Even on a deal as short as the one to which the Phillies and Michael Saunders agreed this week — he’ll reportedly get $9 million for one year and the club will have the option to re-up him at something like $11 to 14 million — two relevant questions emerge immediately. One: is Saunders healthy enough to believe in? And two: will the power he exhibited last year reappear in 2017?
Well, is he? And will it?
Saunders has had a reputation for being injury-prone much of his career, but he wasn’t sure that was fair when I talked to him last July. He had a concussion in the outfield (happens), an oblique injury (more prevalent in a game requiring so much rotational energy), and a shoulder thing (due, surprisingly, to all the pitching he did as a kid).
Then he stepped on a sprinkler head. While the other injuries came and largely went, this one took a while. Back then, when I talked to him, he was optimistic about 2016 even as 2015 was so terrible for him.
“I developed a bone bruise, just because of the trauma and the incident that happened,” said Saunders. “I had the surgery, and I had the injury on my tibial plateau, it was just asymptomatic. When I came back to Toronto, I don’t know if it was the turf or something else, but it became symptomatic. I tried to play through it for a while, and then that was it.”
But after asking around, he found out that the injury was fairly common. “I talked to a lot of people,” he admitted. “There was a point where there was no meniscus, it was just bone-on-bone,” he said of the worst of the issue. But he had a stem cell injection and the tissue grew back, “not fully, but it worked,” and when he checked with others that had seen the same situation, “everyone said there were no problems.”
The season started out to his liking: he was 46% better than league average with the stick before the halfway mark. Then it fizzled: over the second half, Saunders was 31% worse than average. Luck played a role both before and after: 38% of his balls in play were hits in the early going; and then only 22% were in the second half. But it’s also fair to wonder if the tissue that had grown back was wearing away.
His rolling exit velocity seems to suggest that he wasn’t quite as healthy in the second half, but does this look like the death knell of a knee? Saunders still finished among the top half (176th out of 366) of all hitters by exit velocity in the second half — on par, for example, with Mike Napoli and Jorge Soler.
Of course, it’s not that simple. He hit more ground balls in the second half (1.3 grounders per fly in the second half vs 1.0 in the first), which was the wrong direction relative his career numbers and could be attributed to health issues.
Saunders broke out this year due more to changes in his exit velocity than his launch angle. His full-season ground-ball to fly-ball ratio was about the same as his lifetime mark, but he had the best hard-hit rate of his career. He thought it was due to a few changes he made at the plate.
“I’m keeping my same trigger but I’m keeping my hands back to begin with,” Saunders said last June. “I always had my hands directly in front of me, trigger, and a-b-c. I just made a minor adjustment to move my hands back so that it was more a-to-b instead to a-to-b-to-c.” You can see this fairly clearly in video of early 2013 vs. early 2016 below.
For the player, this resulted in better timing. “I was finding myself in hitters counts and fouling them off instead of driving them,” he said of his work before the adjustment. “I was being late, so I eliminated a step.”
He had a really good end of 2013 with that adjustment, and then he got hurt. In fact, if you adjust his output to the league output in the power department, you can see quickly what the alteration did for Saunders.
ISO+ = ISO relative to league average, where 100 is average and above 100 is better.
If the adjustment begat the power, and then the leaguewide power increase and health only augmented that in the short term, there’s a lot of hope here that this deal will turn out to be a boon for the Phillies. If they just got a corner outfielder who’ll hit for 30% more power than league average — and walks at an above-average rate — the bat should be fine.
Will they have to move him to first base? What will his defense look like after recording the worst fielding season of his career, according to the metrics? Subjective reports weren’t kind for Saunders in the field, and we do have some evidence that he was less healthy in the second half.
Writing about defense is difficult because of sample sizes, but the best metrics we have available seem to suggest that Saunders wasn’t slowed considerably in the second half by an unreported injury. For one, Mike Petriello at MLB.com confirms that there was no difference in his times to first before and after July 1. His defensive charts also don’t seem to suggest that he was hobbled.
Here are his outs before July 1, represented by hang time and distance traveled and general difficulty.
The same chart for the second half shows little change. While it looks like he made more highlight catches, that could be a function of sample and chances. He made eight highlight plus tough plays in the second half, and seven in the first.
If you reverse the analysis and look at hits allowed, you find that he gave up two hits on routine or easy plays before July 1… and two after that date, as well.
Early last season, a finally healthy Saunders conspired with a power-happy league to produce better numbers than he had ever shown before. Teams were perhaps right to be skeptical of that level of performance. But in the second half, Saunders was maybe not hobbled and regressing. He still showed decent exit velocity, times to first, and defensive work. If you add decent health and defense to above-average power and patience, you’re defining a Saunders that will be a bargain for the Phillies.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.