On Michael Saunders’ Struggles: What Will He Become?

Michael Saunders‘ career to this date may be pretty short in terms longevity, but that has not stopped it from also being extremely complicated, and drawn-out to the mind’s eye. What I mean is, if I were to create an analogy for his career up to this point, it would be a roller coaster. A really long roller coaster that at one point pleases everyone on board, and later pisses them off  until they all demand for the ride (or slump) to stop.

That analogy probably wasn’t great, but I think you get the point. His ups and downs have been both frequent and extreme, instilling hope and confidence one minute, and depression and anger the next. And that pattern has been present since he was drafted, and has continued even to today, and likely beyond as well.

Saunders was drafted out of high school in the 11th round back in 2004, which can go either way. Sure, he was drafted and that is awesome. But he was drafted in the 11th round, after over 300 other players. So overall, he wasn’t thought all that highly of. But he was drafted nonetheless.

From there, he rose up the ranks, as well as prospect lists. In 2007 — his 2nd full minor league season — he broke out in A-ball, posting an .860 OPS. He then put up an .817 OPS year, followed by a .922 OPS in about half a season before getting called up. So, a nice string of “ups”.

But that chain soon ended, as he faced a rude welcome to the bigs, posting a .537 OPS in his first 46 major league games. That pattern of suck continued for two more seasons, reaching the absolute depths of a .424 OPS in 2011. A man who was once considered a top prospect and future above-average player looked like a total bust.

However, he would get another chance due to an injury to center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, and he made the most of it. The roller coaster was on the rise again, if you will. He was beginning to look like the player everyone thought he would be. In 139 games last year, he posted a .738 OPS, and flashed near twenty home run power. Faith was restored, and Saunders was going to be a main piece to this team’s future.

And he still might, but his performance this season, particularly of late, has been less than encouraging to say the least. All of the sudden — since the shoulder injury that caused him to miss a few weeks — he has looked closer to the Condor we saw in 2011 than 2012. Needless to say, that is not a good thing.

So, can we see through all of this extremeness? Are we able to get past all of the fluctuation to see what kind of player Michael Saunders really is? Well, maybe somewhat. But we still don’t know for sure.

For starters, we have to recognize something that is now obvious: Saunders is no stranger to slumps, so the one he is in right now — albeit really, really bad — is nothing new. In fact, he faced a couple similar stretches last year. One was in August. The other was May (not that that means anything really, but it is  an interesting narrative).

In May of 2012, he had a .290 wOBA and 86 wRC+. In August, he posted a .269 wOBA and 72 wRC+. In May of this year, he’s “hit” to the tune of a .268 wOBA and 69 wRC+. All three of those are somewhat similar, especially August of last year and May of this year. And despite those two terrible months — one about as bad as this one — he was still an above average hitter last year.

So we know that he can have one of these months and still be okay. That is pretty encouraging considering this slump has caused some fans to jump ship from the Saunders bandwagon. But why didn’t the same thing happen last year when he had a similar stretch?

In two words: sample size. Last year, he already had 380 plate appearances under his belt prior to August. 380 PA of .257/.313/.417 production no less. So when he hits a wall for a month, it is not nearly as apparent as when he hits a similar wall after just 45 plate appearances or so. This is seen by the fact that, right now, Saunders has a .212/.293/.364 line. After his rough August last year, his triple-slash was only down to .245/.296/.413. And while not very good, it is much better than he what he is at right now.

That is a problem that often arises early in a season. You check the stats or go to a game on, say, May 1st. And you see that a player is hitting crazy well, or really bad. From there, if you aren’t careful, opinions on that player may begin forming based on just a month of games. That is not a sizable enough sample to have much weight in terms of future success. Most/all statistical categories are still no doubt unstable and volatile. Most people do know that, but it is easy to forget when you look up at the giant screen at Safeco and see .350/.420/.600 or some other crazy line.

That problem is not present later in the year, because 3-4 weeks of out-of-this-world production in September does not show up nearly as prominently since there are 5 other months in the sample as well, bringing down the production to a more accurate number. For an example of this, see Justin Smoak, 2012.

But none of that really answers the question posed in the title: What is Michael Saunders going forward? Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. In terms of his batted ball numbers, there are no significant changes, other than a slightly lower HR/FB rate. That can hamper production a little, but power has not really been much of a problem for him.

So the next logical place to look is his plate discipline. See if he is doing anything differently in terms of his approach at the plate. Here we see some variation from last year, but it is both positive and negative. The good news is he isn’t chasing as many pitches outside of the zone, which should lead to more walks. But the bad news is that his contact rates are all down significantly. His overall contact is down to 80% from 85% last year, and his O-Contact is down all the way to 49% from 59%. That hurts a lot, and probably explains some of his strikeout problems. He is swinging at balls less often, but he isn’t making contact with the ones he is. “Average” O-Contact rate is 68%, so Saunders is far below that mark.

I think we have found our answer as best as possible. He is not making contact and striking out a ton. Now, the harm done by strike outs is generally overrated, but you still want to limit them if possible. Plus, if he isn’t making contact, he can’t get hits. BABIP is something else we can look to for answers in this situation, but it is hard to tell with Saunders. His current BABIP is .273, below what we would expect. However, his career BABIP is just .277, so it probably isn’t fair to assume it should be higher, and that he has been unlucky. It is certainly possible, but we don’t know if last year’s .297 mark was an aberration, or is suggestive of what it should be. But, even if his BABIP does rise, he isn’t putting as many balls in play as he should be. So the effects of a low BABIP right now are hurting him more than they normally would.

In conclusion, I would not expect him to keep hitting like this. I think he has more talent than he has shown this month, and he displayed it last year, without any signs that suggest it is unlikely to sustain. However, I do get the feeling that last year is about the best we are going to get from The Condor. He has some skill, but with all the struggles he has had over his career, it is hard for me to picture him as more than an average-ish player. If he is able to play center field long term, and he can hit like he did last year, or at least close to it, he can still be a valuable contributor. He posted a 2.1 WAR last year, and that is with a big knock from the defensive metrics — something that was likely inaccurate, which is a common occurrence with things like UZR. So with a .320 wOBA and 108 wRC+, accompanied by a more accurate measure of defensive value, he could be a 2-3 win player in center field. If he is stuck in a corner, it is unlikely he reaches that level.

Topics: Michael Saunders, Seattle Mariners

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  • maqman

    Michael has multiple tools and is not to an age where his capabilities are physically eroded. His slumps maybe more about confidence and perceptions. I expect his value to increase for a couple of years or more.

    • JP

      any chance the shoulder is bothering him more than he’s letting on?

      • JJ Allen Keller

        I am thinking that may be part of it, but it is impossible to really know. We thought that was the case with Morse, but he really still hasnt been great since.
        I could definitely see it tho. Have you noticed anything different in his swing? I havent, but I wouldnt probably pick up on it anyway.