Michael Saunders’ Contact Issues
Corner outfield was the biggest weakness of the 2016 Phillies. To solve this problems, the Phillies brought in Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Kendrick has been out with an injury, but Aaron Altherr has continued to provide the Phillies excellent production in left field. In 2016 Phillies right fielders hit .231/.291/.350, and Saunders, even with his second half collapse, hit .253/.338/.478, so he was supposed to be a large upgrade for the Phillies. However, even with 2 home runs in the last week, Saunders is only hitting .253/.286/.391. So when do we panic?
Not now. Saunders is still only 25 games into a season in a new league for a new team, so no one should panic anyway. Saunders also has been scorching the ball of late, so it makes sense that his ISO will climb at least above his career line of .166 from its current .138. That still doesn’t deal with the biggest problem with Saunders’ line—his on base percentage.
Currently, Saunders has a 3.3% walk rate. Saunders has never been known as a free swinger, and he has a career walk rate of 9.3%. His previous 4 seasons have been even better, with walk rates of 11.5%, 9.9%, 13.9%, and 10.6%. What makes this all a bit more confusing is that Saunders is seeing the most pitches per plate appearance of his career, outside of his 36 PA season in 2015.
What has changed in our tiny sample size is that Saunders is swinging more. His percentage of swing on balls outside of the strike zone is up from 26.1% to 30.9%, which means Saunders is seeing fewer balls. He is making contact on those balls at a greatly increased rate (45.9% to 55.1%), which would help explain why he is not striking out as much. Saunders is also swinging at more pitches in the strike zone, and he is also making more contact on those pitches as well (he is up to 90.8% on zone contact).
This all helps explain why his walk rate is so low. Right now he is swinging and putting those balls in play. In an ideal world, pitchers are going to be less willing to give him pitches near the strike zone if he is just going to hit them. But this gets us to part 2 of why Saunders is struggling, one I glossed over earlier. He is making poor contact. Saunders’ ground balls are up, his line drives are down, and his fly balls are stable, except for the fact that he is hitting pop ups twice as much as last year.
Without going back to the film and mapping each PA, it is hard to know if the poor contact comes from making contact with bad pitches, or if he is struggling to square the ball up. What we do know is the low walk rate is almost assuredly unsustainable, given how many pitches he is seeing. It is going to take a larger sample size to know if he is the player he was with the Blue Jays or if he has diminished some in the past 12 months.