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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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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.