ZEBULON, N.C.—West Tenn center fielder Michael Saunders is already well ahead of the curve.
Saunders, a Canadian native, has a diverse package of tools and athleticism that is beginning to translate into on-field success. He's off to a .301/.385/.505 start in 103 at-bats, one year after hitting .299/.392/.473 in 507 plate appearances for high Class A High Desert. For all his success, the 21-year-old Saunders is older than only four other Southern League hitters.
"He's got a tremendous upside," West Tenn manager Scott Steinmann said. "He's 6-(foot)-4, 6-5, put together pretty well. He can run, hit for a little bit of power and throw a little bit. He can play numerous positions in the outfield. Not too many guys can play all three outfield positions and do it well, so that gives us some flexibility as an organization.
"He's a very unique player because he can win a ballgame in four or five different ways, whether it's making a catch, throwing out a runner, stealing a base or drag bunting—he's one of the best drag bunters in our organization. (Saunders has) power, he can drive the ball, collect four hits in a night. He can win a game in different ways—that's the exciting thing about Michael Saunders."
In West Tenn's series last week at Carolina, Saunders' complete set of tools was on display as he showed his quick bat speed and tremendous athleticism.
The series didn't start so well for Saunders, however. The lefthanded hitter began the series 0-for-9 with five strikeouts, including an 0-for-5, four-strikeout performance in the second game.
"There's been some ups and downs," Saunders said. "I feel like I've held my own, and I think the biggest thing for me is consistency at the plate, seeing the ball well and trying to limit the times I get myself out at the plate, but the biggest thing is consistency."
After getting the night off in the third game of the series, Saunders was excellent in the final two games. Saunders and the West Tenn coaching staff talked before the third game of the series about their goal to improve Saunders' pitch recognition skills. Despite his .890 OPS through 27 games, Saunders already has 28 strikeouts. He struck out in 23 percent of his plate appearances last season with High Desert, racking up 116 strikeouts with the Mavericks.
"That's the big one, yeah," Saunders said, "trying to limit how many times I get myself out. And in order to limit that is to swing at the right pitches, it's pitch recognition and consistency at the plate.
"I think it starts before you get out here for BP," Saunders added. "Usually the hitting coach or the manager will go over the pitcher with you, what he has, what his tendencies are, scouting reports from other clubs. I think the best thing possible is to see pitches. The more pitches you see, the more at-bats you have throughout your career, the better recognition you're going to have of pitches. Everyone has different kinds of curveballs, everyone has different kinds of changeups, but it's just plate appearances and seeing pitches."
Gliding Against Glen
If pitch recognition was a concern for Saunders, that wasn't evident during the final two games of the series, when Saunders went 5-for-9 with a walk and three extra-base hits against a heavy dose of breaking balls and changeups. After spraying line drives to all fields in batting practice, Saunders showed that same swing in live action with flashes of developing power out of his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame.
In his first at-bat against Carolina righthander Willie Glen, Saunders ripped a fastball on the first pitch he saw to right field for a line-drive single. In his next trip to the plate, Saunders laid off a curveball and a changeup to get to 2-0, then fouled off a fastball and took strike two on another fastball. He fought off a 2-2 curve on the next pitch, but it resulted in a foul pop out to third base.
In the fifth inning, Saunders faced lefthander Jeff Gogal, a lefthander whose arm angle and big, sweeping slider makes it difficult for lefthanded hitters (last year Gogal had a 25-1 K-BB ratio in 71 plate appearances against lefties in Double-A). Gogal came after Saunders with three straight sliders; Saunders attempted a drag bunt but took strike one on the first pitch, took the second pitch for ball one, then roped the third one for a line drive to right field and used his above-average speed to stretch it into a double.
Some scouts think that Saunders might lose a step or two of that plus speed as his body fills out, but for now his speed is a weapon in the field and on the basepaths.
"You know I think he's going to be able to play every outfield position at a higher level," West Tenn hitting coach Phil Plantier said. "He tracks a fly ball down really well, throws well enough to play all three spots. He has a good feel for stealing bases for a young player, he's got good instincts running the bases, which I think is going to be something that will benefit him down the road. As long as he keeps developing that part of his game, I think that gives him a tool that not a lot of guys have."
In the seventh, Saunders whiffed at a fastball, then took two changeups out of the strike zone, then laid off a low fastball and another fastball that was just inside to draw the walk. In his final at-bat of the game, Saunders fouled off a fastball, and then took a fastball away and a curveball away to get to a 2-1 count. After taking a fastball for a strike on the outside corner, Saunders grounded out to shortstop.
Sliding In With Sinkbeil
Going against Brett Sinkbeil in the final game of the series, Saunders was facing the No. 3 prospect in the Marlins organization entering the season, although the scouts say the righthander's stock has slipped this year.
In the first inning, Saunders took a fastball low, another fastball high, then laced a fastball for a line drive to right field, which would have been a hit were it not for a web gem of a diving catch by right fielder Lorenzo Scott. In his second at-bat, Saunders got down 0-1 by taking a slider for a strike, and then ripped a fastball on the inner half of the plate down the right-field line. Saunders again flashed his plus speed, sliding into third for a triple. It was an impressive play, as Saunders showed his bat speed, his ability to square up the ball and his running speed all in one play.
"Swinging the bat, one thing I really like him is that he's able to backspin a ball in both directions, he's able to backspin a ball to any part of the field," Plantier said. "As he gets better, he's going to learn how to do it with a little bit more consistency, get more extra-base hits, using the entire yard. I think that will develop through time because he does have the ability to get some backspin on the baseball."
After missing a low fastball to begin his third at-bat, Saunders saw a steady diet of Sinkbeil sliders, the righthander's best pitch that rivals lefthander Aaron Thompson's for the best slider in the system. Saunders took a slider low and inside for a ball, then swung at a slider low in the zone to put him behind in the count 1-2. Saunders adjusted, though, laying off two more low sliders before making solid contact on a 94 mph fastball, which resulted in a fly out.
Saunders' next at-bat came in the seventh inning. Saunders took a changeup for ball one, then swung and missed at a much better changeup to even the count 1-1. After fouling off a slider, Saunders ripped the next pitch—another slider—on the ground between first and second base for a single on a nice piece of two-strike hitting.
Saunders saved the best for last against lefthander Matt Yourkin, hitting a 1-0 slider down the middle for a home run off the scoreboard in right field. With good loft in his swing, Saunders has a strong chance at developing that emerging power stroke more often in game situations.
"You never quite know how that's going to come around," Plantier said. "I think consistent hard contact will develop. That to me is big because when he's able to get better pitch selection, you know, as his pitch selection gets better, pitch recognition gets better, he'll accidentally hit more extra-base hits. He gets himself out a lot right now—that's what young players do. But I really think that as he gets better, understanding what he's good at and what he's trying to do with his plan at the plate and getting better pitch recognition, as that develops, he's going to get better fast."