Michael Saunders Makes Good

It’s not like George Peppard is standing in front of his GMC with a stubby cigar in his mouth mumbling something about a plan coming together, but the Seattle Mariners must think something similar when it comes to Michael Saunders. After three failed experiments at the Major League level, Saunders, 26, finally showed some of the promise the club hoped for as early as 2007.

Over 553 plate appearances, Saunders hit 19 home runs, stole 21 bases, hitting 31 doubles and three triples. His .247/.306/.432 line could use some improvement but there were enough positives in his 2012 season that Saunders stands towards the front of the line of post-hype sleepers coming into 2013.

Even though he ranked not particularly high on Zach Sanders’ rankings, valued at about the cost of a Taco Del Mar chicken mondo burrito, there are reasons to be optimistic that Saunders could continue to improve as a hitter. First of all, there’s the obvious issue of his age. Saunders turned just 26 this month, and is therefore still on the ascent in terms of the expected performance arc. Clearly, there’s no guarantees relative to age, but then again there’s not much reason to avoid the optimism of youth.

Saunders finally cut down on his strikeouts in 2012, bringing his near 30% rate down to just under 24%. His walk rate didn’t resemble the patience that he demonstrated as a minor league hitter, where he posted an on base percentage of .372 over 771 plate appearances at AAA in the Pacific Coast League. Still, his 7.8% rate was an improvement over his previous year, and after a steady decline over the course of the summer, Saunders actually posted his best walk rate in September and October at nearly 12%. Small sample size, yes. But improvement nonetheless when you’re employed by a team with nothing to play for.

The three pitches that Michael Saunders has seen the most of in his career are (rather unsurprisingly) the four seam fastball, two seam fastball, and the slider — accounting for roughly 65% of the pitches he sees. In 2012, he made marked improvement against all three offerings, using pitch values per 100 pitches:

So in 2010, he was slightly below average in runs on all three, where in 2011 he was just clueless against both fastball offerings. In 2012, he was about a run above average on the four seam fastball and the slider while he continued to make improvement against the two seam fastball, being roughly league average. This might not seem all that exciting, but as far as a trend line goes, Saunders is improving against the three pitches he sees most frequently, not to mention he’s improved in his contact rates both in and out of the strike zone.

Another area Saunders improved upon was his inability to hit left handed pitchers, which was particularly pronounced in 2011 when he could only muster a .143/.169/.161 line against southpaws. Although this stint was brief, Saunders was beginning to look like an outfield platoon candidate at best. But he turned things around fairly significantly in 2012:

There is a small question about playing time for Saunders heading into 2013. The Mariners are rumored to be looking for a corner outfielder. Should they land a right fielder in free agency or trade, and if Franklin Gutierrez manages to stay healthy, there’s a possibility Saunders will be viewed as a part time player along with the likes of Casper Wells and maybe even Eric Thames. While it seems unlikely that Saunders would be limited to fewer than 550 at bats, the possibility remains that manager Eric Wedge is wooed by the streakiness of his outfield cast of characters and if Saunders doesn’t produce early, he may see playing time limited.

But again, the question of playing time seems small and things would have to go south in a hurry for Saunders to not be afforded a significant role with the Seattle Mariners in 2013. Saunders has improved his strikeout rates, his contact rates, he’s improved against the three pitches he sees most frequently, he handled left handed pitchers well in 2012, and let’s not forget that his home team is moving the fences in for the coming season. Should Saunders even make incremental improvements where he’s managed to demonstrate progress as a hitter this past year, he could be a sneaky value on your fantasy team.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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Even more upside in his swing change. Saunders drastically overhauled his swing in the 2011-2012 offseason, working with an external hitting coach and some giant rubber bands to fix his previous problem of flying apart. He was very streaky in 2012; every so often he’d get into a slump and then two weeks later you’d hear a quote come out in the media about “oh, I need to get back in touch with my new swing” and then he’d immediately go on a tear. If he can be more consistent in keeping to the new swing there’s a chance for continued growth.