By Shannon Drayer
The Mariners won the Cactus League opener Friday, beating the Oakland A’s 8-5. It was Day 1 without Franklin Gutierrez and all eyes were on Michael Saunders, who did not fail to impress, battling off three pitches to get to one he could do something with and do something he did, taking the ball out over the right field wall. The wind was blowing out but this was a no-doubter.
It had to be encouraging for Saunders, who completely reworked his offseason routine and for the first time hired a hitting coach who just happened to be Mike Bard, the brother of former Mariner Josh Bard.
“I was tired of the results that I was seeing,” Saunders said of making the changes. “I was sick of it. I was desperate. I am no longer a 22-year-old prospect, I need to earn every at bat I get.”
In order to get those at bats he knows he needs to produce at the plate. Stellar defense is not enough to keep him in the big leagues.
Michael Saunders rounds the bases after homering in the Cactus League opener Friday. (AP)
Saunders has changed multiple things about his swing and approach over the last couple of years. Some would say he tried to change too much, or rather tried too many things. He has always been open to change and he didn’t say this, but I had to wonder if multiple managers and batting coaches perhaps were bombarding him with too much information. He is comfortable with Chris Chambliss and Chambliss understands the changes he made this winter. Saunders says he is now committed to what he is doing. He realizes that there will be times he doesn’t have success but believes that what he is doing will ultimately turn him into the hitter he wants to be.
Bard’s methods seemed a bit unconventional. He first had Saunders throwing with a dog tennis ball tosser. There was method to the madness, according to Saunders.
“It shows you if you start hooking it,” he said. “It shows you the errors in your swing. I started with that then I got away from that and found something I enjoyed with the bands.”
Two bands and a weighted bat are what Saunders credits with getting him to where he is now. One band he wears around his knees while hitting in the cage, the other around his right shoulder. The knee band was used to force him to stabilize his lower body and cut down on his stride. The shoulder band compacted his swing.
Bard put Saunders into the batting box with the bands and gave him a weighted bat to swing. He then set a pitching machine for 93-95 mph. He may as well have tied Saunders’ hands behind his back.
“I was dog cussing these things when they first put them on me,” he said. “I was not touching any of the pitches for a week. It clearly was doing something my body wasn’t agreeing with at first. But after a week I started to see results.”
While the bands and the weighted bat (he swings a 60-ounce bat in parts of cage work and batting practice) helped restrict and compact the movement, it was taking away a common drill that helped shift Saunders’ focus to a direction where he could look to do more with more pitches. He completely abandoned tee work.
“The whole thing I was trying to do is create margin for error,” he said. “Not having to have a ball be placed on a tee for me with a certain pitch in a certain area with me being on time to hit it. I should be able to get beat and still be able to drive the ball to left, catch the ball out front and drive the ball to right and utilize my lower half. That is what the bands and the heavier bat have taught me.”
Another result is he has been less passive at the plate. If he is going to swing he swings. It is hard to stop a 60-ounce bat.
“It took me a while to trust the swing, to learn that I am allowed to get beat. My whole goal is to just barrel up the ball,” he said.
This is exactly what we have seen from Saunders, not just Friday but in the intrasquad games as well. He says that he is committed to what he is doing now, though the good and the bad. After changing and trying countless things at the plate, he truly believes this is it.
“I am tired of getting my butt kicked out there the last few years,” he said. “I went out and searched for answers and I have found mine and I am ready to answer everyone elses. I am hungry.”