Blue Jays outfielder believes tweak in swing has been at the root of ascension
By Alykhan Ravjiani
TORONTO -- Michael Saunders' offensive ascension has been a welcome addition to the Blue Jays' lineup, but the Victoria, B.C., native believes it was only a matter of time.
Saunders enters Thursday's off-day at or near the top of many traditional and advanced hitting categories. Toronto's everyday left fielder is first in slugging percentage among American League outfielders (.586), second in OPS (.967) and extra-base hits (35), third in batting average (.304) and fourth in home runs (15).
Saunders came to Toronto in a trade with Seattle in 2014, hitting .231 and averaging eight home runs a season, but the man nicknamed "The Condor" was always viewed as a projectable talent with a ceiling to do a lot more. The 29-year-old credits much of his turnaround and recent success to a three-year process, beginning with a mechanical change made late in the 2013 season.
"The month of September in 2013 I decided to make a minor adjustment to my swing," Saunders said. "My hands were always at the middle of my chest and I found that even when I was getting myself into good counts to hit -- the 2-0, 3-1 counts -- I felt like I couldn't consistently be on time with the fastball. I'd get a good pitch to hit and then I would foul it off."
Saunders spent the end of the season and the offseason diving into video, searching for an approach that would allow him to maximize his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. Much like Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, who utilize leg kicking mechanisms, Saunders worked towards an adjustment that would perfect the timing of his hand mechanism, while being able to extend through the zone and pick up pitches in hitter-friendly counts.
"I sat down with my hitting coach at the time [Mariners hitting coach Dave Hansen], looked at a lot of video and decided to move my hands further back," Saunders said. "At the same time, I was able to keep my same trigger and keep everything else the same. It was almost like I eliminated a step."
That change paid immediate dividends in 2014, with Saunders' numbers rising across the board before injuries to his shoulder and oblique cut his final season in Seattle short. Traded to Toronto that offseason, a knee injury limited Saunders to just nine games in 2015, but 2016 has been a different story.
Saunders has played 65 games so far this season, and has almost doubled his home run per fly ball ratio, seen a jump in his hard contact numbers, while his power numbers the opposite way are among the best in baseball.
While some of that can be attributed to the friendly surroundings of the American League East, the left-handed hitting Saunders has also shown improvement against same-handed pitching. The outfielder has hit six of his 21 career home runs against lefties this season and sports a 1.037 OPS against southpaws -- second to teammate Edwin Encarnacion in the American League (Min. 75 plate appearances).
"He drops his hand before he swings," Blue Jays hitting coach Brook Jacoby said. "What we've worked with him on is doing it early, getting it out the way to get his hands back up, and really, that's it. Getting that out of the way so he could get his hands back up has allowed him to take good hacks at the ball no matter who is on the mound. It's got to be done early and credit Michael for taking that movement and making it work for him."
"He's a big, strong kid with a lot of leverage and we've really seen him learn how to get the ball in the air. I know the swing itself was always a good swing and now he's made the timing work for him. We saw the effects of that for other guys on our team in the past and this is a good fit for Michael."
Now an eight-year Major League veteran, Saunders has come to better understand his own swing mechanics, becoming an important variant for an offense which has come to life in recent weeks. The Tallahassee Community College product is ingrained in his pregame routine, working in the cage on line drives up the middle and the opposite way. While Saunders is certainly cognizant of his career season to date, he views each day as a personal competition.
"I really feel as though you have to build good habits in this game, because there's so many repetitions that you've just got to try and stay consistent," Saunders said. "The goal is to hit low line drives or to make hard contact, but ultimately, my approach to hitting is working a good hitter's count, getting a good pitch to hit and taking a good swing at it. I feel like it's translating into the game."
Alykhan Ravjiani is a reporter for MLB.com based in Toronto. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.