What Is Saunders’ Skill Set Anyway? (Hint: It’s Moving in the Right Direction) (3 of 3)

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In order to evaluate Michael Saunders’ potential upside, we need to decide which skill-set classification he fits into.  We have two choices.

  • Based on his career totals, he’s a “Third Tier” hitter who is relatively one-dimensional (power, but not huge power) and strikes out a lot;
  • Based on 2012-14 alone, he’s a “Second Tier” hitter with power but also more well-rounded success at consistently reaching base on batted balls, but still strikes out a lot.

If he’s the former, then his 2012-14 results (.743 OPS) would be about what we’d figure to be his career norm and his big but abbreviated 2014 (.791 OPS) would be on the upper side of expectations.

If he’s the latter, then his 2012-14 results are just a taste of future upside and 2014 would indicate it’s time to adjust expectations upward.

So what has Saunders successfully done differently … and will it continue?

First off, he dramatically increased line drives.

  • In 2009-11 his line-drive rate was an abysmal 15.7%.  The average for the period in which we have batted-ball stats (2002-14) for relatively successful MLB hitters is 19.3%.
  • Then in 2012 it went up to 20.2% and the last two seasons it’s been 22.0% each time.

So he went from well below average to above-average in LD%.

Second, he dramatically reduced pop-ups.  Pop-ups are pretty much automatic outs, of course.

  • In 2010, he had 34 line drives and 19 pop-ups in 206 batted balls.
  • In 2014, he had 39 line drives and 3 pop-ups in 176 batted balls.

In other words, it certainly appears that Saunders went from a guy with no clue (“rip it and hope for the best”) to a guy who has a pretty good sense of how to make solid contact.

He still doesn’t make contact often enough (22.4% strikeout rate is still his career low, and that’s not good for a guy who’s HR rate is not much above average), but when he does make contact, he now has a much better record of doing something positive with it.

And, the above being said (as to K% still being too high), it is still progress from the early horrific rates that hovered around 30%.

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So I think it is probably fair to put Saunders in our “Second Tier” given two strong seasons of line-drive and pop-up progress and the K-rate stabilizing.

If that’s so, then his .791 OPS in 2014 is not a fluke but well within expectations (.797 mean for Second Tier skill set; .745 to .849 range for “center of gravity” or the great majority of outcomes).

The higher batting average fueling his 2014 jump isn’t really fluke-y given the sustained line-drive success (despite the surface response of “oh that’s luck” when you see the .327 BABIP).  [The extremely low number of pop-ups is probably more random, though.]

But although I would put him on the “Second Tier” curve, I would expect him to usually be on the “downside” of the curve (that is, below .800 OPS most years) due to the high strikeout rate and his power being solid but not extraordinary.

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In other words, healthy Michael Saunders is a pretty valuable offensive player.

And his defense in a corner is quite valuable as well.

So was he too much to give up for a consistent, but middling, starter?

We’ll cover that in one final post.

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