The numbers suggest Michael Saunders is on the brink of something really good with the Mariners: An on-base percentage far higher than anything he has seen; the six steals in six attempts; the four homers despite having been sidelined for 19 days.
“By no means have I made it,” he insists. “I’m not content. You can be comfortable after you retire, but while you’re playing, someone is always looking for your job.”
Signs are increasingly evident, however, that they’re going to have to look elsewhere, as Saunders is emerging as one of the bright young (26) pieces in the Mariners’ climb back to respectability.
The April trip to the disabled list with a shoulder injury seemingly hasn’t waylaid his development. He’s hitting .286 since coming off it, exactly the number when he ran into the right-field wall at Safeco Field on April 10.
He’s a guy brimming with anticipation about what’s possible, yet taking to heart what fellow Canadian Joey Votto, the Reds first baseman, told him 14 months ago: “Just be the best version of you that you can be. If you’re not a 30-homer guy, don’t try to be a 30-homer guy. Be the best Michael Saunders you can be.”
Months before that, Saunders had turned to Mike Bard, a Denver-area hitting instructor and the brother of ex-M’s backup catcher Josh Bard.
“You can get together with 10 different coaches, but one guy says it a little differently, and it clicks,” Saunders says.
No doubt it helped that when Saunders approached Bard, he was essentially clueless at the plate.
“Here he is, 6-5 and 215 pounds, he can run and throw,” says Mariners coach Mike Brumley, recalling Saunders as a prospect. “It looked like what you wanted it to look like. All of a sudden, pressure builds on everybody to have this guy perform, whether you’re on the player-development side, or the front office, pushing for all these things.
“I think that whole experience really brought him to hit bottom as far as fighting the offensive side of it.”
A product of Victoria, B.C., Saunders had hit well, but not sensationally, in the minors, and then found the big-league level overwhelming. His strikeout rate was high, and by his third part-time season in Seattle in 2011, he was hitting a mere .149 in 161 at-bats, which earned him the majority of the season in Tacoma.
He was lost, unable to translate his lanky body type to his advantage.
“Desperation,” he says, describing what he felt when he turned to Bard.
“More than anything, I felt my window was closing – not necessarily in baseball, but certainly with the Seattle Mariners. I was starting to wonder if I was a big-league player.”
Saunders has worked with Bard now for two offseasons and talks with him during the season. The methods include use of restrictive bands and swinging a 52-ounce bat, designed in Saunders’ case to keep his swing in check.
“Being a long-levered, tall guy, I get natural leverage,” Saunders says.
“But with that is a tendency to get ‘long.’ I’ve got to find ways to stay compact.”
Bard’s influence with Saunders has extended to Saunders generating “a routine I could do every day, as soon as I get to the park.”
There, he often gets something to tuck away from Brumley, the Mariners’ first base, baserunning and outfield coach. It was Brumley who told Saunders in spring 2012, “If we can get you to a .330 on-base percentage, you’re going to steal a lot of bases.”
Saunders had never brushed the .300 OBP mark with the big club. Even as he began to break out last year with 19 homers and 57 RBIs, Saunders’ on-base percentage was only .306.
Still, he stole 21 bases in 2012, and says, “Last year was kind of a foundation for me, making me realize I belong and can play at the big-league level.”
Saunders received more reinforcement in March, when, playing for his homeland, he went 8 for 11 and was named MVP of the U.S.-Canada-Italy-Mexico pool in the World Baseball Classic.
His .286 average is accompanied by an OBP of .366, numbers the Mariners can surely work with. He’s a naturally aggressive hitter, but also has six walks in May.
It was Brumley who helped introduce the pronounced starting-block stance toward second base that Saunders takes when he’s on first, as opposed to the traditional neutral kind. Brumley and Ron Roenicke promoted the idea when they were coaches in the Angels organization a decade ago.
“We kind of applied the principles of single-mindedness,” Brumley says.
“As a coach, I always believed the body is going to follow its strongest thought. We took away the thought of going back to first and put all the emphasis on going to second.”
Saunders knows he has a big upside, but experience tells him the game is anything but easy. He can laugh heartily at Brumley’s recollection of him as a base-stealer a few years ago, knowing that was a different Michael Saunders.
“To be honest,” Brumley said, dead serious, “he wasn’t getting to first enough to work on it.”