2016 Blue Jays Breakout Candidate – Michael Saunders

With the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2016 season approaching, Jays From the Couch looks at a potential breakout candidate, assuming health.

 

As Blue Jays fans suffer through the harsh January baseball doldrums and look anxiously towards the beginning of Spring Training, many people enjoy looking at 2016 projections to help pass the time. One common exercise is to try and predict which players will perform better than expected and enjoy breakout seasons. I believe this is a far less challenging endeavor with the 2016 Blue Jays, as so many of their players are relatively known performers.

Would Tulo slashing .300/.380/.500 really be a “breakout”? Rather, my definition of “breakout” is a player who has either had little to no big league experience or been somewhere around an average player and poised to ascend to a new strata of performance. Looking back at the 2015 season, I believe Kevin Pillar and Marco Estrada should share the “breakout award.” When considering the likely 2016 roster, I see a clear favorite and think there is ample evidence which makes such a forecast far easier than predicting the 2015 winners.

Michael Saunders was a very average big league performer during his years in Seattle. During his two full-time years in 2012-2013, he was essentially a 2 WAR player with a wRC+ of just slightly above the league average level of 100. He spiked a bit in 2014, but that was in the midst of a season in which he was demoted to AAA, only received 231 AB’s, and much of his spike appears to have been fueled by a BABIP of .327 vs .298 and .297 in most recent full time big league seasons.

Saunders was poorly rated by advanced defensive metrics in Seattle. However, about half of his defensive innings were in CF, with the equivalent of about one full season (151 games) total over the years in LF. Not surprisingly for someone thought to be capable of playing CF in such a huge ballpark, Saunders’ defensive metrics were average to good during his time in LF. His base running value has been consistently good to excellent.

When we look at what to expect out of Saunders in 2016, the greatest risk is obviously the health of his left knee, which he infamously injured last year on an ill placed sprinkler during the first week of spring training. If his knee is fully recovered, as he and the Jays have recently stated, then I believe it reasonable to expect his defensive and base running value to carry over from his time in Seattle. However, the real upside resides in the shift from Safeco Field to the Rogers Center, as well as playing in the LHB friendly confines of the AL East.

In analyzing ball park factors for Seattle and the AL West from 2006-2015 (I chose to begin at the start of the post-PED era) and comparing to that of Toronto and the AL East, I believe it is reasonable to expect Saunders’ un-adjusted total offensive production to increase by at least 10%-15%. I arrived at this conclusion by averaging the 10 years of ball park factors in each city and weighted them based upon expected games played in 2016. The net difference between Seattle vs Toronto is about 12% based upon ball park factors over the period.

Obviously this analytical construct is far from full proof, as the sample size is relatively limited. However, I find it interesting that we have a very recent comparable for Saunders, as Josh Donaldson made a similar move from Oakland to Toronto last season. Oakland’s ball park factors are not quite as severe as Seattle’s, so a similar analysis would have predicted a bump of around 8%-9% for Donaldson due to his move to Toronto. So how would we have done? Donaldson’s MVP 2015 season produced an OPS of about 12% higher than the average of his last two seasons in Oakland.

Perhaps most interestingly, the data for LHB power and OPS is even more tilted in Saunders’ favor than what Donaldson enjoyed with his move east. The most recent ball park factors for handedness I could find was for 2013-2014, and the AL East had 4 of MLB’s top 7 parks for LHB OPS! Seattle was fourth worst and the AL West is effectively a graveyard for LHB batters except for Houston. The Rogers Center HR% for LHB was 3.70% and good enough for 4th in all of MLB, while Safeco came in at just 1.56%, which was 2nd to last.

Saunders enjoyed a pretty steady increase in his Hard Contact % in his last four years in Seattle, which could be interpreted as a sign that he was improving at the big league level. His Fly Ball % averaged about 35% in his last three years in Seattle, with a HR/FB% average of about 13%. You know who else averaged around a 35% Fly Ball % in his last two years in the AL West? Donaldson averaged a HR/FB% of about 14% during his last two seasons in Oakland. And you will NEVER guess whose Hard Contact % increased during his 3 year period prior to moving to Toronto! Donaldson’s last year in Oakland ended with a 34.6% Hard Contact %, which is actually “soft” compared to Saunders’ 36.3% rate in his last full season in Seattle.

Saunders was already a more significant pull hitter than Donaldson in Seattle, despite that factor not being rewarded in his home park or in his in-division parks ex-Houston. Saunders’ most productive season in 2012 was accompanied by a 46.7% Pull rate, which compares to Donaldson’s elevated rate of 42.9% in Toronto last season. Given a similar confluence of factors, Donaldson enjoyed a 50% increase in HR production in 2015 over the two year average he generated in Oakland prior to the big trade. The ball park factors are much more heavily tilted for a LHB than it was for Donaldson, and even more so with Saunders’ move from Safeco instead of the Coliseum. None of this is to suggest that Saunders will be Donaldson, of course.

I hate to break it to all of the Dalton Pompey fans out there, but you are backing the wrong Canadian horse for 2016. I predict something along the lines of a .270/.350/.500 slash line for Mr. Saunders, with 25-30 HR’s and the potential for 80-100 each in runs scored and RBI’s depending on where he ends up batting and overall lineup production. I believe Michael Saunders will be the clear 2016 breakout player for your Toronto Blue Jays, and is likely to approach, and perhaps exceed, Kevin Pillar’s 4.3 WAR 2015 season.

 

Hey, MLBTR Readers! Did you miss out on the last week at Jays From the Couch? Don’t worry. Here’s a recap for your enjoyment! We look at Blue Jays roster options, management and prospects!

 

*Featured Image Credit: wyliepoon UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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