To start the second half Saunders has struggled to be average let alone an all-star; but just how long will it last for the Blue Jays slugger
I’m going to let you in on a little secret of mine… I really really like Michael Saunders. Like a lot. Maybe it was his performance in the last WBC that really pulled me in. Heck, maybe it’s just me succumbing to the patriotism, or what has become to be known as a “maple boner” for Canadian players on a Canadian team. Whatever it is, he is one of my personal favorites. I spent a lot of time trying to convince friends when he signed with the Blue Jays how fantastic a move it really was. Saunders is so underrated, he’ll be just as good if not better than Melky I’d spout. We just need to see a full season out of the guy.
Well, that didn’t work out too well to start, as it turns out. An evil sprinkler head shot up from the ground attacking a defenseless Saunders and killing the cartilage in his knee. Along with that, all hopes I thought I had of seeing him put together a solid season in Toronto blue . A second hope came when the Blue Jays re-upped him however, and a healthy Saunders would start the season. Finally, vindication. Saunders showed up even better than I could have imagined mashing his way to an all star appearance on the shoulders of a nation voting for Captain Canada. I was firing off I told you so’s from the hip like John Wayne. And then came the second half.
Saunders just hasn’t looked the same in the second half of the season. If you take a deeper look into the numbers, it’s worse than you may think. To start with the basics, right off of the top the “baseball card” numbers have dropped off significantly. Slashing a phenomenal .298/.372/.551 in the first half with 16 home runs and 42 RBI, Saunders was more than deserving of his ticket to San Diego. The drop off has been brutal however, in the second half only mustering up a .157/.281/.314, 4 home runs and a measly 7 RBI.
Dig deeper down in the numbers, and things don’t get any better for Saunders either. In the first half, his slugging percentage above shows just at how good of a clip he was managing to register an extra base hit. Saunders was able to move past first 43 times (good enough for 14% of his at bats). Second half? Only 7 hits (or 6.8%) have gone for extra base hits. A definite area of concern. Tack onto that that Saunders is now striking out in 5% more at bats than he usually does, and it makes for a scary beginning to a second half.
The advanced numbers don’t look to great for Saunders either. A wRC+ of 146, and a wOBA 0.390 posted in the first half are both numbers considered to to be great, and on the verge of excellence. Both of these however have fallen drastically to 60 wRC+ and 0.264 in the latter half. A mark considered awful by the saber metrics community.
All of these numbers are scary, and would have any fan concerned with the production of our Canadian hero heading into the stretch. So how do things look for Saunders to start turning everything back around? To start with the most common display of luck, Saunders BABIP has been brutal to start the second half. On league average BABIP usually sits right around the .300 level. Saunders has been suffering from an abysmal .197 BABIP in the second half. Over a full .100 points below a league average luck is going to do some significant damage to anyone’s numbers. For comparisons sake, Saunders was benefiting from a monstrous .377 BABIP in the first half.
There are also tangible factors that contribute to BABIP however. Looking deeper into Saunders peripherals could show why he may be getting out more often when he puts balls in play. Saunders is seeing his line drive percentage drop by 8%, and all of that is transferring over to ground balls. Saunders ground ball percentage has rocketed up from 37.4% to 48.4%. The biggest issue with this as well, is that the ground balls are softer contact the majority of the time. While Saunders was making hard contact 39.5% of the time in the first half, only 32.3% are being classified that way thus far in the second portion. As far as soft contact, Saunders has jumped from a diminutive 14.4% to 23.1%.
In conjunction with not making hard contact, Saunders is also fanning on an alarmingly larger amount of hard thrown balls. Despite only whiffing on balls around 6% of the time in May and June, he is now flailing away at 13% and 15% of hard thrown pitches in July and August respectively.
So what may be causing Saunders to have such weak contact? Immediately the thought is that pitchers may be pitching to him differently. Reviewing pitch types and strikes versus balls, that’s not the case here. Saunders is still seeing approximately 60% of the pitches he gets go for strikes. The variation over the last 4 months of hard/breaking/ off speed pitches has remained constant as well, fluctuating at most by two percent.
It doesn’t appear to be the pitchers, therefore it has to be the way Saunders is swinging the bat. Right? According to Fangraphs, Saunders hasn’t shifted from being too pull or push happy either. To start, he has maintained the same pull percentage at approximately 41% of the time. There has been a light change in Saunders going up the gut (29% in the first half compared to 35% in the second) as well as pushing around the same percentage (24% versus 29%).
Taking a look at all of the numbers, one thing seems to be apparent. Saunders is just not squaring up the fastball nearly as much as he was in the first half. There’s no particular reason why he wouldn’t be, which leaves a huge question mark going forward. From my perspective, Saunders is primed to bounce back. It won’t be to the level of his performance in the first half. There was definitely some luck on his side in tandem with one heck of a hot streak that pushed him to all star caliber. Saunders may not have been that good, but he also not this bad.
The slump that is occurring right now will fade, and Saunders will start catching back up to fastballs again. The good news is with how good Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki have been, and Jose Bautista returning to the line up, Saunders should have time to figure things out. When he finds his groove again, lands where he belongs in that middle ground between all star and dead weight, there will be no stopping this line-up.
Then again, maybe it’s just my rose colored, man-crush, Saunders glasses.
*Featuted Image Credit: Bliss Photography @blissnogueira
THANK YOU FOR VISITING JAYS FROM THE COUCH! CHECK US OUT ON TWITTER @JAYSFROMCOUCH AND INSTAGRAM. LIKE US FACEBOOK. BE SURE TO CATCH THE JAYS NEST PODCAST!
A group benefits consultant by day, Dustin is sports fanatic who loves talking sports more than anything. A self-glossed stats geek, he loves diving into the numbers behind the game. A proud father of 2 amazing kids, Dustin was born in Calgary, and now lives in Morinville.