Why Joe Saunders should bounce back in 2014

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Saunders struggled mightily in 2013, but hidden in the bad were a few indicators of a bounce-back 2014 campaign for the veteran southpaw.

Spring Training is well underway, and Joe Saunders doesn't yet have a home, but he will, eventually. It's just a matter of time before the southpaw inks a deal.

But it's hard to ignore the elephant in the room: 2013 was a pretty bad season for Saunders, and I'd say that that's one of a few reasons why he's still searching for work. On one hand, he logged a respectable amount of innings and upped his ground ball percentage considerably, but on the other hand, he mustered some pretty iffy numbers, both of the basic and advanced variety. And the bad numbers pop out.

ERA exaggerates the "pretty bad" point. Only Edinson Volquez tallied a worse ERA than Saunders' 5.26 mark, and Saunders also ranked in the bottom five in ERA- and FIP-. If you're digging for a positive-ish number, there really isn't one. Even xFIP- rendered the southpaw a bottom-20 ranking.

Put it all together, and you get a 0.6 fWAR, which doesn't scream "oh my god, that's terrible," but we've seen better versions of Joe Saunders. Like 2012 (2.4 fWAR). Or 2008 (2.6). He's never surpassed the three-win mark (by FanGraphs' reckoning), but he's also finished under the one-win mark just once since his brief rookie season, discarding 2013. So I think we can conclude that, in Saunders' nine major league seasons, 2013 sits among the worst of them.

However, Saunders wouldn't be a bad pickup for a club still searching for a No. 4 or No. 5 starter--or perhaps rotation depth. Maybe a little less than a year from now when we're reflecting on 2014, we'll call him a bargain pickup.

Let's get into the "why"...

The easy route is, you guessed it, delving into Saunders BABIP. It'll give us a decent idea of his luck, and I'll be candid: Saunders didn't get much luck in 2013. His gigantic .332 BABIP marks a career high, and it's a far cry away from his career .297 mark. In theory, there's a middle ground. Maybe it's .297, as Steamer projects. Maybe it's .308, as ZiPS projects. The toughest thing to envision is a repeat of 2013.

Obviously, we're not scratching the surface on anything groundbreaking here, but, while simple, it makes plenty of sense. And yes, not every outlier stands to get better/worse. There have been many examples of an outlier remaining the same or getting progressively worse. It's not as easy as identifying an outlier and subsequently calling for regression or progression, depending on the case.

But, Saunders' BABIP falls in the former category because 2013 was hardly any different from, let's say, 2012, when he was worth 2.4 wins--at least batted balls-wise (with strikeouts and walks).

Observe:

LD% GB% FB% HR/FB% K% BB%
2012 21.3 43.1 35.6 10.2 15.0 5.2
2013 21.7 51.2 27.1 14.5 13.1 7.4
Career 19.4 46.0 34.6 11.0 13.4 7.2

OK, so maybe there was a bit more divergence than I initially implied. Saunders issued more ground balls than fly balls in 2013. He walked a few more batters and struck out a few less, which isn't ideal, but it's also not worth making a huge fuss about. But in the big picture, 2013 falls somewhat in line with his career marks.

The column that we really want to take a long look at is Column No. 2 (LD%), because it tells us one very important thing: He didn't yield more hard contact in 2013 than he did in 2012. Given that hard contact is generally bad, well, connect the dots. Sure, his numbers in 2013 didn't come close to sniffing his 2012 numbers, but he didn't give up any more hard contact. A good sign, indeed.

Additionally, another indicator you'll want to circle is the HR/FB% column, mainly because of the readily noticeable 4% increase from 2012 and the 3.5% increase from his career average. Now, HR/FB percentages, at least on a year-to-year basis, can be tricky in the sense that a pitcher could have an extremely high ratio in one year, but a year later there proves to be very little similarity between the two numbers. And as a bit of a confirmation, a correlation tool by Steve Staude on FanGraphs doesn't show much correlation in a pitcher's HR/FB% in one year to the next.

So take it for what it's worth. But what I'm really saying is that, yes, Saunders allowed more home runs while his FB% decreased. More homers in less tries, which is not good, especially at Safeco Field, baseball's 10th-friendliest pitchers' park in baseball (for home runs) last year, per ESPN's Park Factors.

But wait, there was another negative working against Saunders...

You might have guessed correctly: Seattle's overall defense was paltry. Seattle's outfield defense was just as bad. In this case, "bad" means "baseball's worst," and that's indeed where both units wound up--at the bottom.

Obviously, a better defensive unit wouldn't have been the remedy to Saunders' troubles with the long ball. But maybe it would've saved a few runs here and there. Or on the infield, maybe a better defensive unit would've saved a few more bloopers from falling in or a few more slow rollers from becoming infield hits. It all adds up.

But you get the gist: Saunders didn't have much working for him. Not on the luck side of spectrum. Not on the defensive side. And he gave up a greater frequency of dingers. Right there is a formula for disaster, and a disaster it was.

So... 2014 has to be better. No guarantees, but there's a 99.9% chance. How much better? That depends on which projection system you consult.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
ZiPS 161 4.77 4.53 N/A N/A 1.18 0.9
Steamer 189 4.68 4.25 13.2 7.2 0.92 1.6

There are a couple of noticeable differences, resulting in the final product--a 0.7 fWAR difference between the two projection systems. Among the notables, ZiPS projects Saunders to allow a few more homers and pitch a few less innings. Both systems seem to be in agreement in the ERA department, with a bit more divergence in the FIP department, mainly due to ZiPS' HR/9 projection. Tally it all up, and Steamer forecasts a slightly better 2013 campaign.

These numbers aren't going to be exact, obviously. Depending on which team Saunders signs with, both projection systems will adjust accordingly. Injuries could arise too. It's not exact, but both systems give us a general idea.

Let's say that Saunders is worth a little bit more than a win, and let's also assume that he'll get something similar to Chris Capuano's one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Red Sox. With the price of a win being in the $6-7 million range, Saunders would be a nifty pickup with very little financial risk.

By now, I think we can agree on one thing: Saunders is worth a flyer. Not to be a No. 2 or a No. 3. But as a No. 4 or No. 5, he could provide a team with a bit of upside at a cheap price tag. As "rotation depth," well, he's an even bigger luxury, assuming he'd settle for a role like that--which is assuming a lot and is purely speculation on my part.

So we'll wait and see which team takes a flyer on Joe Saunders. Just remember: There was a bit more to his 2013 campaign than just the raw numbers.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Jake Dal Porto is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.

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