One Tiny Fact About One Part of Michael Saunders’ Comeback

Nomar Mazara hit a 491-foot home run the other day. You’ve probably heard about it, you’ve probably seen it. If you haven’t, go check it out. Something special, that homer. Something special, that Mazara. I thought there might be a post in that homer, and there might still be, but in the midst of running some numbers on it, something else caught my eye. While looking up information about a 21-year-old phenom who hit a 491-foot home run, I somehow came away most impressed with Michael Saunders.

See, there’s some outstanding stuff about that Mazara homer, even beyond the age and the raw distance. You’ll see that it came off a left-handed pitcher, with Mazara being a left-handed batter himself. You’ll see that it was pretty far on the inside of the plate, that Mazara really had to turn on it. And you’ll see that it was a breaking pitch, one that started even further inside, that was never really in the strike zone until the moment Mazara hammered it. It was already a special homer on the surface, made even more special by the way it happened. And Mazara hit it a long way. You can’t fake what Mazara did. I’m not sure you can fake what Michael Saunders has done, either.

The Mazara homer got me thinking about similar homers. Y’know, lefty-on-lefty, way inside, breaking pitch rendering it even more inside, pulled. Not like this is the only way for a lefty-on-lefty homer to be special — taking an outside changeup the other way might be just as impressive — but this particular type of homer just so happened to get the gears turning. Wanted to see more. So I looked it up, and turns out it’s a pretty rare type of homer — only 11 of them this year — but the quality of the company isn’t exactly overwhelming. Yeah, there’s a Robinson Cano in there, and a Prince Fielder (for whatever that’s worth anymore), but there’s also a Cory Spangenberg and a Logan Morrison. Don’t have to be Bryce Harper to hit this kind of homer. But the league, as a whole, has hit 11. Eight players have hit one. Michael Saunders has hit three.

Should I just show them all now? I suppose I should just show them all now.

Saunders hit this pitch off a lefty for his fourth homer of the year:

And then this pitch off a lefty for his seventh:

And again, for number nine:

To reiterate: Michael Saunders has hit more than a quarter of these types of homers across the league this year. Sure, it’s a specific type of homer, but it sticks out. Sort the leaderboard of all batters against left-handed pitching in 2016, and you’ll find Saunders among the top 20. Also in that top 20: 18 right-handed batters. Saunders has been something special against lefties this year, and of course it’s only 56 plate appearances, and of course we always want to regress platoon numbers, but it’s signs of life from a player who had previously ran a 79 wRC+ against same-handed pitching, and those shots above weren’t cheap. And they weren’t Saunders’ only homers off left-handed pitching this year — he’s got five in total. He had four in the previous three seasons combined. And he’s done it while being the best hitter in what’s thought to be a pretty potent Blue Jays lineup.

Swing adjustment time? Swing adjustment time! Feels like it would be foolish not to check. Saunders was once an incomplete hitter, and who knows, maybe he still is. If he is, though, it hasn’t been clear this year. And the Blue Jays lately have gone and earned themselves quite a reputation when it comes to fixing batters’ swings, so let’s see what, if anything, has been done. I’ve got two stills, one from a game in Minnesota from 2014 when Saunders was with Seattle, and one from a game in Minnesota from 2016, when Saunders is where he is now. The frames were captured at the moment of the pitcher’s release point, which happens to coincide with the height of Saunders’ leg kick. Should be all we need.

Saunders

For starters, and probably most importantly, the hands are placed differently. They’re more down, and they’re certainly more back. And you can’t see this in the still, but I watched several clips from both seasons, and they’re noticeably more quiet. Used to be that Saunders had an exaggerated load. You can see in all three clips above, after his pre-pitch gyrations, that he’s now pretty direct to the ball. What the Toronto hitting staff has become most famous for is their implementation of dramatic leg kicks, and while Saunders hasn’t gone Jose Bautista on us with the front leg, there is a higher lift. Last thing’s that Saunders looks like he’s taken a step or two back away from the plate, which might coincide with what he’s done against all those inside pitches. Prior to this year, Saunders had slugged .386 on all inner-half pitches versus left-handed pitching. This year, he’s slugging .682, and he hasn’t given away the outer-half, either; he’s covering the whole plate better than he has throughout his career.

Hitters are making swing adjustments all the time. Of course, we only notice them when they’ve got the results that catch our eye and we go looking. Has Michael Saunders suddenly balanced his platoon split? I’m not quite ready to make that proclamation after 54 plate appearances; the pre-2016 sample against lefties is 12 times larger than this year’s. And I’d be remiss not to point out that Saunders has kept his overall career strikeout rate, kept his career walk rate, has an identical batted-ball mix, and is running a .385 BABIP. If he hasn’t truly erased his lifelong platoon split, then just take this as a fun-fact post. A nice little fun fact never hurt anybody. Hey, look! Michael Saunders hit these three wacky homers off lefties already!

It didn’t take much to get to where he is on the left-on-left leaderboard, and so it wouldn’t take much to neutralize it, either. This could easily just be weird early-season happenstance. But it could also be the start of something! Wouldn’t be the first time a player got healthy after years of injury and put it together. Wouldn’t be the first time a hitter went to Toronto and something clicked.

We hoped you liked reading One Tiny Fact About One Part of Michael Saunders’ Comeback by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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number51
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number51

Nice analysis on the guy currently hitting cleanup (!) for the Jays.