Michael Saunders and Perceived Value*

November 7, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 38 Comments 

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.

Defending the Defensible Saunders

September 26, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 41 Comments 

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.

Joe Saunders Thought Train

July 31, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

(1) Last night, the Mariners got clobbered by the Red Sox, and Joe Saunders caused something of a little stir later on when he fielded questions from the media. Saunders was the Mariners’ starter and he lasted just five innings, and in the post-game interview he said things like “I was throwing good pitches. I wasn’t getting much help.” and “We didn’t get our breaks. They got some breaks.” Saunders declined to go into further detail, but he went off the normal grid to seemingly take a jab at the umpiring and at his teammates, and he defended his own effort, despite the nine hits and six runs. Anything out of the ordinary in a post-game interview is likely to get attention, because the ordinary is empty and mindless. Saunders knew enough to stop himself.

(2) The first inning, of course, was sloppy defensively. Brad Miller committed an error on a routine grounder, and he fumbled an attempted bare-hand later on when gloving the ball probably would’ve worked just fine. Henry Blanco failed to catch a perfectly catchable pitch, and a run scored on the passed ball. Everyone knew the defense did Saunders no favors, and he also threw some borderline pitches throughout that came back as non-strikes. There were a handful of Saunders pitches that easily could’ve gone the other way, and at least once, Saunders expressed his frustration:

saunderspedroia1

saunderspedroia2

(3) On the other hand, the Red Sox didn’t get to pitch to a way more generous strike zone, and their pitchers allowed two runs. Saunders didn’t have a single obvious strike called a ball, and he did get the benefit of the doubt on a few borderline pitches. You’re never going to get the benefit of the doubt on all of them. Additionally, Saunders threw some decidedly poor pitches, like the one Dustin Pedroia hit out, and as for breaks, the Red Sox made two outs on the basepaths while Saunders was on the mound. In the second, Jose Iglesias hit a ball off the wall and was thrown out trying for second, and then trying for first. In the fourth, Pedroia was thrown out trying to stretch a single. That’s two times the Red Sox made outs on hits off Joe Saunders.

(4) So Saunders was frustrated, and he voiced as much, and he selectively remembered things that would make him look better. Yes, he had some reasons to complain, but he also had some reasons not to, and generally veteran leaders are supposed to be more stable and calm. Saunders threw some good pitches, and he threw some bad pitches. He didn’t get some breaks, and he did get other breaks. It was, like he said, just one of those nights.

(5) So basically Saunders was like anyone else. We all selectively remember things to make ourselves look better, all of the time, and when we’re frustrated we have less control over what we say and what we keep to ourselves. Typically, we keep our frustrations penned in, but sometimes the gates open up and things spill out. It’s fine if Saunders wants to be critical of the umpires, and it’s not like he hates his young Mariner teammates. Quote from the linked article: “I’d like to stay here. I love playing here. I think we have a good thing going with these guys.” Miller knows he messed up, Saunders knows he shouldn’t have said anything, and there won’t be a single hard feeling because these emotions are gone as soon as they’re put in the air. The consequences and significance of what Saunders said are nothing. He felt like a normal person and he’s allowed to be frustrated when he gives up six runs in five innings. Nothing has been revealed about his personality; nothing has been revealed about his psychology. Certainly, nothing has been revealed about his pitching. He’s Joe Saunders. He needs a bigger share of the breaks to be really good.

(6) In conclusion, whatever. You have now spent this time reading about Joe Saunders on the day of the trade deadline. Not reading about Joe Saunders rumors. Reading just about Joe Saunders.

M’s Reportedly Sign Joe Saunders

February 7, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 58 Comments 

I hesitate to post something so banal after the Felix extension stuff, but we’re going to have to do it sometime. Ken Rosenthal tweets that the M’s have agreed to a one-year deal with free-agent lefty Joe Saunders. If confirmed, that would be somewhat remarkable – I thought there wasn’t any way Saunders would sign with someone for less than two years, and thought three years was a possibility. This move may solidify the back end of the M’s rotation, and it gives them a left-handed starter. While we don’t yet know how much the Safeco reconfiguration will affect home runs, it’s still a decent match of player to park. That said, Saunders has had a long-standing problem with right-handed batters, as Dave talked about over at Fangraphs. He was solid in a pitcher’s park in Anaheim, so here’s hoping Seattle’s marine layer knocks down a few fly balls and allows Saunders to post a 1-2 WAR season in 2013.

