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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Cards are Stacked: Can Albert Pujols Capture the NL Triple Crown?

Man or Machine? Either way, Pujols is the game's best.

Man or Machine? Either way, Pujols is hands down the game's best hitter

Well, the secret is finally out. Albert Pujols is a machine. Although ESPN may have been first to officially break the news, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed baseball since 2001. After all, in 8+ seasons Pujols has been the best in the game, averaging a batting line of .334-43 HR-129 RBI-124 R; a feat unmatched in the history of baseball and an accomplishment unthinkable for any mere mortal. Even though Pujols is stuck in a rather pedestrian St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup (though the recent addition of Mark DeRosa should help), last year’s NL MVP continues to prove that he is the best hitter in the game today, and arguably one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of baseball (move over Greg Vaughn Jimmie Foxx). After going deep twice against Minnesota on Saturday, Pujols was hitting .328 with a league leading 28 HRs and 78 RBIs, despite already drawing 59 free passes.

As the season moves closer to the midway point, and Pujols continues to mash at the plate, is it time for the Triple Crown talk to begin? It seems every few seasons there’s a player in baseball who jumps out of the gates quickly only to fade in the dog days of summer (i.e. Derek Lee in 2005), but Pujols is clearly in a league of his own and shows no signs of slowing down (12 HRs in 88 ABs in June). It’s been 72 years since the last NL Triple Crown winner, and strangely enough it was another Cardinal. Joe “Ducky” Medwick had a season for the ages in 1937, hitting .374 with 31 HRs and 154 RBIs (numbers which, besides the HRs, would probably still lead the league today). So, is it in the cards for St. Louis to have another Triple Crown hitter in 2009, or will Pujols find leading the lead in the three major batting categories impossible even for a machine?

Pujols will have to stay on fire for the NL's first Triple Crown since '37.

Pujols will have to stay on fire all season long for the NL's first Triple Crown since '37.

Let’s take a look at his current numbers, main competitors in each category, and Pujols’ chances of leading the league in HRs, RBIs, and batting average:

Homeruns (28-1st in NL): Believe it or not, Pujols has never led the league in HRs, although in his defense he did play in the NL during the peak of Barry Bonds’ accidental steroid usage power barrage. The closest Pujols has come is finishing tied for second in 2004, hitting 46 HRs to Adrian Beltre’s 48 (loud groan from Mariners’ fans). Pujols’ current HR rate puts him on pace for 59 longballs which would almost assuredly lead the NL. His closest competition at this point in the season are Padres 1B Adrian Gonzalez (24 HRs), Phillies OF Raul Ibanez (22 HRs), Diamondbacks 3B Mark Reynolds (21 HR) and Phillies 1B Ryan Howard (20 HRs). Ibanez has been on fire all season long but is currently stuck on the DL, and at the age of 37, is not likely to keep up with Pujols as the summer drags on. Reynolds definitely has some pop in his bat when he hits the ball (his 102 Ks lead the league by a wide margin) but is too inconsistent and will have too many slumps to lead the league in longballs. Gonzalez will probably set a career high in HRs this season but has little protection in the San Diego lineup (he leads the league in BBs) and has slowed considerably since hitting 20 HRs in the first two months. The player with the best shot out of this group to keep Pujols from topping the NL in HRs is Ryan Howard. Howard is one of the game’s best sluggers, averaging 51 HRs a season over the past three years, while leading the league in 2006 and 2008. He plays in a homerun friendly ballpark and hitting between Chase Utley and Ibanez sure doesn’t hurt, but like Reyolds he is prone to the punchout and is already 8 HRs behind Pujols.

Odds Pujols leads league: 75%

Will the world's biggest vegetarian play spoiler this season?

Will the world's biggest vegetarian play spoiler this season?

