For the fifth time in 2013, Joe Saunders failed to record a quality start on the road, as the Mariners lost 5-4 to the Indians in Cleveland Saturday. Saunders went 5.1 innings, allowing four earned runs on 11 base hits while walking and striking out two. All things considered, it was probably Saunders’ best road start of the season. Still, he laid out a blueprint of how not to make a quality start with a few key things he did or did not do.
Don’t mess around with two outs
Too often during Saturday’s start, Saunders failed to close the book on the Indians after recording two outs. As a matter of fact, Ryan Divish pointed out on Twitter that Saunders has zero 1-2-3 innings in road starts this season. This inability not only costs the Mariners precious runs but also runs Saunders’ pitch count way up. Today proved no exception.
In the first inning, Saunders quickly retired Michael Bourn and Jason Kipnis with just eight pitches. When Asdrubal Cabrera stepped in, Saunders gave up a base hit on his fourth pitch of the at-bat. This small crack in the armor proved lethal for Saunders, who threw seven balls to the next two hitters, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds, walking Swisher and giving up an RBI single to Reynolds. All told, he threw 17 pitches with two outs in the first inning.
The second inning almost mirrored the first one, except that Saunders survived unscathed. He only needed seven pitches to retire Mike Aviles and Jan Gomes, but ran into trouble with Drew Stubbs and Bourn. Saunders walked Stubbs and Bourn singled. Kipnis ended the threat with a come-backer to the mound, but Saunders’ pitch count took another huge two-out hit. He threw 16 more pitches with two outs, running his count to 48 through two innings.
Saunders only threw two two-out pitches in the third, stranding a runner at second and throwing only 18 pitches. He threw ten pitches with two outs in the fourth, allowing a single to Bourn before retiring Kipnis. However, he ran into two-out trouble again in the fifth. Swisher basically hit a home run to left field, except that the wind knocked it down and Raul Ibanez made the catch. Cabrera, at first after a lead off single, was totally fooled and the Mariners doubled him off. Yet Saunders apparently learned nothing from Swisher, as he left another pitch out over the plate to Reynolds, who hit it in almost the same spot as Swisher, except this one carried out for a solo home run.
To notch a quality start on the road, Saunders cannot afford to mess around with two outs like he did today.
Don’t sacrifice an early edge in the count
Saunders threw a ton of first pitch strikes today, especially early on. Of the 29 batters he faced, Saunders threw them 20 first pitch strikes. That doesn’t even include at bats where Indians’ batters put the ball in play on the first pitch. Saunders took control of most of the hitters he faced right from the get go, which should foreseeably help him.
However, of those 20 first pitch strikes that didn’t end up in play, Saunders followed 13 of them up with second pitch balls. Saunders would frequently get ahead and immediately surrender his advantage with the next pitch. He needed to stay aggressive and make things happen to keep his pitch count down. Instead, he ended up with 120 pitches in a weak 5.1 inning start.
Don’t heavily rely on balls in play
In five road starts this year, Joe Saunders pitched 24 innings. He struck out seven batters in those appearances. Seven! In 24 innings! Sure, Saunders isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but that’s just horrendous. His inability to get batters out on his own hurts him significantly, as it did today. Saunders allowed 11 hits and recorded 14 outs on balls in play. That’s a horrendous BABIP against, but when you only strike out two batters of 29, that kind of stuff happens. Quality starts are built on commanding the strike zone and batters, and Saunders did neither with effectiveness in the loss.