Is Michael Saunders deserving of an extension?


When news broke in early December that outfielder Michael Saunders had been acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for left-handed pitcher J.A. Happ, I found myself rather ecstatic about the move.

For many this signified a sad end of the road for Melky Cabrera, who has since moved on to the Chicago White Sox. The Melk Man and his sexy .300 batting average will certainly be missed but for me this marked a potential upgrade for the Blue Jays, and not because I’m blinded by the reflection of Saunders’ passport or awesome first name.

Unfocused lede aside, I won’t be delving into a comparison of the two players, which I’m sure has already been done by now and would also be about a month too late. What is of a more timely matter is that Saunders, 28, will file for arbitration today. He’s projected to make $2.9 million next year per MLBTR but rather than settling on a traditional one-year deal prior to an actual arbitration hearing, Saunders could be an interesting extension candidate for the Jays going forward.

The timing for a Saunders’ extension may seem a bit odd. He’s won’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season and has yet to play a game for the boys in blue. Other obvious caveats like his health, which might not bode well on the turf, and the lack of an above average resume also apply. I’d be fairly surprised if an extension for Saunders actually happens or is even a good idea for those reasons but I can’t help but feel we’ve yet to see the best of the Condor.

During an interview with Tim and Sid of Sportsnet The FAN 590 following the trade in December, Saunders said something that kind of sounds like athlete-speak but has for some reason stuck with me through this offseason. He says as follows (3:17 mark), emphasis is mine:

"You know, it’s taken me awhile but I’ve started to understand the kind of player that I am and I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to over-perform, I’m going to do the best job that I can."

I’ve started to understand the kind of player that I am.

For context, he was answering a question about having to replace Melky in left and if he felt any pressure taking over. However somewhat hidden among those words appears to be an Easter egg about his game.

Saunders has good speed, leather and range as a corner outfielder and will undoubtedly be an upgrade defensively for the Blue Jays in left field next season. But there is also something to like about the way his approach has developed at the plate.

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At first blush, there seems to be nothing to write home about with Saunders’ plate discipline numbers. He walked at an above average rate (9.9% vs. average of 7.6%) in 2014 but also struck out slightly more often than average (22.4% vs. 20.4%). However once you scroll slightly down his FanGraphs player page and the change in Saunders’ game becomes apparent.

Let’s look specifically at his swing rates for a moment. Saunders chased pitches outside of the zone only 22% of the time last season, which was the 14th best rate in the league and nearly two standard deviations better than the league average of 31%. It was a similar story for the lefty in 2013 as he chased only 23.2% of the time (and walked 11.5%). Not chasing pitches out of the zone seems to be a repeatable skill for Saunders.

Many players are able to prop up (or down, I guess) their chase rate by simply not swinging. For example, Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals had the league’s lowest chase rate at 19.4%. However Carpenter also only swung at 49.4% of pitches in the zone during 2014, which was also lowest rate in major league baseball.

Saunders on the other hand swung at a roughly league average rate of pitches in the zone, which is a testament to his keen eye at the plate. It makes sense intuitively – not swinging at pitches outside of the zone (balls) while also swinging at pitches inside of the zone (strikes) seems like a pretty good recipe for success.

Swing rates aren’t everything however – contact also matters. And contact is what Michael Saunders made more of in 2014. To a degree, he struggled to put the barrel on the ball his first few seasons in the Bigs and consistently posted contact rates 5-9% below league average.

Part of the problem was mitigated with his improved plate discipline – his contact rate on pitches out of the zone has been historically poor and cutting those swings and misses out of the equation helped his contact rate become nearly league average last season. He also made more contact on pitches in the zone than at any other point in his career. Watching a bit of video, his swing seems slightly shorter in 2014 compared to 2013 but I haven’t watched enough to confidently say this is the case. Regardless, he made more, and evidently better, contact in 2014 than in past years.

Next: Is now the time to lock-up Brett Cecil with an extension?

Considering these impressive plate discipline numbers, it shouldn’t be surprising that Saunders posted a batting line that was 26% above league average last season (126 wRC+) in 78 games for the Mariners. He was possibly a bit lucky on balls in play last season with a .327 BABIP but a tidy batted ball profile, highlighted by a very low infield fly rate and above average line drive rate, may taper that regression. And despite concerns he might be more of a platoon bat, he posted a league average batting line against same-sided pitching last season (although it was in only 73 PAs and propped up by a .372 BABIP).

So what type of player is Michael Saunders? He’s a player who will take a walk and not swing at bad pitches out of the zone. He’s a player who has cut down the swing and miss in his game. He’s a player who will punish right-handed pitchers when they make a mistake. I don’t know about you but I kind of like that player.

Back to the question at hand though – should the Toronto Blue Jays offer an extension to Michael Saunders? I doubt they will and there’s a very good chance that ends up being the right call. Saunders likely won’t command a tonne through his arbitration years based on the traditional batting average, home run and RBI formula.

However if he manages to stay healthy his traditional numbers could see a boon playing within the confines of the Rogers Centre, which could put a wrench in the cheap arbitration plan and make an extension all but unattainable if he goes off. I’m sure the Jays would gladly take that theorized production and deal with the consequences of it later but if a reasonable extension can be had now it might end up for both parties as a risk worth taking.