Seattle Mariners: Michael Saunders’ May To Forget

I expected big things for Michael Saunders in 2013.  He was fresh off a 2.1 fWAR season and had just won his World Baseball Classic pool’s MVP.  Fast forward to late June and Michael Saunders is not looking good.  In May and June, he is hitting .201, and while June has seen a slight rebound in average (.222) he has still been a bad hitter.  However, looking at Saunders' batted ball profile is puzzling; he should probably be hitting better. 

His batted ball stats are better than last year when he 'broke out': he is hitting less balls on the ground and more in the air (1.08 ground ball to fly ball ratio compared to 1.31 from 2012), and he has seen a negligible amount more line drives than in 2012 (1.3%).  Saunders has also trimmed 5% off his infield fly balls (measure as a percent of all fly balls, not plate appearances) which are statistically the second worst outcome at the plate.  In fact, in 2012 at 20.2% line drives (LD), 45.2% ground balls (GB), 34.6% fly balls (FB), and 11.0% infield fly balls (IFFB) Saunders was almost perfectly league average.  League average is 20% LD, 44% GB, 36% FB, and 10% IFFB.

So what gives? Why is Saunders hitting .209 when he has improved the types of balls he is putting into play this year?  What I have noticed in Saunders’ line is that his .ISO had drastically dropped (isolated slugging is a great measure of power and is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging) and his strikeouts have gone up to almost 28% from 24%.  Neither of those things in and of themselves should have tanked Saunders’ offensive value so completely though. 

To figure out what the real problem was, I decided to take a close look at May and a close look at a successful Saunders and after some careful research, a couple bad trends emerged. 

In May, Saunders hit 50% GB.  Ground balls are very unproductive for hitters.  He hit less than 18% LD and less than 33% FB.

In May, Saunders struck out in 33.9% of his plate appearances and 38.4% of his at bats.  In March and April, Saunders only struck out 15.9% of the time.  It’s not hard to figure out why Saunders was doomed in May striking out that often; with that many strikeouts for Saunders to bat .300 he would have had to hit  ~.490 on balls in play— .212 points higher than his career .BABIP.  In actuality, Saunders hit exactly his career average in terms of .BABIP over the course of May. 










In May, Saunders hit 59.6% of his balls to right field and only 40.4% to left field (dividing the diamond in half).  That reminds me of pre 2012 Michael Saunders.  From his debut in 2009 until the end of 2011, Saunders pulled 67% of his pitches and hit a combined .196/.263/.306 good for an OPS+ 40% worse than league average.  A successful Saunders should not pull the ball that much.  In 2012, his average batted ball in play to the left side of the diamond traveled 205.2 feet while his average pulled ball only traveled 172.2 feet.  So far in 2013, it has been even more drastic; as he has averaged 212.7 feet on balls hit the other way and only 159.7 feet on balls pulled.  The batted ball distance data came from Baseballheatmaps.com.  Pulling a high of a percent of his balls in play could account for him only hitting 6 extra base hits during May.  Saunders’ hot and cold zones also support this data as the only places in the zone he is hitting well in are middle and middle away according to ESPN.  The fact that his batting averages on the inside part of the plate are so dismal supports the theory that he should be hitting the ball the other way whenever he can.    

Also incredibly important to consider is the injury that limited Saunders to only 12 games in April.  On April 10th Saunders smashed into the wall in right field catching a first inning fly ball and sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder.  I imagine this has as much to do with his continued power outage as anything.  In June, Saunders’ line is .222/.306/.254 with 2 doubles.  However, if you arbitrarily take out a few bad games in a row from June 6th to June 12th he is hitting .291/.370/.333 with the same 2 doubles through June 24th.  Hopefully Saunders is starting to come around a bit.  Optimistically, his recent shoulder injury can explain why his HR/FB ratio is down 6% (which is a lot) and his low .ISO.

The Mariners certainly need Michael Saunders to hit above his current 74 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) and be more like last year when he posted a 108 wRC+ and was 8% better than average at the plate.  With Saunders’ ability to play a position the Mariners are really thin at, and his strong base running, the Mariners would be much better off getting more offensive production out of him. 

Kyle Smith is on Twitter. Follow him at @kpsgocougs

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