Who Are You: Michael Saunders
This post is part of a weekly series which will run each Thursday. Over the next several weeks, I’ll take a deep dive look at new members of the Phillies roster. We’re just a couple months away from settling down to watch these guys day-in and day-out for half a year, so let’s try to find out who they are and what to expect from them in 2017.
Michael Saunders (OF) – LHB
Born: 11/9/1986, entering age-30 season
Height: 6’4”, Weight: 225 lb.
Contract Status: Signed through 2017 on a one-year/$9 million deal with a $11 million team option for 2018 ($1 million buyout)
2016 Stats: 558 PA, 10.6 BB%, 28.1 K%, .321 BABIP, .253/.338/.478, 117 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR, 1.3 rWAR
Career: 2513 PA, 9.6 BB%, 26.1 K%, .296 BABIP, .235/.309/.402, 97 wRC+, 7.2 fWAR, 6.4 rWAR
The Seattle Mariners drafted Michael Edward Brett Saunders out of Tallahassee Community College in the 11th Round of the 2004 MLB Draft. Despite being a mid-round high school draftee, Saunders advanced a level per year and hit at nearly every stop.
As a 21-year old, he hit .277/.357/.461 in 294 plate appearances across AA and AAA. For reference, that is the same age at which J.P. Crawford played at those same levels last season. Following Saunders’ performance as a 21-year old, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus regarded him as a top-100 prospect entering the 2009 season. That following season, Saunders made his major league debut with the Seattle Mariners and struggled immensely in 129 plate appearances with a .221/.258/.279 (42 wRC+) and 31 percent strikeout and 4.7 percent walk rates. Nevertheless, Baseball America regarded him as the No. 30 prospect in the game entering 2010.
After a rough month in AAA to open 2010, Saunders was called up to the majors in May when Milton Bradley left the Mariners for personal reasons. He struggled once again in his second crack at major league pitching, but showed improvements in plate discipline (10.7 percent walk rate) and power (.156 ISO). When he struggled again to open 2011, the Mariners sent him back to the minors and, while he hit well at AAA, he struggled even worse upon a September call-up. The total result was a .149/.207/.217 line in 179 major league plate appearances.
Entering 2012 as a 25-year old with no major league success in three seasons, Saunders was likely running out of chances. Nevertheless, he started the season as the Mariners starting centerfielder. In that role, he set then-career bests in nearly every rate and counting offensive statistic over full season of 553 plate appearances. His .247/.306/.432 batting line was eight percent better than league average and his home run total (19) and ISO (.185) remained the best of his career until just last season. By both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, that season remains the best of his career by Wins Above Replacement. He remained healthy in 2013 while beginning to see more time in corner outfield spots and produced a season just a tick worse across the board compared to his 2012.
After a 2014 season in which he missed 68 total games due to shoulder and abdomen injuries, Saunders came under fire from then-Seattle General Manager Jack Zduriencik for a questionable work ethic. That led to a straight-up trade with the Toronto Blue Jays that sent J.A. Happ back to Seattle in exchange for Saunders. Despite the injuries, 2014 represented Saunders’ best offensive season–on a rate basis–when he did play. His .273/.341/.450 line remains his best to date in terms of batting average, on-base percentage, and wRC+. That .450 slugging percentage was only surpassed by his performance with the Blue Jays in 2016.
His first season in Toronto in 2015 couldn’t have possibly gone worse. In Spring Training, Saunders tore his meniscus after stepping on a sprinkler while shagging fly balls in the outfield and was on and off the disabled list for the remainder of the season with issues related to that knee. In all, he only appeared in nine games for the Blue Jays.
After hitting .298/.372/.551 in the first half of 2016, Saunders was selected to his first career All-Star game as the winning of the Final Vote over Ian Kinsler, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia, and George Springer. The second half, however, was not as kind to Saunders as he hit just .178/.282/.357 (69 wRC+). We’ll get more into the potential causes of those stark splits in the next section. Suffice it to say at this point that Saunders may have been on his way to a qualifying offer before the second half of the season, so it is reasonable to attribute his availability to the Phillies to that poor second half.
Though he broke into the league as a centerfielder, Saunders has not started more than 10 games in centerfield in a season since 2013. He’s purely a corner outfielder at this point, though, despite his relative youth and previous work as a centerfielder, his defense universally rates below-average in the corners.
What is nice about the Phillies addition of Saunders is that, provided he is healthy, we should have a pretty good idea of what sort of player he will be.