In another move, the M’s officially added Kelly Shoppach to the 40-man, and made room by DFA’ing reliever Shawn Kelley. This was a surprise, given that there are players on the 40-man who don’t figure to strike out 9/9IP like Kelley did last year, but ultimately, this isn’t a major surprise. The M’s clearly thought Kelley underperformed his peripherals, as I wrote here (when they demoted him to AAA). Essentially, he’s posted solid ERAs/FIPs, but has had home run problems. Somewhat like Steve Delabar, Kelley’s struggled with long-balls to right-handed hitters – the kind of opponent a fastball/slider reliever like Kelley should annihilate. Instead, RHBs have a career .330 wOBA (and a .480 slg) against him thanks to 16 HRs in 316 batters faced. While HRs are a “true” outcome, HR/FB or HR/Contact is much more variable than something like strikeout rate, so some may see this as an overreaction on the M’s part. But the M’s weren’t going to give him high-leverage innings anymore (not with Carter Capps, Tom Wilhelmsen and even Josh Kinney around), so we’ll see what they can get in trade. I liked Shawn Kelley’s personality and his determination to make it back to the majors after elbow surgery (twice). I think he’ll land with another club and be fairly effective, but he was superfluous on the 2013 M’s.

[EDIT: Joe Saunders 1-year deal is apparently worth $6.5 million, with another $1 million in performance-related bonuses. That’s…that’s pretty cheap, really, and I’m surprised Saunders didn’t get something like 2/$10 somewhere. Maybe the incentives are really easy to attain, but 1/$7.5 is still pretty low. Dave guessed it’d be 1/$8, so he was very, very close, but a base salary of $6.5m is a screaming deal in this market, and way below what I would’ve expected.)

Michael Saunders

June 7, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 44 Comments 

Saunders, you may have noticed, is kind of on fire. In his last eight games, he’s 18 for 36 with seven extra base hits, two walks, and only two strikeouts. He’s gotten three or more hits in five of those eight games, something he’d only ever done four times in his career up until a week ago. He’s got his season line up to .277/.346/.462, good for a .353 wOBA and a 128 wRC+. Overall, he’s now been the Mariners best hitter this year.

So, the obvious question is what’s changed? How did Saunders go from being the worst hitter in baseball a year ago to being the team’s best hitter this year? He’s now covering the plate and hitting the ball to all fields.

In spring training, we saw Saunders hitting the ball with authority to the opposite field, which is something he’d never been able to do in the big leagues before, and we were encouraged that perhaps he’d learned how to go the other way with pitches on the outer half of the plate. Last year, Dave Allen graphed Saunders struggles with pitches away, so this had been a huge problem for him, and gave pitchers an easy way to get him out.

To Left: 34 PA, .147/.147/.176, -19 wRC+
To Center: 32 PA, .172/.167/.172, -14 wRC+
To Right: 45 PA.333/.333/.571, 150 wRC+

Now, here are those same numbers from this year.

To Left: 30 PA, .300/.300/.433, 102 wRC+
To Center: 43 PA, .548/.535/.976, 321 wRC+
To Right: 71 PA, .310/.310/.507, 126 wRC+

Last year, Saunders was a productive hitter when he pulled the ball, but he hit like a pitcher when he didn’t. This year, Saunders is still productive when he pulls the ball, but he’s hitting like Babe Ruth when he hits it to center field and is still an average hitter even when he goes to left.

Prefer pictures to numbers? Here’s the run value of swings from Saunders based on pitch location last year, with warmer colors representing better performance and purple representing places where he was about as good at hitting as you or I.

See that big giant purple hole on the outer half of the plate? That was was Saunders huge weakness.

Now, here’s this year’s version of that same chart.

Those big purple spots? All gone. Saunders has basically closed the two giant holes he had in his swing, and is now able to hit balls on the outer half to left field and pitches on the inside corner to center field, instead of just trying to pull every pitch he’s thrown. He’s still pretty good at hitting that down-and-in pitch to right, but that’s not the only thing he can do anymore.

This improvement means that you don’t see a huge change in his plate discipline stats – his contact rate is only slightly higher than it was last year, and he’s actually putting the bat on pitches in the strike zone at pretty much exactly the same pace he was a year ago. However, the difference is what he’s doing when he does make contact.

Saunders is still a pull hitter, and he’s pulling the ball more often this year than last, so he hasn’t really changed his approach at the plate. He’s simply no longer useless on balls he doesn’t pull, which means that opposing pitchers can’t just pound him away-away-away and watch him weakly roll a ground ball to second base.

