There’s two sides to every story, just like there has been two sides to Michael Saunders’ 2016 campaign. A season that began to take shape as a career season for the 29-year old outfielder has quickly turned into an impending disaster.
Going into the All Star Game, Saunders’ was looked at as a potential Comeback Player of the Year, with 15 Home Runs and a .298 batting average. While the rest of the Blue Jays offense slowly rose to form, Saunders’ offensive output remained consistent and above most of his team mates. In the midst of a contract season, many began to wonder not how much it would take to keep Encarnacion or Bautista but instead if the Blue Jays could manage to hold on to Saunders. That question has now changed to if Michael Saunders is worth extending a qualifying offer to. While Saunders does have an overall slash line of .266/.349/.500 with an OPS of .849, this really does not tell the whole story of how Saunders has declined since the All Star Break.
It would be much easier to just say Michael Saunders has been hot garbage since the All Star Break, but that would be too easy and without context. To put these numbers in perspective, Saunders’ .177 batting average in the 2nd half is the worst in the AL and his 72 weighted runs created is 8th worst in the AL, a far cry from the 146 runs created in the first half which was good for 7th best in the AL. Saunders’ strikeout rate is also good for 4th worst in the AL since the ASB and his .OPS drop of over .270 points is alarming to say the least. The lone positive remains that Saunders’ has maintained his impressive walk rate as seen when observing the differences between his on base percentage and batting average.
Diving closer into these numbers shows an even more worrisome picture, as Saunders’ line drive rate has plummeted from 25.2% to 18.9% and his hard hits percentage has also fell off a cliff from 39.5% to 29.3%. A look below shows how Saunders’ approach of using all fields has disappeared since the ASB.
A look at the graphs above shows two concluding points about the contrast in Saunders’ play from the 1st half to the 2nd half. Firstly, Saunders’ has been unable to spread the ball to all fields like he showcased in the first half and secondly, Saunders has been unable to get his pulled hits in the air. Take a look at right field in the first graph and then take a look at right field in the second half, it is almost as if Saunders has forgotten that he is allowed to put the ball in the air to right field. A hypothesis that Saunders is late on pitches inside could be a fair assessment. A closer look at Saunders’ heat map post ASB should be able to tell if this is a correct assessment.
Saunders’s heat map shows that Saunders is struggling and late on pitches that the All Star Outfielder should be squaring up. A batting average under the Mendoza line for 5/9 of the strike zone is certainly not an all-star caliber plate approach. For comparison, here is Saunders’ heat map from the 1st half.
Saunders’ pre ASB heat map confirms that something has gone terribly wrong as a player capable of putting anything thrown in the strike zone in play has somehow regressed to a player batting .125 on meatballs dead center.
Any guess is appropriate for how Saunders has declined so steeply and rapidly, perhaps a tinker with his plate mechanics are in need, or mental fatigue from the anguish of a contract year or an underlying injury such as the hamstring injury that has kept Saunders out briefly this week is the culprit. With a crucial stretch coming up against the AL East against division rivals Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox approaching, the Blue Jays would certainly welcome a return of the old Michael Saunders.