Raising Questions

What the heck happened with Michael Saunders?

Photo by Keith Allison

Let’s start at the beginning. It was this past offseason when the Phillies decided that they needed to add a bat to the lineup. They were caught between a rock and a hard place because they didn’t want to take on any long-term payroll in the form of a multi-year contract and they also desperately needed a bat with at least a little bit of power, preferably left handed. They needed protection for Maikel Franco, someone who would force pitchers to throw him fastball strikes because they didn’t want to walk him and have the next guy blast a two-run shot. They needed someone to help lead this group of young players from “maybe he could be something” to “that guy can play.”

They thought Michael Saunders would be that guy. He wasn’t. He wasn’t even close to that guy. Pitchers feared Saunders like grown men fear soda cans; sure, they could erupt but the odds were they wouldn’t and instead they would just be the refreshing relief they needed.

Saunders was a career .235 hitter before joining the Phils. That’s what they were signing. And this wasn’t in some small sample size either. That .235 batting average represents eight seasons, 702 games and over 2500 plate appearances. He had 75 career home runs at that point for an average of one home run per 33.5 plate appearances.

In addition to not hitting for either average or power he showed no aptitude for getting on base, exemplified by a career on-base-percentage of .309.

And just to round out his profile, he wasn’t a defensive maven either. He put up negative replacement numbers for his defense over those eight seasons culminating in a -3.4 defensive bWAR.

Perhaps General Manager Matt Klentak was swayed by recency bias, where the most recent occurrence of something is what you expect going forward. Saunders had indeed just come off his most successful season as a major leaguer while playing with the Blue Jays in 2016. He was an all-star who hit .253/.338/.378 in 2016, but a majority of that was achieved through an absolutely stellar first half. Maybe that’s what Klentak thought he was buying.

But alas, the true Saunders emerged and the $9 million dollars that the Phillies had agreed to pay him became a complete waste. That $9 million, by the way, was an over 200 percent raise for Saunders from his previous year, when he earned $2.9 million.

So when asked “what happened” with regards to the Saunders situation in Philadelphia, the only thing you can really say is “nothing. He is who he is, who he’s pretty much always been. And that’s what we got.”

For their part, the Phillies may have been better served by just committing the dollars and the time to a player like Jose Bautista or Dexter Fowler. Those two players have proven to be some of the best in baseball in an area the Phillies are desperately trying to improve in: plate discipline. While neither is having a stellar year on their own, the Phillies sure could use their leadership. It would have been a slight departure from their plan, but certainly the plan wasn’t to waste $9 million on two months of a player.

As it is Saunders is now gone (back in Toronto’s system, by the way). The Phillies will move forward and have hinted at the possibility of adding a long-term piece at the deadline with the caveat that it’s the “right piece.” That piece may help Franco and Co. regain some of that potential and get this team back on track. Let’s just hope they use better judgement than they did when bringing in Saunders.

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