Michael Saunders Has Been the Blue Jays’ Best Hitter

Josh Donaldson is a superstar. There’s not really any agreed-upon definition of what a superstar is or isn’t, but there are certain obvious candidates, and Donaldson is among them. He hasn’t been the Blue Jays’ best hitter. Jose Bautista is probably also a superstar. He’s aging, sure, but he’s terrifying. He hasn’t been the Blue Jays’ best hitter, either. Edwin Encarnacion is a nightmare to face. He hasn’t been the Blue Jays’ best hitter. Troy Tulowitzki has been one of the best all-around shortstops in recent baseball history. He hasn’t been the Blue Jays’ best hitter. Russell Martin has been one of the better all-around catchers in recent baseball history. He hasn’t been the Blue Jays’ best hitter. The Blue Jays actually tried to trade away the guy who’s been their best hitter. Their best hitter has been Michael Saunders.

And to be clear about this, it’s not like all those Blue Jays have struggled. Donaldson has continued to be one of the very best players in the game. He’s amazing! Slugging .563. Super good. Saunders is slugging .596. We usually like to rank hitters by wRC+. Saunders hasn’t been David Ortiz, because no one has been David Ortiz, not this year. He leads baseball at 189. Daniel Murphy’s the current runner-up, at 163. Saunders is one of three players at 162. We’re approaching the halfway point, and Michael Saunders has been a top-five offensive force. Not bad for a Blue Jay who was nearly an Angel.

In one sense, this is a massive breakout, because last year Saunders got into all of nine games. He had problems with his meniscus, and the solution was to remove most of said meniscus. There were hurdles and setbacks. It was a lost season for a player supposed to be in the prime of his career.

In another sense, this is just another step, Saunders building on what had been an encouraging partial 2014. I suppose we can say it’s both. Saunders is progressing, but the path has been windy. Sometimes you have to lose elevation to gain it.

There hasn’t been a particular key to Saunders’ emergence. It’s not any one thing, unless you just want to credit health. I’m sure that’s what Saunders would point to first, but there are various indicators that show how Saunders has moved forward. Here’s one note regarding plate coverage, with assistance from Baseball Savant. Saunders was at his best between 2012 – 2014, so those years occupy one line in the following table. There’s also a line for 2016. I split pitch location into thirds, based on horizontal distance from Saunders’ person, and now, some location-based isolated slugging percentages.

Michael Saunders ISO By Location
Split Outside Middle Inside
2012 – 2014 0.112 0.280 0.189
2016 0.319 0.244 0.295
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Saunders has long hit for power over the middle. Most players hit for power over the middle. Saunders, this year, has boosted his inside power. So that’s a little thing. But the key column seems to be the second one. Even when he was reasonably effective, Saunders wasn’t too potent against pitches away. At least, not in terms of generating extra-base hits. This year, Saunders has shined against pitches away, meaning he’s been able to cover the whole zone. Not necessarily all at once — few can do that all at once — but Saunders doesn’t have an easy place to target.

About that; a word, on Saunders’ hitting philosophy.

“I think my hitting is all about getting a good pitch to hit and putting a good swing on it,” Saunders said.

Boy, that could not sound less interesting. Sure, it’s true, but it’s true for everyone. Everyone wants to hit good pitches to hit. Yet let’s stick with it for a moment. Here’s a table of Saunders’ career. What you see is the rate of his balls in play that have come against pitches in the strike zone, according to Baseball Savant.

Michael Saunders, Career
Season Zone BIP%
2009 78%
2010 68%
2011 73%
2012 68%
2013 77%
2014 75%
2015 🙁
2016 82%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This is kind of a crude way of measuring good pitches to hit, but you’d rather hit a would-be strike than a would-be ball, because that’s the whole reason why the strike zone is what it is in the first place. The strike zone is the hitting area. Saunders has always been pretty good about putting strikes in play, instead of balls. The league average has been right around 67%. Saunders has ranged from average to above-average, and now this year he’s at a new career high. The season’s not over, but this would be a high, anyway. And now here’s some context. Here are this year’s highest 10 rates, among those hitters with at least 100 batted balls.

Top 10 Rates, 2016
Player Zone BIP%
Chris Iannetta 84%
Michael Saunders 82%
Logan Forsythe 81%
Aaron Hill 79%
Steve Pearce 78%
Derek Norris 78%
Justin Upton 78%
Edwin Encarnacion 77%
Ian Kinsler 77%
John Jaso 77%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

For Chris Iannetta, 84% of his batted balls have come against pitches in the zone. That’s good for him, but I’m focused on Saunders today, and he’s right there in second. This is actually a strength for the Blue Jays in general, as they lead baseball teams at 73%. There are 253 qualifying hitters. Encarnacion ranks eighth. Bautista ranks 15th. Justin Smoak ranks 16th. Darwin Barney ranks 17th. Martin ranks 18th. Donaldson ranks 28th. Kevin Pillar ranks 47th. All of those marks are outstanding, but it’s Saunders who’s in second, and though there are a few reasons for why he is where he is, you’re seeing evidence of good pitch selection. And, much of the time, it’s better to swing through a ball out of the zone than hit it, should you pull the trigger.

Saunders is showing good pitch selection. He’s showing quality plate coverage. He has what would be career-best numbers against righties, and he has what would be career-best numbers against lefties. He has what would be career-best numbers to the pull side, and he has what would be career-best numbers to the opposite field. Because he does strike out, he’s not some prime Albert Pujols. And because he has been through almost countless injuries, his defense isn’t what it used to be. But Saunders has helped keep the Blue Jays afloat, as he’s rescued his own career leading up to free agency. Some months down the line, Saunders could and should be choosing between eight-figure, long-term offers. For now, he’s got more games to prepare for, and more strikes to give a right clobbering.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

It’s been said that Canadians take longer to develop because they generally don’t have as much experience playing the game growing up due to weather. Is there any truth to that? Is Saunders another example?

7 years ago
Reply to  fredfotch

Saunders grew up in Victoria BC, which has more playable days than, say, the area of New Jersey where Mike Trout grew up. A bigger issue is just the lack of all the leagues and showcases and travelling teams etc etc that give American teenagers a lot of opportunities to play against high levels of competition and get advanced instruction.

But it’s also true that for most good athletes in Canada the draw is hockey, so a lot of them put in a couple of months playing baseball and then go back to working on the sport they really care about.