From experience, talking about Saunders and Smoak and other players, we’re also cognizant of another possible blind spot, in that many present Mariners have had to go outside of the organization for solutions to what was perceived as holding back their performances. Which brings to the fore another point: Would Justin Smoak, a young first baseman who never hit above .240 and has slugged over .400 once over a season in his five years in the major leagues, have been granted so many opportunities had he been a Bavasi holdover?
I feel like I’m down to the point where I’m trying to make a pattern on inference alone. I certainly don’t know how involved the Mariners are with player conditioning, for one. Maybe we just hear about the outside efforts because it’s unusual. Working internally is no news at all. But we’ve seen the Mariners play favorites with their guys, we’ve seen them undervalue and sometimes marginalize players who don’t fit into their present scheme (Jaso), and we’re now seeing Saunders, who was not their guy and who in the past did not adhere to the current ideology, talked about as an expendable part in a struggling outfield where another, favored player continues to get chances with less in the recent past to support his case outside of general health. Let’s see where this goes. I’m not especially looking forward to it.
* The Author would like to note for the record that he has been defending Saunders since USSM had its original cast and was holding pizza parties on Capitol Hill, so, probable bias.