Joe Saunders’s Plus Skill On Display Against Rangers

The presentation of Joe Saunders as a joke has escalated ever since the Orioles had the gall to name him starter for Friday’s American League Wild Card game. Nobody is accusing Joe Saunders of greatness, but he has made a living on competency. He has a 98 career ERA- — just slightly better than average. Aggressively competent, even.

Still, it’s understandable why Saunders is treated as the kind of pitcher who should be hit hard. In both browsing his statistics and watching his pitches, he has no discernible strengths. He lives in the high 80s with his fastball. He doesn’t throw a curveball with exceptional break. He has a changeup, but he isn’t a changeup artist of the Shaun Marcum or Johan Santana variety.

But in one way, Joe Saunders has been one of the major league’s best pitchers since 2008:

Rk Player GDP GS ERA+
1 Felix Hernandez 121 165 137
2 Mark Buehrle 117 162 113
3 Joe Saunders 117 156 104
4 Paul Maholm 112 151 98
5 Derek Lowe 111 156 92
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/5/2012.

Joe Saunders allowed one run to score Friday night against the Rangers. It came on a Josh Hamilton double play, one of three which helped power him through 5.2 sharp innings in the victory.

To be sure, Saunders pitched well aside from the double plays — he induced eight other ground balls against three liners and three flies. His two-seamer was a bit wild — just 16 strikes out of 31 thrown — but he made up for it with a pinpoint curveball. Of 14 thrown, 13 went for strikes including two whiffs and just three hit into play. This pitch allowed Saunders to keep Rangers hitters off balance. It allowed him to sneak nine of his 90 MPH fastballs by the potent Rangers lineup.

Saunders benefited on multiple occasions from a poor Rangers approach, too. Hamilton’s double play came on the first pitch of the at-bat on a curveball at the knees, a dubious swing choice at best given Saunders had throw seven balls against five strikes at the time. With runners on first and third, Saunders was already on the ropes in the first inning. With minimal control or command to the first two batters, Hamilton provided Saunders the ultimate escape route in grounding into the double play.

And there were other examples. Ian Kinsler’s third inning double play was over six inches outside the strike zone. Mike Napoli struck out looking at a hittable pitch his first time up and struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt his next time up. Hitters were unable to take advantage of his inability to locate his changeup — just three strikes on eight thrown.

But Saunders deserves plenty of credit — his brilliant spots with his curveball and ability to keep the ball on the ground against a strong, largely right-handed lineup made him the somewhat fitting surprise hero of the surprise Orioles as they head into the American League Divison Series for the first time in 15 years.

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19 Responses to “Joe Saunders’s Plus Skill On Display Against Rangers”

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  1. Ron Washington says:

    “I told the team to just to play like it’s the World Series.”

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  2. Mark says:

    Is the GDP a function of skill, or is it related to the fact that he allows so many base runners compared to other pitchers? And in addition to that, because of his low K rate the ball is going to be put into play more often.

    Having lots of base runners + allowing lots of balls in play would explain a high GDP total in his case, would it not?

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    • rustydude says:

      All of the guys on the list are innings eaters so they’re bound to get more balls-in-play opportunities. Felix has high k’s/low bb’s so you would think he averages less opps per start than most pitchers, but over all he is a ground ball pitcher so probably more of his balls in play are opportunities for double plays.

      It was shown that Maddux and Glavine, in their prime, purposively pitched differently with men on base than with bases empty. I have a feeling that a different approach might be a factor for guys on this list.

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    • CJ in Austin, TX says:

      All of those pitchers throw a lot of sinkers/2 seam FBs. Saunders threw 43% two seam FBs this year. The pitch is intended to produce groundballs. So, that part is skill. Saunders has less of an overall GB% pitcher than the others, so maybe he uses his 2 seam FB more with runners on base.

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      • Mark says:

        It would make sense, but the numbers don’t back that up. He’s got his lowest GB% in high leverage spots. Additionally he has a slightly (1-2%) higher GB% with bases empty compared to runners on or RISP.

        Maybe he uses the two seemer more often in those spots, but it’s not helping him induce any more GB’s.

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  3. Adam says:

    One of my favorite things in all of baseball is a smooth double. It is almost poetic at times, but not when it is against my team. That was frustrating. As much credit as Joe Saunders is due, I believe the Rangers get more credit for swinging at pitches, as you pointed out, way out of the strikezone. They have Josh Hamilton leading the way. Ted Williams said the most important thing to do at the plate as a hitter is to get a good pitch to hit. If it was the first time he was seeing a pitcher in a game he would take the first pitch to get his release point down. Josh, nope, he’s already swinging at the first pitch before he gets to the plate. He makes ME feel embarrassed watching him. And his attitude isn’t to get better and be more patient, but that he doesn’t care because even with his approach he’s better than most of the league already. Josh Hamilton is what frustrated me most, Ron Washington going with Holland out of the pen second, and the double plays last.

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  4. swieker says:

    It seemed to me that the homeplate umpire had a wide strike zone last night–calling many pitches 2-3 inches outside the zone as a strike (judging by TBS’s pitch track graphic). Does Fangraphs have a metric that would quantify this kind of observation on a per-game basis?

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  5. Kampfer says:

    I felt like it was more the Ranger being too aggressive to start the game than Joe Saunder executing his pitches.

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  6. Bill says:

    I think it had to do with Oriole Magic.

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  7. GiveEmTheBird says:

    A lot of his balls were ten feet outside the zone. And he was behind in a lot of counts. I don’t see how the Rangers didn’t know exactly which pitches would be over the plate and just crush him. As an Os fan I was yelling at the TV for Buck to pull him from the first inning on. Rangers having terrible at bats can only go so far, the Orioles were lucky to get away with out a few home runs.
    Then again, Buck’s a whole lot smarter than me, maybe Saunders really did execute on a well laid plan … Who knows.

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  8. AA says:

    I’ve seen Saunders rather regularly hit 93 – especially when he pitched for the Angels. I’ve never been happy with the way he mixes his pitches, however.

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