Runs Batted In (74-1st in NL): RBIs are another statistical category that Pujols has never led the league in due in large part to the Cardinals lineup(s) and the fact that he draws so many walks (24 intentional walks already); he has finished 2nd three times (2002, 05, 06). His 74 RBIs have him on pace for 157 total, yet he leads Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder by just one RBI. Besides Fielder, no one in the league is within 15 RBIs of Pujols, with Ibanez (59) and Howard (59) the closest behind. It will likely be a two-horse race all season long and could come down to which player has more chances with runners in scoring position. As mentioned before, Pujols hits in an average Cardinals’ lineup, typically manning the #3 spot behind leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker (.358 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.307 OBP). Fielder on the other hand hits in a solid Brewers’ lineup and is entrenched in the cleanup spot behind Craig Counsell (.368 OBP), JJ Hardy (.299 OBP) and Ryan “Brains &” Braun (.416 OBP). Neither hitter has great protection behind them in the order, leading to their inflated walk totals. This might be the most difficult leg of the Triple Crown for Pujols to capture but his chances have been bolstered thanks to the Redbirds addition of Derosa.

Odds Pujols leads league: 60%

Batting Average (.328-8th in NL): Despite the fact that he is currently behind 7 other players, Pujols will probably have the easiest time winning the batting average portion of the Triple Crown. Why? Well, for one thing Pujols’ career .334 average is the highest among all active players and he’s already captured a batting title (2003) and finished 2nd two other times. Additionally, despite the fact that he is hitting a robust .328 on the year, Pujols has suffered from bad luck so far. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .277 this season, which is 40 points lower than his career .317 BABIP meaning that Pujols should be due for an upswing in average soon. Most of the players ahead of him in batting average (Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Tejada, Cristian Guzman and Carlos Beltran) are hitting well above their career numbers, and are likely to regress in the coming months. Pujols’ primary challengers for the batting title are Mets 3B David Wright (.342) and Florida SS Hanley Ramirez (.333). While Wright has sacrified his power for contact this season (just 4 HRs), the results have paid off so far. However, a recent 0-11 slide has chopped 14 points off his average and he seems to be coming back down to earth after a torrid May and early June. Ramirez is no slouch either, a .311 career hitter who topped out at .332 in 2007. He has been hitting well since a slow start, but his .360 BABIP will be difficult to maintain throughout the course of the year.

The NL's last Triple Crown winner, Ducky Medwick.

The NL's last Triple Crown winner, Ducky Medwick.

Odds Pujols leads league: 90%

Pujols definitely has the career numbers, positive statistical trends and talent to put him on pace for the NL’s first Triple Crown in 72 years. He’s proved season after season that he is a special talent and is virtually peerless at the plate in baseball. However, there is a reason that no one has captured the NL’s Triple Crown since 1937–it’s not easy. It will be an uphill battle all season long for Pujols, with heated competition in all three categories, but if any player in the game today can do it, it’s Pujols. Because, if a machine can’t do it, who can?

Overall odds Pujols wins Triple Crown: 40.5%

Not Just For the Sad and Lonely: A Defense of Fantasy Baseball

Hong-Chih Kuo doesn't exist unless you play fantasy baseball.

Hong-Chih Kuo doesn't exist unless you play fantasy baseball.

Playing fantasy baseball is a lot like watching the English Patient. It’s long, tedious and in the end you really aren’t sure if it was worth all the trouble. It’s the overlooked little brother of fantasy football; kind of nerdy and viewed with all the same skepticism of Dungeons and Dragons(by the way Randy Johnson has a nice slider +5, but you have to equip him with the enchanted Hands of Tyman first). Sure there aren’t 20-sided dice, but fantasy baseball isn’t exactly something you want to bring up on a first date. The season drags on from March through September, or roughly the gestation period of an American Black Bear. Unlike football, where you have to check your roster about once a week, fantasy baseball requires that you look at your roster every day for seven months to avoid the embarrassment of leaving Ty Wigginton in your lineup even though every else in the league knew that he was out with a pulled hamstring (not something that is easily lived down). I mean you could go on a three-day vacation and by the time you come back, your whole season could be shot! Kaput! Gone in the blink of an eye.

The ultimate prize. Was it worth seven months of your life?

The ultimate prize. Was it worth seven months of your life?

