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Saunders Lackluster in Arizona

The Arizona Diamondbacks’ decision to trade Dan Haren for Joe Saunders and prospects was largely panned around the sabermetric community, and indeed, much of the baseball community at large. Mostly, that is because Dan Haren is just a really fantastic pitcher, but the fact that the return was two unimpressive prospects and a back-end starter like Joe Saunders simply made the trade an unacceptable squandering of resources on the part of the Diamondbacks. Saunders’s performance in Arizona to date has done nothing to dispel this notion.

Prior to the season, now 29 year old Saunders was projected for a FIP in the 4.70s by both CHONE and ZiPS, a mark that would put him well below average, but still provide value. These projections were effectively right on with Saunders up to the trade, as he posted a 4.68 FIP with the Angels. That kind of mark would place Saunders as about a 1.5 WAR pitcher over 180 innings, an total which he is close to reaching this season and reached in both 2008 and 2009.

But much like pitching in Arizona mistreated Dan Haren, it hasn’t been kind to Saunders. Unsurprisingly, with many starts at Chase Field, a homer-friendly park, Saunders’s HR/FB rate has jumped from 9.0% with the Angels to 12.5% since the trade. Despite a drop in walks, the extra home runs allowed have taken Saunders’s performance down to nearly replacement level. His 5.22 FIP has been worth all of 0.2 WAR for the Diamondbacks in his 55 innings with the club.

His ERA is a slightly more palatable 4.88, and of more encouragement to Arizona, his xFIP is at 4.89, a level that is definitively better than replacement if nothing else. CHONE’s most recent projections have him at a 4.75 “neutral ERA,” which implies he is basically still the same pitcher as he was in Anaheim, although it would not be surprising if his home run issues persist, given his career numbers and the park effects in Arizona.

Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, that pitcher isn’t going to approach what Dan Haren provided them nor what he likely would’ve provided over the next three years. Saunders isn’t cheap, either, as he’s already making $3.75 million in his first arbitration year and can probably expect a raise to the $5 million to $7 million range, despite his poor season, a number that will be awfully close to free agent market value for a player only in his second arbitration year.

Saunders hasn’t even been the “winner” that Jerry DiPoto described as one of the reasons for bringing in Saunders over Haren. Saunders has only won two of his seven decisions and has a -0.50 WPA to go along with that poor record. Joe Saunders simply hasn’t been the guy needed to justify the trade. There was never any reason to believe that he would be, and there’s no reason to believe that he will be in the future either.