This specifically shows up against left-handed pitchers, who throw cutting fastballs and sliders that run away from left-handed batters and are often located on the outer half of the plate. Last year, Saunders was hapless against LHPs, hitting .143/.169/.161 – that’s one extra base hit and two walks against 21 strikeouts in 61 trips to the plate. This year? .283/.345/.528, with seven extra base hits and five walks against just 13 strikeouts in 58 trips to the plate. He’s actually been better against lefties than he has been against righties, which is pretty amazing considering that he was an automatic out against southpaws a year ago.

All that said, Saunders probably won’t be able to keep this level of performance up. His BABIP is currently .348, which is at the very top of the range that people can sustain for long periods of time. ZIPS expects that his BABIP will be a slightly above average .308 mark over the rest of the season, which sounds about right for a guy who runs pretty well and hits the ball hard from time to time. A .308 BABIP with his strikeout rate and power means that he’s probably going be an average or maybe slightly below average hitter going forward.

But you know what? Michael Saunders as an average hitter is still a huge win for this franchise, and it’s not impossible that he keeps improving and holds onto more of his gains than we might think. If he keeps hitting for the power that we’ve seen lately, he’ll be a really nice player. The contact rates are always likely to keep him from being a star, but at this point, Michael Saunders is probably the best outfielder in the organization. The fact that we’re saying that right now is pretty amazing, given how unbelievably awful he was last season.

When Franklin Gutierrez comes back, Saunders won’t be the full time center fielder anymore, but he’s played well enough to deserve an everyday gig. With Mike Carp and Ichiro both struggling and Guti unlikely to be able to play everyday, there will be plenty of playing time to go around, but given what he’s done lately, Saunders should be the one guy who sees his name in the line-up card every day from here on out. He’s earned the right to keep playing regardless of what anyone else is doing.

Saunders New Swing

March 15, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 24 Comments 

Yesterday, Jeff Sullivan wrote about Michael Saunders three doubles to left or left center. Then, last night, Saunders did this.

Spring Training performances are still worthless, but this isn’t really a performance thing – this is Saunders doing a thing he just couldn’t do before. This doesn’t mean he can do it in the regular season against pitchers who aren’t just getting their work in, but the old Michael Saunders was unable to go the other way with any kind of authority. Last night, he almost hit one out to left center by staying back on a 95 MPH fastball.

At this point, I’d say it’s pretty likely that Saunders plays the lion’s share of center field the first few weeks of the season. He won’t play out there every day, but it’s probably in the team’s best interests to see if he can keep doing this in the regular season. Even if there’s no obvious roster spot for him when Guti returns, having a potentially useful Michael Saunders around would give the team options, and this is a team that needs production from guys who can play the outfield.

Don’t go overboard with what this means, as lots of guys have looked great in March and reverted to pumpkins in April. But opposite field power from Michael Saunders? That’s new, and that’s encouraging.

Saunders or Seager

March 5, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

With Franklin Gutierrez set to miss all of April and potentially more time depending on his rehab, the working assumption has been that the main benefactor of the open roster spot will be Michael Saunders. He’s probably the best defensive outfielder on the team besides Guti, and as a left-handed bat, he’d form a pretty natural job-share partner with Casper Wells. And, despite his miserable Major League performances to date, he was still a pretty highly rated prospect, and the team maintains some hope that he can translate his minor league numbers to the big leagues and become a useful player.

However, going with Saunders/Wells in CF until Guti gets back is not the only option, and may not even be the team’s best option. Chone Figgins has been getting some time in center field early in camp, and while he hasn’t played out there since 2006, I think there’s a pretty compelling case to be made that he should get a decent amount of his early season playing time in center.

Essentially, the options break down like this:

Vs RHP: Figgins (3B) and Saunders (CF)
Vs LHP: Figgins (3B) and Wells (CF)

or

Vs RHP: Seager (3B) and Figgins (CF)
vs LHP: Figgins (3B) and Wells (CF)

If Figgins shows that he can play a half-decent center field during March, the team could essentially use his ability to move between CF and 3B to create a platoon of Seager and Wells, giving Seager the roster spot that Saunders is the presumed favorite for. There are several advantages to going that way instead.

For one, Seager is likely to be quite a bit better than Saunders this year, especially at the plate. ZIPS doesn’t love either player, but projects Seager for a .267/.323/.372 line compared to Saunders’ .220/.298/.339 mark. Neither is likely to be an offensive force, but Seager could be a competent hitter against RHPs, and help the team score more runs and win more games early in the season.

