Fantasy BaseballJosh Kay

The Joe Saunders Signing and What it Means for Fantasy Owners

Photo by: Keith Allison

The Seattle Mariners were in the news twice this past week with two large figure signings of starting pitchers.

Felix Hernandez: Signed a seven year- $175 million dollar contract (still pending) which would make him the highest paid pitcher in baseball. This would obviously put an abrupt end to all of the Felix Hernandez trade talks and assures Seattle fans that the Mariners brass are committed to keeping them competitive for years to come.

Joe Saunders: Remember the previous sentence? Well the signing of Joe Saunders to a one-year $7-million contract effectively means that the Mariners brass not only are committed to keeping them competitive, but committed to overpaying for mediocre starting pitchers as well. They now boast the highest paid pitcher in baseball and the most overpaid pitcher in baseball. Or do they?

Since we already know about Felix, let’s talk about Saunders. Saunders is a very peculiar case because at age 32 he decided to finally have his breakout season. Breakout in this case, refers to his surprisingly impressive peripherals (for his standards). But how good were they really? Saunders tallied his best K/9 ratio (5.77/9) since 2007 (5.79/9). Most impressively, however, was his decrease in walks (only 2.0/9 IP last season) as he finally increased his K/BB ratio to nearly 3.0 Saunders had never in his career boosted a K/BB ratio close to 3, in fact, he hasn’t reached a 2.0 K/BB since 2008! So how did he do it? Well, he started by throwing fewer first pitches for strikes. Wait, WHAT!? That’s right; his “great peripherals” came when he started the count 1-0 more times than he has since his rookie year. In fact, his first pitch strike percentage was 4% lower than it was the last two years. His career average is 58.8%, last year it was 56.8%. Is regression coming hard?

Since generating a much lower walk rate and a much higher strikeout rate is never boosted by starting more counts 1-0, let’s look at some other reasons, since you know, momma always said if you can’t say anything nice….

According to Brooks Baseball, Saunders changed his pitch mix drastically in 2012, perhaps in a very positive manner. Over the course of his career, Saunders’ pitch mix looks like this:

Pitch

Fastball

Sinker

Slider

Curveball

Changeup

Percentage

29%

36%

3%

13%

18%

 

2012 looked like this:

Pitch

Fastball

Sinker

Curveball

Changeup

Percentage

24%

47%

15%

14%

 

At age 32, knowing his pitching profile, his build and past history, we can easily assume that his worst pitch is his “blazing” fastball at 89 mph. Naturally, in his best season (again we will continue to use “best season” because of his peripherals, since that’s all we really care about) he threw his fastball only 24% of the time.

Switching gears quickly, it’s important to note that Saunders had a masterful season against lefties specifically (the best of his career): 7.60 K/9, 0.80 BB/9, and ZERO home runs allowed.

Now, having said that, Saunders, recognizing his deficiencies, threw his fastball against lefties only 13% of the time! Remember that 1-0 count stat from earlier? Think it has something to do with his 24% first pitch fastball percentage against lefties? We do. It’s his worst pitch.

But what is Saunders’ best pitch? Easy, the curveball. Let us explain; 2011 was the year he recorded the worst strikeout rate of his career, 4.80/9 IP (ignore the luck factors that allowed Saunders to finish with a mid 3’s ERA). In 2011, Saunders, for the first time in his career, decided to throw more sliders. He ramped sliders thrown to 9% and with that came a dip in his curveball usage – down to 8%. In the best month of his 2012 season (July), Saunders recorded a 7.96 K/9 and a 2.42 BB/9. That month of July resulted in the single best xFIP for any one month sample in Saunders’ career.

What was so drastically different in July? Remember his best and worst pitch? He threw the curveball 18% of the time, and his fastball 23% of the time. Furthermore, his Whiff/Swing Rate (number of whiffs divided by number of swings) on his curveball is 28.61% over the course of his career. In July, that number was an astounding 57.69%. What’s more? In 2012, his curveball Whiff/Swing was 39% over the entire season!

So you, the intelligent reader, with your interest levels perked, finally say, ok, so his curveball is his best pitch, what’s the point? Great question, glad you asked! Having established that his curveball is his best pitch, we can now look and see if he got lucky last season, just had a good year, or if he really has improved his curveball command – the latter of which would make him a much better pitcher than he has in the past.

Saunders’ career stat-line for his curveball is as follows:

Usage

Balls

Called Strikes

Swings

Whiffs

Whiff/Swing

HR/(FB+LD)

13%

47.02%

21.30%

31.20%

8.93%

28.61%

7.30%

 

2012:

Usage

Balls

Called Strikes

Swings

Whiffs

Whiff/Swing

HR/(FB+LD)

15%

45.15%

20.64%

33.92%

13.44%

39.61%

3.10%

 

He generated more swings and more misses and at the same time decreased the number of times he’s thrown it for a ball. That’s impressive. Improved command like that on his curve combined with him throwing his fastball less and SAFECO Field’s tendency to yield fewer hits and homers should yield an ERA around 3.55-3.60.

When the Mariners (usually stingy with money) worked him out they most definitely looked for the improved curveball command before signing him to what seems like a preposterous $7-million deal. Don’t blame us when Saunders has a career season in 2013 and he’s not on your fantasy team.

Written by Josh Kay exclusively for TheFantasyFix.com.  Follow Josh on Twitter @JoshKay_Fantasy.

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