The Blue Jays’ left-fielder is enjoying a career year after recovering from a 2015 knee injury
The Toronto Blue Jays bet on Michael Saunders this offseason. Sure, a talented group of outfielders were added through trade and waivers to the upper-minors, but with Dalton Pompey yet to establish himself as a major league starter, Saunders was the safe bet in left field, (very) relatively speaking.
Saunders’ performance against left-handed pitching has been especially impressive. Though his splits have never had as drastic gap, there was enough room to consider loosely platooning him with a right-handed bat if possible.
Through 56 plate appearances against lefties entering play on Friday night, Saunders owned a slash line of .294 / .357 / .647 (OPS of 1.004) with five home runs. That’s well above his career batting average of .231 and OPS of .670 against pitchers of the same hand.
Of course, these are due to regress towards the norm, but dismissing the numbers entirely is a mistake. August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs has noted that Saunders is keeping his hands much quieter with an adjusted placement. He also highlights a slightly higher leg kick from Saunders, who is standing a “step or two” further back from the plate.
This isn’t to say that Saunders has been reborn as a perennial six-win player, but there’s more to his lefty-on-lefty improvements than luck and chance.
The power jump against left-handers is especially intriguing because, even if his average and on-base tools regress back towards career averages, maintaining his pop in those situations keeps him a very valuable everyday player. As Fagerstrom notes, Saunders has produced an abnormal level of home runs of the following flavour: “lefty-on-lefty, way inside, breaking pitch rendering it even more inside, pulled”.
Eleven home runs have been hit that way in 2016, and three belong to Saunders.
A BABIP of .385 is also due to regress, but Saunders has taken steps forward in other areas. He’s hitting line drives at a rate above his career average and grounding out at a rate below. His defence hasn’t been excellent, with a UZR/150 of -8.3 over his first 364.2 innings in left, but that was never his projected source of value.
We recently explored the possibility of the Blue Jays discussing an extension with Saunders. The 29-year-old is currently earning $2.9 million in the final year of his arbitration.