Michael Saunders Has Helped or Killed the Blue Jays

It’s been a big season for Michael Saunders, and for his career. He’s long been dogged by injury questions, and a season ago he was limited to just nine games played. For 2016 he’s been able to stay on the field, and his bat has done the talking. He’s been part of a loaded Blue Jays lineup, but he’s still third on the team in wRC+, below Edwin Encarnacion but ahead of Jose Bautista. The Jays now have sole possession of first place in the AL East, and given some of what they’ve gone through, it makes sense that they might owe Saunders a great deal of gratitude, his recent slump aside. He’s mostly been stable, and he’s become rather strong.

Numbers are funny, though. There are different ways to spin them, even if you don’t want to spin them. It would be completely legitimate to say Saunders has been one of the best hitters on the team. You could also very legitimately say Saunders has been arguably the least-valuable hitter on the team. It’s true that he’s third in wRC+. It’s true that he’s last in WPA. In a few ways, then, Michael Saunders is having a season to remember.

If you’ve been around here long enough, you know I like to play with our Clutch statistic. Not because I think it necessarily reflects an ability, or a lack thereof. Rather, I love Clutch because it’s where so much of the meaningful randomness appears. We usually can’t explain it, but it can make all the difference, as so much of baseball comes down to timing. Clutch captures the difference between how valuable a player has been, and how valuable you’d think that player would’ve been given the same performance across opportunities. This year, Michael Saunders has been the least-clutch hitter in the league.

It gets worse! We have this information going back to the seemingly random year of 1974. Since then, there have been more than 8,000 player-seasons with at least 400 plate appearances. To make for fair comparisons, I calculated every player’s Clutch score per 600 chances. Here is the bottom 10:

10 Least-Clutch Hitters
Player Year Clutch/600 PA
Michael Saunders 2016 -4.1 452
Gary Carter 1979 -4.0 559
Chet Lemon 1982 -3.5 512
Kevin Mitchell 1991 -3.4 423
Josh Reddick 2012 -3.4 673
Willie Aikens 1981 -3.3 419
Cesar Geronimo 1976 -3.2 555
Delino DeShields 1990 -3.2 572
Alex Rodriguez 2008 -3.2 594
Tony Armas 1985 -3.0 410
1974 – 2016, where 2016 isn’t yet complete.

If you stretched this a little further, you could also find 2016 Kris Bryant. As alluded to there in the footnote, because this season isn’t over yet, stuff will move around. But this gives you a sense of Saunders’ problems. He’s been terrifically unclutch. He’s been historically unclutch. It would be safe to consider him almost impossibly unclutch. In a context-free environment, Saunders has helped the Blue Jays. Taking context into account, Saunders has been a drag. Both of these statements are facts.

It’s all fairly simple to explain. In low-leverage situations, Saunders has managed a 185 wRC+, which would make him the best hitter in the game. In medium-leverage situations, Saunders comes in at 97, making him out to be something like, say, Travis Shaw. And in high-leverage situations, Saunders is responsible for a wRC+ of just 13, which is about where we’d find a half-decent pitcher. I’m not saying that Saunders definitely comes apart when the pressure is on. It’s just, if that were a truth, you’d look for numbers like this.

When Saunders has struck out, he’s had an average Leverage Index of 1.26. Remember that LI measures the importance of a given situation, where the average is 1. When Saunders has singled, he’s had an average LI of 0.98. When he’s doubled: 0.73. When he’s homered: 0.67. To get more directly into this, shoot, here’s a big giant table, showing Saunders’ 50 most critical opportunities, by LI:

Saunders’ 50 Biggest PAs
Leverage Index Result
9.19 Out
6.64 Out
5.21 Out
4.62 Out
4.41 Out
4.39 Out
4.30 Out
4.14 Out
3.84 Out
3.52 Out
3.46 Out
3.35 Walk
3.21 Out, run
3.19 Out
3.19 Out
3.10 Two outs
2.96 Out
2.92 Out
2.86 Single, run
2.84 Single, run
2.82 Out
2.71 Walk
2.69 Home run
2.62 Out
2.62 Out
2.57 Two outs
2.56 Out
2.56 Out
2.48 Walk
2.44 Out
2.36 Out
2.34 Out
2.33 Error
2.33 Out
2.33 Single
2.32 Walk
2.30 Out
2.30 Out
2.29 Out
2.26 Out
2.21 Double, run
2.19 Out
2.18 Out
2.17 Out
2.16 Out
2.16 Out
2.16 Two outs
2.15 Out
2.11 Single
2.09 Two outs

I recognize that that is a lot to look at. So if you’ll let me simplify, that table shows 43 outs. There are five runs, four walks, four singles, one double, one homer, and one error. You don’t find the first hit until opportunity No. 19. That means Saunders has gone hitless in his 18 plate appearances with the highest leverage. One of those did result in a run. The Blue Jays’ win expectancy still dropped. Another resulted in a walk, but that just put a runner on first, when there were already two in scoring position with two out. The Blue Jays’ win expectancy increased 2%. That’s been Saunders’ lone positive event with a Leverage Index of 3 or higher.

Before this season, Saunders had batted in the majors nearly 2,000 times. He had a Clutch score of -2.0, which isn’t good, but which isn’t awful. There wasn’t enough evidence to say Saunders was or is somewhat unclutch. Even now, there’s probably still not enough evidence. Not if you’re trying to argue something about Saunders’ actual ability. I don’t know if his true-talent level changes based on situational context. I’m generally inclined to think, no, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Yet there’s a crucial difference between true-talent conversations and observational conversations. I couldn’t tell you whether Saunders is an unclutch bat. This year, he has been an unclutch bat. To a crazy extent. Without him, maybe the Jays aren’t in first. Without him, maybe their lead is even bigger.

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

Very interesting post… but if looking at his WAR of, isn’t that statement at the end nearly impossible unless his assumed replacement was better than that?

7 years ago
Reply to  chri521

And his performance in high leverage is below replacement, whereas WAR does not care about sequencing. That’s precisely why the paradoxical statement holds.

Remarkable splits by Saunders. Do Jays fans notice this?

7 years ago
Reply to  raws

Yes, we notice. He seemingly finds a way to strike out or roll over on a ball each time they need a run or guy moved over. His recent slide has made it all the more noticeable too.

7 years ago
Reply to  raws

Should WAR care about sequencing?