How to feel about Michael Saunders

It’s always hard to tell whether a breakout is real or luck, and the Blue Jays have hosted bunch of players who fit both categories. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion turned from journeymen to superstars. then there were guys like Adam Lind and Aaron Hill who had a few strong years but never achieved that prolonged success. So of course, when a guy has an up and down career like Michael Saunders has, it fogs the truth even more.

Saunders hit a career high 24 bombs in 2016, appearing in 140 games although not being platooned heavily. His 117 wRC+ puts him firmly in must-own fantasy territory, and his .224 isolated slugging percentage is good enough for 15th among qualifying outfielders. Now, I can’t blame you if these numbers seem a little hard to believe as a soon to be 30-year-old who missed almost all of the 2015 season and hadn’t appeared in 100 games since 2013 where he hit 12 homers with a measly .236 batting average. But if we look a little deeper, his surprising campaign might actually be indicative of more success for Saunders in the future.

Despite having problems with injury and actually making it into the lineup, Saunders has had success when he’s been given consistent playing time. His career average wRC+ is still just 97 which is a good bit under what you want out of an outfielder, but he’s put up marks over 100 three times before in his career, with large enough sample sizes. And while the raw power numbers haven’t compared to what he did last season, he was on pace for 20 bombs two more times before injury took him down. So while his numbers may seem somewhat remarkable, let’s remember that he’s always shown at least above average talent, when given the chance.

Something new that Saunders showed last year which took him from good to exceptional was a more swing happy approach at the dish. Across the league we’ve seen a shift in this regard, and because of it (at least, partially) we are also seeing huge increases in power and homers. Saunders struck out a career high 28.1%, up from an average of 26.1%, taking that number into the upper reaches of whiff leaderboards. He did so by taking his swinging strike from 10.1% to 12.0%, and general swing rate from the low 40s to 44.7%. In doing so, we saw his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone dive from career 50.8% to 45.9%..

And what does all this mean? Well first, it indicates he’s swinging harder and the numbers back it up with a career high hard contact rate at 37.4%, up from average of 32.9%. He’s more patient in general, and missing on pitches out of the zone (generally speaking, not pitches he would hit well anyway). Both of these combine well, allowing for more success when he does swing, and in the areas of the zone he likes.

Below is a heatmap of his ISO from his career, to show where he’s been having his success:

How to feel about Michael Saunders chart 2

A general rule for lefties is to try to keep the ball outside, and pitchers have attempted that, especially last year. But when the pitches have stayed middle away he’s had no trouble launching them. Look at his spray chart last year on those pitches to see how he was able to have success:

How to feel about Michael Saunders chart 1

Not only has he been able to shoot the ball the other way with great results, he’s been able to successfully pull these outside pitches as you can see in the video below.

He does a tremendous job of moving his lead foot to match the lateral location of the pitch, and in response is able to do more than just try to take it the opposite way. He takes this one for a ride over the right field wall by positioning himself properly and with plenty of time, a clinic for young lefties to look at.

But at some point you have to come back in, and Saunders has been making them pay there too. As you can see from the heatmap above he’s had a few spots with ISO marks over .300, an insane mark, and more over .200. While he still has a few holes in his swing as shown, he’s strong enough in the surrounding areas to crush when pitchers miss, even by a little.

Michael Saunders has always shown that he has talent, and what we saw in 2016 is someone who is finding out how to tap it properly. His swing allows him to drive almost any pitch, and his new approach is helping him hit balls harder that ever before. Although we should be aware of which team he signs with this offseason (no doubt resigning and playing 81 games in the SkyDome would provide a boost of power), Saunders has real power and should be targeted.


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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.