Is Michael Saunders Actually Better This Year?

Michael Saunders is Canadian, eh?

If you know any of the Michael Saunders story and have ever seen the way he plays defense, it’s easy to see why he’s still receiving an opportunity with the Mariners despite having enormous holes in his offensive game for much of his professional career, both in the minor leagues and with the big club. The way he fields the outfield makes you think that if he ever got a full-time shot in center field, and actually put it all together at the plate, that he could really become one of the better center fielders in baseball.

The idea for this post came before Michael Saunders knocked a would-be double over the center field fence yesterday for a homerun. Whoops.

Let’s not get crazy, he’ll never be Matt Kemp. He’ll never be Jacoby Ellsbury. Or Josh Hamilton. But there is reason to believe he could become a player in the class of Drew Stubbs or Chris Young. Those guys are basically both play a good, but not always great center field, and hit about a notch above league average also. That kind of player would be a valuable piece for a Mariners team that would otherwise be counting on the unreliable health of Franklin Gutierrez, and whose next best center field prospect is presently playing second base for the Mariners on a daily basis.

And to this point, as far as results go, Michael Saunders has done his part. It could make sense, he changed his swing this offseason. He made a change, and the results changed. That’s not quite grounds to determine causation, but makes an investigation worthwhile.

Coming into last night’s game he had posted a wRC+ of 145. With the obvious small-sample disclaimer, I’d like to delve into the process that has led to these improved results, as they may actually help us predict the future.

There wasn’t much that Michael Saunders did well in the past. He walks about a half-percent more than average, and he avoids hitting the ball on the ground more often than league average. Much of that benefit has been mitigated by a very high strikeout rate and a lot of infield flies, where he’s worse than league average. He hasn’t even benefitted from his high fly ball rate because his HR/FB rate has been below league average. Here are some process stats that may indicate whether or not Saunders may have actually turned a page.

Saunders 2011 Saunders 2012 2011 League Average
BB% 6.7 10.7 8.1
K% 31.3 27.4 18.6
LD% 14.9 19.6 19.6
FB% 35.6 37.3 36.0
IFFB% 8.0 13.6 10.6
HR/FB% 4.0 18.2 9.7
Z-Swing% 57.0 68.9 65.0
O-Swing% 30.3 27.6 30.6
Contact% 74.2 75.2 80.7
SwStr% 11.0 12.4 8.6

Obviously things like walk percentage, strikeout percentage, and even the batted ball types are likely to fluctuate a little bit throughout the season. It’s still early. And Saunders still strikes out a ton. A ton. But he’s hitting for power, so we have to love it!

While there are things that are a little bit concerning like the increase in infield flies, there are also some things with noise the other direction. For example, Saunders has a HR/FB% that is nearly double the league average. In fact, if you extrapolate those numbers over a full season and compare him to his peers then you find a veritable who’s who of the league’s best hitters. Let’s not get crazy here.

So while I’m basically committing to no prognosis, and completely wasting your time, I think there is something worthwhile to pull from here.

Michael Saunders is swinging at more strikes and swinging at less balls. Philosophically that makes better contact, and ultimately better results logical. And that’s really the evidence necessary to determine that Saunders swing change may have actually done something tangible.

There is a general belief that when Michael Saunders makes very good contact he’s better than most hitters. He’s got a ton of physical ability. The challenge for him has been to make solid contact—or contact at all—on a consistent basis. While he’s still a guy that strikes out too much, from the appearance of things he’s choosing better pitches to swing at, and making better contact when he does make contact.

Has Michael Saunders figured it out?

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