Michael Saunders: Buy or Sell
Only one team had a less productive outfield than the Mariners in 2014. With 31 combined home runs and a .242 batting average, Seattle finished in the bottom five of MLB in both areas. No one had envisioned this out of the Mariners several years ago as Baseball America once ranked Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders as top-30 prospects in all of baseball. Both players showed signs of life in 2014. Can Saunders remain healthy and build on his .273/.341/.450 triple slash line?
Saunders has been a below average hitter for his career, although injuries have played their part. His trademark is a solid, but unspectacular power/walks profile. Recently, rumors had the Mariners looking to deal the soon-to-be 28-year-old outfielder. Will the change of scenery lead to a breakout?
Saunders is currently into his prime years. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, the left-handed hitter has a bigger body and the former top flight athlete is losing speed. Back, shoulder, and oblique injuries can have a cumulative effect over time and can cause a rapid decline. Expect the injuries to take their tool as he moves into post prime years.
The former top-100 prospect’s batting average has always been low, but it’s moving in the right direction. In 78 games last season, he batted a solid .273. This is more of a sign of things to come, as opposed to an outlier. Using BABIP to examine his batting average, Saunders normalized BABIP reveals a .291 over his career but it currently sits at an abysmal .231.
His Batted Ball Expected Batting Average (BBEBA) which takes into account batted ball statistics including line drives, ground balls and fly balls have him batting in the .290’s. High infield fly rates in 2009 and 2010 aside, Saunders has improved his contact throughout his career and will continue to maintain those percentages. His platoon splits are worrisome, but have improved overall. In the right situation, 600 plate appearances are possible.
Power has always been Saunders’ most bantered about tool. 20-30 home runs were expected through his prime and his season high is 19 back in 2012. Current fly ball rates indicate he should average 19-22 home runs per season.
Seattle’s home park is considered one of the toughest to generate power in and most every Mariners hitter suffers diminished home run totals. Even Robinson Cano experienced a dip in power production after receiving one of the largest free agent contracts in MLB history. Teams looking to acquire Saunders hope to tap into some added home run power even though he’s been a better hitter at home than on the road.
Saunders’ biggest flaw at the plate has been strikeouts. It was difficult to understand what could be the source of his high rates as the left-handed hitter consistently makes contact on pitches in the zone. Those z-contact% numbers have him striking out at only about 16-18% of the time whereas career rates are closer to 25%. Those whiffs stem from a tendency to be too patient, swinging 4% less than the Major League average while taking pitches in the zone at 3% above the Major League average. On a positive note, these areas have improved and his overall strikeout rate has dropped.
Is It Too Late For A Michael Saunders Breakout?
Four years ago, Saunders was one of the top prospects in the game. Today, baseball followers question if he’s a big league regular or less. A more hitter friendly than Safeco which will help his fly ball rate generate more home runs. If his speed can return to double digit range, he becomes infinitely more valuable to fantasy baseball owners. Michael Saunders is a classic change of scenery case who still has breakout ability left. A .290 average with 20 home runs and 10 stolen bases is a possibility and he’s a definite late round flyer in 5×5 formats. In dynasty leagues, add him on the cheap and take advantage of multiple prime years as an excellent fourth outfielder.
12 Nov 2014 / Edward Sutelan /
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