Examining Michael Saunders’ offensive struggles

May 5, 2011, 12:20 AM | Updated: 12:50 pm

By Dave Cameron

(Note from Salk: For the second season, Dave Cameron from USS Mariner and Fangraphs will be writing for this blog. This year, he’ll be writing every other Thursday, alternating with Jeff Sullivan of LookoutLanding. Dave will be focusing on the Mariners from a statistical perspective whereas Jeff will bring his own unique brand of analysis. I’ll also be doing some writing for USS Mariner, bringing a taste of the clubhouse to that site. Enjoy!)

So far, the two huge bright spots for the Mariners on the season have been Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak, who have both shown why they were so highly regarded while they were climbing the minor league ladder. These two have both established themselves as building blocks for the future, and even at present, two of the best players on the team. They give the organization reason for optimism, which is really what this year is all about.

Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders is hitting .195 with a .293 slugging percentage this season. (AP)

However, they’re not the only two young guys on the team trying to make an impression. The other notable youngster who came up with considerable promise is outfielder Michael Saunders, and unfortunately, his third tour in the big leagues isn’t going so well.

The Mariners worked extensively with Saunders to re-work his swing during spring training, but unfortunately, it just hasn’t produced any results as of yet. After hitting .211/.295/.367 last year, he’s down to .195/.247/.293 this season. Basically, he’s showing less power and less patience while not really making any more contact than he has previously, so his glaring flaw is just as big of a problem as ever, and his two supposed strengths at the plate have gone the wrong way.

The point of tinkering with Saunders’ swing was to help him try to hit the ball to all fields and better handle pitches on the outer half of the plate. As my colleague Dave Allen showed at FanGraphs in March, Saunders has been disastrous at hitting anything on the outer half of the plate. His contact rate drops precipitously once a pitch gets further away than middle-in, and he has no ability to drive the ball to left field, racking up only four extra base hits (none of them home runs) to the opposite field during his Major League career.

Even with the changes in his swing, we’re not seeing much in the way of improvement in that area. The last two years, Saunders hit .221 on balls to left field. This year, he’s at .236. An extra opposite field single here or there isn’t going to help him enough to become a good big league player — Saunders is going to have to figure out how to hit the ball on the outer half of the plate with some authority, or just stop swinging at it entirely.

Jose Bautista, also a notorious pull hitter whose swing also renders him unable to drive the ball to the opposite field, made significant adjustments last year and essentially stopped chasing pitches outside until he absolutely had to swing. When a pitcher eventually fell behind in the count and got more of the plate, Bautista would crush it, and thus his inability to hit the ball to right field was minimized. Saunders isn’t going to turn into Bautista, but he could stand to simply take more pitches on the outer half of the plate.

The reality is that a lot of Major League pitchers just don’t have great command. Jack Cust has just four extra base hits all season, and yet he now has 23 walks on the season. It’s not that pitchers are afraid of Cust, they’re just incapable of throwing enough strikes to avoid walking him with regularity because he won’t chase pitches out of the zone — his O-Swing% (rate of pitches swung at that are out of the strike zone) is just 18.5%, while Saunders comes in at 27.7%. Pitchers don’t have to be all that precise to get Saunders out because he can’t hit anything on the outer half of the plate and he’s not disciplined enough to stop trying.

If he’s going to have a Major League career, Michael Saunders is going to have to make a lot of significant improvements. He’s tried changing his swing, and so far, that just hasn’t helped at all. Perhaps next on the list should be changing the frequency with which he tries to put that swing to use, and more importantly, the pitches he chooses to swing at.

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