Saturday, April 28, 2012

What the heck, Joe Saunders?

Joe Saunders of the Arizona Diamondbacks has made four starts. His ERA in those four starts is 0.90. What the heck is wrong with this picture? His performance thus far has earned him a 0.7 fWAR in thirty innings when he only earned 1.0 fWAR in 212 innings last season. Again, what is going on here? He has given up only nineteen hits in his thirty innings of work and has a WHIP of 0.87. Are you serious!? Joe Saunders!?

There are some indications that Joe Saunders has remade himself as a pitcher. When he pitched for the Angels, Saunders featured a four-seam fastball, a pitch he threw sixty percent of the time. He now throws the two-seam fastball--a pitch he never had with the Angels--47 percent of the time and is only throwing his four-seamer 21 percent of the time. As a result, his ground balls have risen sharply.

For most of his career, batters against Saunders have hit about 45 percent ground balls and about 35 percent fly balls. Some years were just over or under those basic figures, but he was pretty consistently in those ranges. This year, his ground ball rate has risen to 54.9 percent and his fly ball rate is down to 28 percent. This is really important because Joe Saunders always gave up a lot of homers. His career homer rate of 1.1 per nine innings was not good. This year it sits at 0.30.

So, yes, Joe Saunders is a different kind of pitcher than he was for the Angels. But there are some red flags here. First, his strand rate of 89.8 is not sustainable. That will fall to the norm of in the mid to high 70's in percentage. Secondly, his BABIP against is only .214. His career BABIP is .287 or just below league average. The ground balls will help his BABIP but it hardly seems likely for him to continue that low all season.

Saunders' FIP of 2.96 is excellent, but is a full two runs higher than his actual ERA. His SIERA is even higher at 3.74. So, no, Joe Saunders will not be THIS good all season. But perhaps his four starts do indicate a different Joe Saunders than the one we've seen in the past. No longer are his starts a cringe-worthy occasion. Now, when Saunders' rotation spot comes up, this Arizona Diamondbacks have a good chance to win the game.

Baseball never ceases to surprise us.

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