When the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Michael Saunders from the Seattle Mariners, I was surprised at how little focus was given to his athleticism. The headlines were dominated by the Toronto Blue Jays adding a Canadian to replace Melky Cabrera, one who has been injury-prone, but possesses talent. One of his talents that often goes overlooked, however, is his speed.
Appearing on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid with Ben Ennis yesterday, Saunders was asked about one of his statistical outliers: a season of 21 stolen bases in 2012. Saunders told Ennis that throughout 2012 and 2013, he was given the green light to run by the Mariners’ coaching staff, and he was successful on 34 of 43 attempts over that span.
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Saunders had his green light taken away last season when Eric Wedge was replaced by Lloyd McClendon. Saunders told Ennis that “the new coaching staff, they took the green light away from me. You know, to be honest, it was something I was not very happy with.” Instead, Saunders claims that he was limited to running only occasionally after several pitches, or in hit-and-run situations.
Coming into Toronto, Saunders expressed optimism regarding his use on the base paths, saying that “Gibby and Alex have given me the freedom to go out and play my game and go have some fun.” He stopped short of saying that he has been given the green light already, but did circle back to make the point that he was “looking forward to” running again.
This could be a helpful dynamic to add to a batting order that may struggle to produce in the 7-9 spots. Working on the assumption that Saunders will slide into the 7-hole to begin the season ahead of Dalton Pompey at 8 and the 2nd baseman at 9, a threat of him stealing could have a trickle-down effect. Particularly, Dalton Pompey could benefit from seeing a few more fastballs in his rookie season.
If Saunders does regain his status as a moderate base-stealing threat (and let’s remember that we’re working with a strong if, here), it also gives the Blue Jays increased flexibility at the top of their lineup. While Jose Reyes and Russell Martin are the likely the Blue Jays’ 1-2 entering spring training, the likelihood of games missed due to injury and rest for the two presents the need for suitable replacements.
In January, Shaun Doyle presented the idea of Pompey seeing time in the 2-hole, which would offer him quality pitches to hit with Jose Bautista on deck, and allow him to use his own elite speed on the bases. Pompey spent much of his MiLB career batting in the top two spots, and that is where I see him projecting best long-term. If Michael Saunders can piece together the strong offensive season that many are predicting, however, his name would also slot in nicely when needed.
Stealing bases is a statistic measured by “bases stolen”, but it should be equally measured by “times caught stealing”. When Saunders nabbed 21 bags in 2012 and was caught just 4 times, he was stealing bases at an 84% clip. On his career, though, Saunders has a 73% success rate. If he can keep this number high, then run, Michael, run. In a lineup with holes, someone, or something, needs to step up. In 2015, it could be Michael Saunders.