Additionally, there are numerous other traps that first time fantasy baseball players can fall into. Wanting to get as many starts as possible, an owner may pick up pitchers every day and plug them into their rotation. This seems like a good idea until you realize that there is a maximum number of innings allotted to a team’s pitchers and once you cross this threshold you no longer accumulate stats. You then wrap your mind around the horrific truth that you have banked your playoff hopes on pitchers like Jeff Weaver and Livan Hernandez, the only ones available on the waiver wire, and burst into bitter tears. By gosh you could burn out your pitching staff on mediocre starts by July if you really worked at it, and where would that leave you? In a quite a pickle, that’s where. Also, a number of players that seem valuable in real life, like Derek Jeter or Bobby Abreu, aren’t nearly as much of an asset on your fantasy squad, and are overvalued year after year by new fantasy players (you get exactly 0 points for leadership or clutch hits). Stats like steals mean just as much as homeruns in most leagues, leaving baseball fans turned fantasy players wondering if Willy Taveras is really as valuable as Ryan Howard (not quite).

With all that said, why would anyone in their right mind want to commit to a season of fantasy baseball? Well, the reasons are as endless as the hairs on David Hasselhoff’s chest.

The Crown Prince of Fantasy Baseball

The Crown Prince of Fantasy Baseball

First and foremost, baseball has always been the most stat driven of all sports. Even most casual fans can identify the significance of such numbers as 61 (Roger Maris’ single season HR record), .406 (Ted Williams average–the last man to hit .400) or .304-56 HR-147 RBI (Ken Griffey Jr’s 1997 MVP season). Fantasy baseball gives fans a chance to see these numbers or records as they are actually happening; certainly any fantasy baseball owner won’t forget Lance “the Big Puma” Berkman setting a career high with 18 stolen bases last year because it may have helped them knock off a hated rival to win their league, but just about everyone else outside of Houston will. Fantasy baseball also allows fans to understand the importance of such complex statistics as WHIP (walks + hits/# of innings pitched, a great way to gauge the efficiency of a pitcher) or BABIP (batting average on balls in play, the league average is around .300). For example, a player with a low BABIP, say .280, is probably suffering from bad luck and is due for a breakout, which is something a casual fan will probably overlook. Following this principle, expect Evan Longoria’s average to improve this coming season.

Moreover, fantasy baseball allows you to discover players that normally go unheralded. For instance, Hanley Ramirez and Ian Kinsler are two of the top 10 players in fantasy baseball (thanks to their combination of speed, power and high average) but they normally get lost in the shuffle of higher paid players in large media markets. Think of Ramirez and Kinsler as the indie music of baseball, they’re so great because no one else knows about them (but thankfully, they don’t wear flannel, slackline or drink out of mason jars). Playing fantasy also allows you to discover the next crop of young players. Many owners will draft prospects who are in Triple-A at the beginning of the year and then salivate (like dogs after bacon) over their minor league stats until they are finally called up. Names like Max Scherzer, Travis Snider and Andrew McCutchen might not mean much to you unless you play fantasy baseball; it’s a great way to learn about the future all-stars of the game before anyone else does.

Did Pete Rose have it right all along?

Did Pete Rose have it right all along?

The MLB season is a long one; no one will contend that point. So why not add a little spice to a 162-game season by having a little something riding on each game? Of course Pete Rose thought the same thing and look where that got him, but I digress. No longer will a July series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres be as pointless as another installment of The Land Before Time series. Owners of Nate McClouth and Adrian Gonzalez will have no choice but to pay attention to the games and chart their players’ performances. It’s not quite turning water into wine, but the ability to turn something meaningless into something meaningful, now that’s fantasy baseball’s true gift to mankind.

So the next time your friend mentions an upcoming fantasy baseball draft,  don’t call him a pale worthless excuse for a human being (sticks and stones may break but bones, but words will hurt forever). Instead, ask him if you can join and tell him you know all about WHIP and BABIP. After all, you do get a shiny little trophy if you win; isn’t that worth seven months of your life?

Best site for fantasy baseball: http://sports.yahoo.com/fantasy