There’s also the fact that Seager is the more likely of the two to have a real future in Seattle. Even if Saunders shows some improvement at the plate, he’s probably still not going to be more than a fourth outfielder going forward, and he’ll have to prove more useful than Casper Wells to wrestle that job away going forward. Meanwhile, Seager has a real chance to be the team’s regular third baseman for the next couple of years, and even if the bat doesn’t prove up to the task for a starting job, he’s the best in-house candidate for a utility infielder/super-sub role. There’s an open spot on the roster for Seager going forward, which is not true of Saunders unless he shows remarkable improvement.

Finally, there’s also some potential added value for Figgins if he shows he can play center field. Right now, the Mariners are hoping that he has a nice start to the season so they can try to unload some of that contract this summer, but in reality, there aren’t many teams shopping for a third baseman with absolutely no power. Figgins’ skillset is much more commonly accepted in center field, and if he hits well while holding down CF at a respectable level, the team could expand the pool of clubs that would potentially be interested in his services. As strictly a third baseman, you might only have one or two teams that could be talked into taking some of Figgins’ remaining salary, but if he’s showing some positional versatility and could profile as either a 3B or an OF, you could have five or six clubs looking at him as an option for the second half of the year.

Seager and Wells are probably the two young guys on the team who aren’t currently slotted in as starters that the team should be most interested in looking at, and they’re the two most likely to produce at the plate in the early part of the season. Bouncing Figgins between third and center field could also help his trade value, and give the team a better chance of getting him off the books sooner than later. If Saunders shows some real improvement in his contact abilities during March, I’m not opposed to giving him a chance, but that’d probably be Plan B for me. I’d rather have Seager and Wells get that playing time rather than hoping Saunders has figured out how to hit something on the outer half of the plate over the winter.

Halman Up, Saunders Down

June 3, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

Greg Halman was recalled from AAA this evening and Michael Saunders was finally, mercifully, optioned to Tacoma. This move wasn’t exactly difficult to foresee; when you’ve got a CF with a wOBA of .212 in 150+ PAs, you reach for another CF. Halman fits the bill as a good CF (unlike Peguero/Wilson), and he won’t need to play as often as Saunders did now that Franklin Gutierrez has a few weeks under his belt.

Halman’s missed several weeks himself with a broken bone in his hand, and he showed some rust tonight in his last AAA game: he had some late breaks on shallow fly balls and struck out twice. That said, he’s shown some improvement from 2010, when he hit 33 HRs, but struck out in over 36% of his plate appearances. He’s around 20% this year, though the sample’s quite small.

While the improvement in plated discipline looks nice, this move is all about Mike Saunders. Halman’s just the CF who’s closest to the majors. In an ideal world, he’d have more ABs in AAA to get his timing back after missing so many games. Of course, in an ideal world, Saunders wouldn’t force the issue with a .212 wOBA. Saunders altered his batting stance near the end of spring training and had a decent game or two with the new mechanics in Peoria, but since the season’s started, he’s looked lost. It’s not like he’s been the victim of bad luck: in May, he struck out in nearly 40% of his plate appearances, and I’m actually surprised the figure’s that low. He’s been good defensively, but you simply can’t carry a hitter this bad for long. Halman’s famously a tools project with poor discipline and pitch recognition, but he’s found himself in a situation in which his discipline/pitch recognition skills may be better than the guy’s he’s replacing.

Something’s really, really wrong with Saunders, and he’s forced the M’s hand here. Gutierrez still isn’t playing back-to-back games in CF, so they desperately need a competent back-up (this is why Halman gets the call and not Carp, as Ryan Divish and others have noted). Everything was set up for Saunders to stake his claim as a legitimate MLB center fielder, and instead he’s looked far, far worse than his initial MLB call-up. We’ll see if Alonzo Powell can work with him better than Chambliss could, though it’s worth pointing out that Powell was Saunders’ hitting coach in the 2nd half of last season too. Saunders has looked so lost that it seems the problem’s more mental than mechanical. Here’s hoping he can work things out in Tacoma.

In other recent transactions, Nate Robertson made his first rehab start for Tacoma tonight, going 6 innings with 6H, 3R, 2K, 1BB, 2HRs. The ex-Tiger sat 87-88 with his FB, with a decent two-seamer at around 84-85 and a change-up in the 80 range. He’s always been a fly-ball pitcher, so the two HRs don’t come as too much of a surprise, and Reno’s line-up hit him harder than his line might suggest, but all in all it was a decent first outing for a guy who missed all of spring training with bone chips in his elbow.

Manny Delcarmen asked for his release and got it yesterday; the veteran reliever is now a free agent.

