Joe Saunders of the Arizona Diamondbacks throws a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning of Game Four of the National League Divison Series at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Joe Saunders remains unemployed after being non-tendered, but whoever signs him will enjoy this mystery pitcher.
The non-tendering of Joe Saunders was some of this offseason's least-surprising news. Maybe it doesn't happen even 10 years ago, but in today's world, with the access to advanced statistics and theories about market efficiency we have, it was basically inevitable.
Being non-tendered doesn't make Saunders a bad pitcher, though. Between that and the subsequent lack of job offers from other teams, about all non-tendered means is that Saunders isn't worth the substantial salary of $8-9 million that he was in line for via arbitration. Nor is he worth the three years and $27 million his agent was looking for. You could say that about plenty of pitchers, though, many of whom are worse than Saunders.
Saunders is worth roughly what the Diamondbacks offered him before they non-tendered him. The two-year, $12 million offer that Saunders' camp rejected is in line with his past performance and what can be expected of him in the future. He's not the sexiest option out there, but he seems to get the job done enough to justify his rotation spot. With the value of a win on free agency something around $5 million, $6 million a year for Saunders -- who has averaged just over two wins above replacement a year since becoming a full-time starter in 2008 -- is a good deal for both sides. Saunders might be realizing this soon, if he hasn't already, given it's nearly mid-January, and he remains unemployed.
Whoever ends up getting Saunders -- assuming they get him on a D'backs-type deal, and not the one his agent wants -- will be pleased with their new pitcher. It's easy to rag on Saunders for being overrated, or as being the product of an undeserved win percentage thanks to his role on quality teams. Doing so misses out on what it is Saunders is capable of, though, and that's throw a whole lot of innings that, while not great, are good enough.
We achieved by maintaining major league quality with a 2008 All-Star in Joe Saunders and a guy who quite frankly has been one of the winners in Major League Baseball... He's won 63 percent of his games since coming to the major leagues, pitched in the postseason on two different occasions.
If Dipoto had dealt for Saunders entirely because of his winning percentage, that would be one thing. But lost in this quote is that Saunders gave them "major league quality" out of Haren's replacement in the rotation. The follow-up sentence from DiPoto is the real money quote from this, anyway:, despite its being relatively ignored:
He's a quality, durable, steady major league starter. We feel like this club needs that
Saunders has averaged exactly 200 innings a year since 2008, the year he became a full-time starter. At his worst, he has been a little below-average in terms of ERA, and in his better years, he has been a huge boost to his team. He's basically average, in terms of both wins above replacement and ERA, over the last four years. That has value, and Dipoto isn't the only talent evaluator who thinks so, as a conversation with an MLB scout shows:
He hides the ball in his delivery, he competes, and his stuff isnt terrible -- it's just not sensational. He's a solid pitcher who doesn't have anything to carry him in terms of stuff once his luck runs out. He's a nice guy to help fill out a staff, but not a world-beater. If I'm starting a playoff game, I want better, but he helps you get there.
Major League Baseball likes Saunders more than the Internet, that's for sure. But why? What is it about Saunders that allows him to succeed, despite not having "sensational" stuff or the ability to strike out hitters?
Saunders is something of a Mark Buehrle lite. The "lite" is why Saunders will likely sign a one- or two-year deal for small money this off-season, while Buehrle cashes enormous Miami checks, but 75 percent of Mark Buehrle is still useful.
Buehrle and Saunders both work fast -- Buehrle faster than anyone, and Saunders faster than average. Mike Fast has done research that shows working fast might improve the defense behind a pitcher, and while the exact effect isn't measured as of yet, there might be something there that both Buehrle and Saunders have utilized. This is evident in Saunders' double-play rates. R.J. Anderson noticed in September that Saunders has induced 43 more double plays than expected since 2008, 13 more than second-place Ricky Romero. Opportunities are taken into account, so it's not just more chances that fuels Saunders double plays.
An extra half-dozen double plays a year relative to average is worth a few tenths of a run of ERA, and every little bit counts when you're Joe Saunders. Who, by the way, has outperformed his FIP by 0.39 runs over his nearly 1,000 career innings, at least in part because of those double plays. Once upon a time, Buehrle was underrated, too, since no one could figure out why he was successful in a post-DIPS world -- just because we haven't pinpointed Saunders' value with FIP doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Buehrle and Saunders have similar repertoires as well: they throw the same pitches (fastball, sinker, change-up, curveball), but with Buehrle featuring a cutter and Saunders a slider. A cutter and slider are very similar pitches, so even that's close. The main difference is that Saunders throws harder (around 90 mph to Buehrle's 85) while Buehrle has better control, and is an excellent nibbler.
Buehrle uses all of his pitches against both lefties and righties, while Saunders has a more direct plan depending on handedness, but the key in terms of pitch placement for both is to force hitters to make contact on offerings they can't do a whole lot with, or that they'll hit grounders on. This is along the same lines as Jon Garland, too, except Garland is a right-hander. Saunders doesn't induce tons of grounders, but he's more groundball than flyball-oriented, and as the double plays show, he has been contextually successful in that regard.
Saunders will get a job once again, and likely confound those who check out his Baseball-Reference page during the year. It might take a few more typical Joe Saunders' seasons before we know just what typical Joe Saunders is made of, but as long as we keep digging to learn, we'll get there.
Thanks to Mike Fast for his invaluable assistance