Expect Saunders to Be an Average Joe in 2009

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lefty Joe Saunders is fresh off of the best season of his career. Given the opportunity to make 30+ starts for the first time in the majors, the Virginia Tech product posted a 3.41 ERA (8th among AL starters) and a 2.07 WPA/LI (11th). Saunders compiled a 17-7 W-L record and posted a 130 ERA+.

However, the are some reasons to expect this Hokie to decline in 2009. Saunders’ Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA) was 4.36 in 2008, nearly a full run higher than his actual ERA. While his control is pretty solid (2.41 BB/9 in ’08, 2.80 BB/9 career), Saunders does not miss very many bats. He struck out just 4.68 batters per nine innings last season, down from an already tepid 5.79 K/9 in 2007. His 2008 K rate was the 10th-lowest among qualified starters. Aside from Saunders and Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook (who compensates with a ton of groundballs), no one else in the top 10 had a FIP ERA lower than 4.09, despite generally good control:

10 Lowest K Rates Among MLB Starters:

1. Livan Hernandez (3.35 K/9, 4.94 FIP ERA)
2. Aaron Cook (4.09 K/9, 3.76 FIP ERA)
3. Paul Byrd (4.1 K/9, 5.14 FIP ERA)
4. Jon Garland (4.12 K/9, 4.76 FIP ERA)
5. Zach Duke (4.23 K/9, 4.40 FIP ERA)
6. Kenny Rogers (4.25 K/9, 5.22 FIP ERA)
7. Nick Blackburn (4.47 K/9, 4.40 FIP ERA)
8. Greg Maddux (4.55 K/9, 4.09 FIP ERA)
9. Jeff Suppan (4.56 K/9, 5.51 FIP ERA)
10. Saunders (4.68 K/9, 4.36 FIP ERA)

When a pitcher compiles so few strikeouts, he is often subject to the caprices of his defense and variance (luck) on balls put in play. Some years, the ball may bounce the pitcher’s way (as it did for Saunders in 2008, who posted a very low .267 BABIP). Other times, a pitcher might not get so lucky. Take Pittsburgh’s Zach Duke, for example. Duke’s peripherals (4.23 K/9, 2.29 BB/9) were pretty similar to Saunders’, yet Duke posted a mediocre 4.82 ERA. The difference between the two? A huge gap in BABIP. While Saunders was the beneficiary of good luck on balls in play, Duke couldn’t buy an out, and had the misfortune of posting a .327 BABIP.

Saunders figures to be a decent mid-rotation starter at the major league level, a guy worth looking at in the later rounds of the draft. But don’t let the ERA and shiny W-L record fool you: Saunders is more Average Joe than Cy Young.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

2 Responses to “Expect Saunders to Be an Average Joe in 2009”

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  1. sen-baldacci says:

    are there any examples of guys that can maintain a ‘very low’ BABIP for more than a year, due to pitch location/control? I feel that although his FIP was high, he still looked good pitching and stayed consistent throughout the year and ran me nicely through the playoffs. He’s no Jon Garland. Garland was terrible to watch.
    So it is a given that you can be lucky for an entire year and then it all starts over the next year and can be totally unlucky reversing your numbers? I would think the luck would fluctuate enough throughout a single season to show glimpses of how bad he could be.

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  2. Alireza says:

    Greg Maddux put up some very low BABIP’s during his best years, which somewhat supports the stories about him telling guys like Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser to watch out that balls were about to be hit to them. Not saying that Saunders will be Maddux, but he has some real similarities in his overall approach. That said, Saunders has really, really good stuff with a fastball that generally goes between 92 and 95 as a lefty along with a nice compliment of off speed pitches. I think eventually, Saunders misses more bats and develops into a left-handed Derek Lowe type.

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