When the Blue Jays acquired Michael Saunders, they got a player who could do a little bit of everything.
Along with the ever-marketable skill of being Canadian, the 28-year-old outfielder displays above-average power, solid defensive abilities (at least in the corners), and a good eye at the plate. When you add in a pinch of speed is easy to see why Alex Anthopoulos has described him as a five-tool player.
The term "five-tool player" brings to mind superstars when in fact Saunders is more like a league-average player, but he does have a balanced and intriguing skill set. One of his lesser-known skills is his ability to destroy mistake pitches.
Sticking Saunders with the label of "mistake hitter" is somewhat damning, but it's also fairly accurate. However, as a guy with a 109 wRC+ over the last three seasons it's clear that he doesn't exclusive hit "mistakes", he just happens to hit them particularly hard.
Before delving too far into the idea of hitting mistake pitches, it's important to lay down a working definition, and the best definition is usually the simplest. As a result, for the purposes of this post I will consider pitches throw in the centre of the strike zone, true meatballs, as mistakes. Sometimes pitches are thrown there intentionally-like in 3-0 counts-but more often than not pitchers avoid that area like the plague if they can possibly help it.
It's well-known that many home runs come on pitches that catch too much of the plate, but for Saunders meatballs really are his bread and butter. Disturbingly food-heavy metaphors aside, the Canadian outfielders has hit 51 home runs in the Major Leagues and the Baseball Savant chart below shows how they break down by pitch location:
It's hard to know exactly how to react to this picture. On one hand it is intuitive that a hitter would get a large percentage of his home runs on pitches right down the pipe. On the other, it seems unusual for one relatively small zone to account for so many of the outfielder's round trippers.
In order to provide some context I dug into Baseball Savant numbers and looked at the top home run hitters the Blue Jays have employed in the PITCHf/x era to see if they were as meatball-oriented.
|Player||Total Home Runs||"Meatball" Home Runs||Meatball Home Run Percentage|
The samples here are naturally too small to be predictive or even demonstrative of "true talent", but it is interesting how Saunders has gotten his home runs off "mistakes" at such a higher rate than anyone else.
It's easy to see this information as discouraging. If Saunders needs a steady helping of meatballs to be a power producer then he could struggle against decent pitching. There is some logic to that wayof thinking, but it likely overestimates the command of major league pitchers.
Earlier this year Jeff Sullivan did an excellent video-analysis series on pitchers and their command. It wasn't the kind of broad big-data study from which definitive conclusions can be drawn, it was a nice look under the hood. He found that while Greg Maddux was pretty damn good at hitting his spots, even a guy like Mariano Rivera is not automatic and you can pretty much forget about it with Carlos Marmol.
Does Saunders rely more on pitchers making mistakes than the next guy? I'm not sure we know enough to know that, but it's possible. Even if it is the case. Pitchers miss all the time. Probably more than we think.
For example, Brett Cecil is a pretty good pitcher. He might be the Blue Jays next closer. This the pitch location chart for his career:
That's a lot of pitches in the heart of the plate. Now, did I handpick Cecil because of previous work I've done on the topic of meatballs? You bet. Is that fair? Absolutely not. This is an extreme example. However, the point holds that pitches down the pipe aren't some incredibly rare phenomenon.
Perhaps it's more important what Saunders does with mistakes than whether he needs them to survive. Mistakes are going to happen and when they do, the Jays left fielder will be there to do this...