Here’s a photo from tonight’s game – Robertson’s first and Halman’s last in a Tacoma uniform.
Read more

Michael Saunders New Swing Isn’t Working

May 5, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 21 Comments 

My latest piece for the 710sports.com blog is now up, and it deals with the poor early returns that Michael Saunders is getting from his reworked swing. The first few paragraphs are below, and you can check out the rest over at their site.

So far, the two huge bright spots for the Mariners on the season have been Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak, who have both shown why they were so highly regarded while they were climbing the minor league ladder. These two have both established themselves as building blocks for the future, and even at present, two of the best players on the team. They give the organization reason for optimism, which is really what this year is all about.

Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders is hitting .195 with a .293 slugging percentage this season. (AP)

However, they’re not the only two young guys on the team trying to make an impression. The other notable youngster who came up with considerable promise is outfielder Michael Saunders, and unfortunately, his third tour in the big leagues isn’t going so well.

Read the rest…

Also, I’ll be on with Brock and Salk today at 11:30. 710 AM in the Seattle area or listen online at 710sports.com.

Let’s Talk About Michael Saunders

July 1, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 53 Comments 

Despite having just 119 plate appearances, Michael Saunders is second on the Mariners in home runs, just one behind team leader Milton Bradley. After last year’s debut performance where he didn’t hit for any power at all, watching him drive the ball with regularity has been very encouraging, and he’s showing some of the ability that made him the team’s best prospect. His tools are obvious, and he has the ability to become a good player, but there are also a few pretty glaring flaws that he needs to work on.

His two biggest problems are actually kind of the same issue, as both are the direct result of the type of swing Saunders takes. He doesn’t just swing the bat with his arms; He may turn his body towards the pull field when he swings more than anyone I have ever seen before. Rather than sitting back and letting his hips generate power, Saunders basically reorients his body during the swing and ends up essentially pivoting at the plate. It works, as when he gets around on a ball, he can give it a ride, but it comes with a pretty significant downside – he is extremely vulnerable to anything on the outer half of the plate, especially pitches down and away.

This creates two problems – one, his contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone is among the worst in the league. In what amounts to half a season’s worth of major league playing time, he’s made contact with just 41.6 percent of the pitches he’s chased out of the strike zone. Over the last year, the only batters with at least 200 plate appearances who have made contact less often on pitches out of the zone are Kelly Shoppach (a catcher), Elijah Dukes (out of baseball), and Kyle Blanks (struggling rookie). Right behind Saunders are guys like Ryan Howard and Mark Reynolds, two of the most prolific strikeout artists of all time, who compensate for their whiff rate with monstrous, 40+ HR power.

Saunders doesn’t have that kind of thump and never will, so he won’t have the same ability to offset the strikeouts that those guys do with production when he does make contact. Instead, he’ll have to simply get better at either getting the bat on the ball when he does chase, or simply chase less often. The latter is probably more likely to be a long term solution, but it’s not an easy fix for an aggressive young hitter. The Mariners will have to work closely with Saunders to convince him of the need to be more selective in what he swings at, and get him enough at-bats so that he can begin to discern which pitches are worth offering at.

The other problem that his swing creates is an almost total inability to handle pitches that are diving away from him. This shows up in both his performance against left-handed pitchers (13 for 79, 2 XBH, 1 BB, 33 K) and his performance on balls hit to left field (10 for 44, 1 XBH). The way he swings the bat just doesn’t leave any room for opposite field power, as the swing itself is made to turn on a pitch and drive it to right field. If he hits it to left, its an accident and almost certainly will result in an out. In fact, 27 percent of all his balls hit to left field have been infield flies, which are basically no better than a strikeout.

His extreme pull swing makes it very tough for him to go the other way with any authority, and so lefties who pound him away can rest assured that he won’t do anything with it, even if he does get the bat on the ball. While Saunders is a talented guy, he’s definitely never going to be an Edgar Martinez type, who just went with whatever he was thrown and confounded pitchers with his ability to use the whole field. Saunders is as much of an extreme pull hitter as Jose Lopez, and while it’s definitely better to have a left-handed version of that kind of hitter in Safeco, it still makes him pretty easy to pitch to, especially when he’s willing to swing at pitches out of the zone.

Put simply, for Saunders to be a successful big league hitter, he’s going to have to develop a better approach at the plate. He can do this, but it will take some time and patience from the team. Pitchers will exploit his weaknesses as the reports on him get around the league, and he’ll have to make adjustments. How long it will take him to make those will likely end up determining whether he’s able to hold down the LF job for the Mariners next year.

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