Since his breakout in 2012 (and excluding his 36 plate appearance, injury riddled 2015 season), Saunders has basically shown the same batted ball profile. Though his breakout season coincided with a decrease in his flyable rate, those flyable were of a higher quality as his post-2011 seasons also display increased isolated power numbers and home run per fly ball rates.
In terms of where those balls are going, Saunders is predominantly a pull hitter and has been so throughout his career. You might suspect, then, that much of his power output post breakout has come from him pulling the ball over the fence and neglecting the opposite field. The spray chart below–from 2012 to present–shows otherwise.
What we see here is that the bulk of Saunders’ pull tendencies come on the ground ball. If you isolate all his ground balls since 2012, which you can do in the spray chart below, you’ll see that he rarely hits a grounder to the opposite field. Most of them go to the second baseman.
While that might make Saunders a candidate for the dreaded Howard shift, the encouraging part of his profile is what he is able to do when he gets the ball in the air. If you go back to that interactive spray chart above and isolate linedrives, I challenge you to find a pattern. He sprays them–a full 22% of his balls in play since 2012–to absolutely every part of the field.
Next, do the same with fly balls (which includes pop ups in this version of the chart). Here you’ll see that he actually shows the opposite tendency you’d expect of a lefty: Most of his fly balls go to the opposite field. He’s not reliant on finding a pitch to pull to hit it out of the park. In fact, when he gets the ball in the air, it’s quite rare that he pulls it.
What the Phillies have in Saunders, in short, is a player that can hit from the left side and use all fields when he gets the ball in the air, which he does on more than 60 percent of the contact he makes.
Lastly, we must address the elephant in the room: Saunders’ extreme first and second half splits. We discussed above how, after an All-Star worthy first half of the season, he absolutely cratered in the second half to the extent that, had he been in Philadelphia, he would have made the Phillies corner outfielders look decent.
What was that? Let’s try to find out. The obvious first place to look is at his BABIP. After a .377 first-half batting average on balls in play, it plummeted to .221 in the second half. Years ago, we would have said that both were fluky and his true talent was somewhere in between both halves. But, we know better than that now with the understanding that factors like quality of contact plays a huge role in BABIP.
Let’s look at his batted ball profile splits:
Here we already have a bit of a clue. In the second half, Saunders started hitting a ton more ground balls and, as a result, fewer line drives and fly balls. As we saw from the spray charts above, Saunders is a much more predictable hitter when he’s hitting the ball on the ground, as his grounders almost exclusively go to the pull side. An infield shift to the second-base side is an easy way to defend a groundball-heavy Saunders, and could account for a dramatic decrease in BABIP.
The only reason I can find to explain that change in batted-ball profile has to do with an increase in whiffs in the zone. We can see below that pitchers didn’t dramatically change where they pitched Saunders from the first half to the second half:
And his knowledge of the strike zone didn’t change much either:
What did change, however, was what happened when he swung. He just missed more:
Now, my guess is those whiffs are emblematic of a larger problem with making good contacts on pitches. If he’s whiffing more, I would suspect, he’ll also be off a bit more when he does make contact, which could mean more weak ground balls to the pull side.
Now, why this happened is beyond my capabilities to ascertain. Maybe he was worn down by a full season after missing nearly the entirety of the previous season. Maybe he really lost some ability. Maybe it was just a fluke. I can’t very well say.
Saunders played for Team Canada in the 1999 Little League World Series. He was the only member of his team to make it to the majors. Colby Rasmus and Lance Lynn both played in that tournament as well.
Saunders slots in as the Phillies starting right fielder for 2016 and is the left-handed bat that Pete Mackanin openly lobbied for all offseason. On a one-year deal entering his age-30 season, Saunders is certainly not a major part of the Phillies vision of their future. As such, a strong first half and the development of some of the illustrious members of the Lehigh Valley outfield–Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens–could usher him out the door in a trade.
In terms of what he can provide to the Phillies on the field, a lot of that depends on how much stock you place in his second half versus his first half. Those were two profoundly different baseball players. One, an All-Star level corner outfielder; the other, replacement level fodder. Provided the weak contact and increased whiffs in the second half aren’t the result of an age-related slowing of the bat, there’s good reason to believe in Saunders as a truly positive asset for the Phillies in 2017.
In that vein, it will be interesting to see how the Phillies manage Saunders’ playing time. Regardless of whether fatigue was at play in his disastrous 2016 second half, Saunders does have a long and diverse injury history in his career. With Aaron Altherr certainly capable of playing right field, I could see Mackanin spelling Saunders more regularly than one usually would a 30-year old starter coming off an All-Star season and going with a quasi-platoon situation.
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