Despite being drafted in the 11th round, Michael Saunders was once a top prospect. However, his MLB career did not start off well. In his first 204 MLB games, he had an OPS + of just 60 with 180 strikeouts and just 53 walks. His WAR over this time was -1.1, basically a Chone Figgins season. So when reports this off-season claimed he had fixed his swing and gained strength with Josh Bard’s brother, I was sceptical that it actually meant anything. So far this season, Saunders has been a completely different player. Saunders leads the team in offensive WAR according to Baseball Reference, and is hitting .257/.321/.421 so far this year. That doesn’t sound amazing, but it is good for a 111 OPS + and even with this year, his career slash line is still only .216/.282/.344.
So how is Saunders doing it? The first reaction is, and should be, that it is just pure luck. When players over-perform their norms for a certain amount of time, it usually isn’t wise to assume that the player has suddenly changed. Even a half season is not always a great sample size to judge a player. His walk rate is slightly up and his strikeout rate is down a little bit, but not dramatically so. It is not like he has totally revolutionized himself in that regard. He actually has a career worst GB/FB ratio (i.e. more ground-balls than usual) but is hitting much more line drives according to Fangraphs (Baseball Reference actually says that he is hitting about the same amount of line drives, which is why line drive rates can be frustrating). One could conjecture, since Saunders is a good runner (5.6 Speed Score, 2.6 baserunning runs above average in his career, 75 speed according to the Baseball Cube), that ground-balls are good for him. However, since he is not Ichiro, and he can drive doubles (and has a league average home run rate this year), this seems unlikely. His BABIP is .320, .030 points above league average. He is unlikely to keep this up, but 89 players since 2005 (with a minimum of 1000 plate appearances) have had a BABIP over .320. It can be done, certain hitters do it, this is why BABIP is such a flawed tool. According to Bradley Woodrum‘s work in xBABIP and Fielding Independent wOBA, Saunders BABIP and numbers this year are legitimate. How about his spray charts? What do they tell us?
Here is Saunders from the beginning of 2010 through the end of 2011 (via TexasLeaguers):
Here is Saunders in 2012:
Of course, the 2012 version is a smaller sample size, but it appears the left-handed hitter is getting hits the other way much more now than in the past. He has still not hit a home run the other way, it is just not something he is going to do (Ichiro has still not hit a homer the other way in his MLB career according to spray charts). With that said, it looks like he is hitting the ball harder both to left field and center field than in the past. He isn’t relying on bloop hits to center as much as he used to. It does appear, that overall, Saunders is hitting the ball harder. How is he doing it?
This year, Saunders is seeing more fastballs than he has ever seen before. In 2011, he saw sliders 14.6% of the time. This year it is 10.6%. Saunders has always liked to swing at the slider:
This year isn’t different:
The difference is that he is missing the slider less:
It is not really a change of approach, he is just making better contact or seeing sliders that aren’t as good this year. As mentioned above, he is still striking out more than 20% of the time, so it doesn’t appear his contact tool has appeared. According to Fangraphs, the average velocity of sliders he has seen is the same as his career average and actually has a better pitch value. So it doesn’t appear that the slider really has anything to do with Saunders’ success. In fact, his success seems to have to do more with his ability to hit hard stuff:
This is sorted by isolated slugging, so it should minimize luck. So it is either small sample size or he is just better. Perhaps his swing really did improve, or perhaps he is just developing. He is 25 years old. Players’ “prime” is usually at 27. He was, and is, a young player. It is perfectly possible that he is just developing into a better player. It would be a rather dramatic shift from a horrible hitter to a slightly above average one, but something like a swing change could explain it.