The Kids Aren’t Alright: What’s Wrong With Michael Saunders?

Michael Saunders has been more inconsistent than my bowel movements after eating a Double Down.

When Ken Griffey Jr “retired” earlier this season, young left fielder Michael Saunders became my favorite player on the woebegone squad. What can I say—I’ve got a thing for lefties who spend their summer days flirting with the Mendoza Line.    

Though he wasn’t a top draft pick (11th round of the 2004 draft) Saunders combination of power and speed allowed him to move steadily through the Mariners’ farm system, reaching the majors last season to fill the void left by Raul Ibanez. Saunders struggled mightily in his first chance in the show (.221-0 HR’s-4 RBI’s-6 walks/40 strikeouts) as his long swing was exposed by big league pitchers. Still, at only 22, there was still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Saunders heading into 2010.    

Saunders’ role with the team was temporarily in question when the Mariners acquired Milton Bradley in the offseason to play left field and DH, but it didn’t take long for him to get the call from Tacoma when Bradley was neutralized with a variety of injuries and mental instability. Despite continued contact issues, Saunders flashed the power that made him such a highly regarded prospect, hitting seven home runs in 106 May and June at-bats for a power starved Mariners’ team. He even went deep twice against southpaws, highlighted by a go-ahead home run against Red Sox ace Jon Lester. While his slugging dipped in July, Saunders showed improved plate discipline, drawing 11 walks against 16 strikeouts and posting a .380 OBP for the month. It seemed that the light had come on for Saunders and he was on the verge of a breakout season. But then, just as suddenly as he found his groove, Saunders hit a wall. Literally.   

The Condor will have to continue to develop at the plate if he wants to help the Mariners back to the playoffs.

In an August game against the Texas Rangers, Saunders collided with the left field wall trying to keep a home run in the park, and injured the same shoulder that he had labrum surgery on earlier in his career. Though the injury wasn’t serious, Saunders was shelved for around two weeks before returning to the lineup on August 31st. Since that time, the Condor just hasn’t been able to take flight, hitting a paltry .161 in September with just one extra base hit in the month (he hasn’t hit a home run since July). Reports from the clubhouse seem to indicate that Saunders’ shoulder is feeling fine, so what does he have to do in order to stay an important piece in the Mariners’ rebuilding effort?   

Part of Saunders’ regression is due to bad luck, as he carries a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .267 on the season (last season his BABIP was .329, the league average is around .300). Saunders has the wheels to leg out base hits, but he hits too many pop ups (16% of his flyballs don’t leave the infield) and flyballs (0.57 groundballs for every 1 flyball) to utilize his speed. While part of the low BABIP is out of  Saunders’ control, he would benefit from a shorter, compact swing which would allow him to make more consistent, solid contact (his 16 percent career linedrive rate is well below the MLB average of 19%). A shorter swing would also allow Saunders more time to react to pitches, neutralizing his two biggest weaknesses (fastballs inside and breaking balls away) and giving him a better chance to hang in against lefties. 

Saunders certainly has the talent to become an above average left fielder (think .270-20 HR’s-70 RBI’s-20 SB’s) and I hope that the Mariners give him a chance to play full-time in 2011, because let’s face it, they probably won’t be contending for the AL West title anyway. Saunders needs to make some adjustments in order to raise his average and provide value to the Mariners at the plate (he’s already a solid defensive player), and the best way to do that is to get at-bats at the major league level (especially against left handers, so they won’t have to platoon him in the future). If the Mariners want to climb out of the cellar next season, it will be on the strength of young players like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Saunders–the days of overpriced free-agents in Seattle are over. 

Mark my words, the Condor (and the M’s) will soar. Just not in 2010…

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3 Responses

  1. someone get that kid a 20 inch bat.
    nice analogy with the condor thing though, but it might be more like ‘the wounded duck will paddle really fast….

  2. Switching out that comically small bat would be a good start.

  3. Alright, well you’ve convinced me. Michael Saunders is a good guy. Maybe I’ll even start cheering for him. Too bad the Mariners as a whole are still terrible. Write another article! This is like the longest you have gone without posting another one.

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