Why the Toronto Blue Jays Need to be Cautious with Michael Saunders


Why the Toronto Blue Jays Need to be Cautious with Michael Saunders

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After placing Michael Saunders back on the disabled list with left knee inflammation, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder is hoping that the combination of draining fluid, a cortisone shot, and rest will be the remedy for his ailing left knee.

Seldom a regular fixture in the Blue Jays lineup this season, Saunders has played in only eight games this year after suffering a freak accident injury during spring training. When on the field, though, it is very evident that he is not himself.

While every fan can surely appreciate Saunders effort to try and gut this injury out, it just doesn’t make sense to do that over the long-run of a 162 game season. Instead, Saunders should rest and fully recuperate before he ends up like former Cincinnati Reds slugger Jay Bruce. If the Blue Jays ever needed a player to exemplify why they should be cautious with Saunders, it’s without a doubt Bruce.

After posting three consecutive 30 home run, 95+ RBI seasons, Bruce suffered a knee injury in 2014 and has not been the same player since. To be exact, the 28-year-old outfielder suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee, which is exactly what Saunders is dealing with.

Even though Bruce missed only 25 games with the injury, the lingering after effects continue to hinder his game.

Statistically, Bruce is not even close to reaching the 30 home run, 90 RBI range. In fact, Bruce hit a career-low 18 home runs last season and posted only 68 RBI. So far this season, Bruce continues to struggle at the dish, posting a .170 batting average, 5 home runs and 16 RBI. Even worse, his .641 OPS and .189 ISO suggest the power might not return anytime soon. Of course, his abnormally low .194 BABIP won’t sustain either, but that would suggest his batting average and on-base percentage should rise, not his power.

So could the balky knee really be to blame for all of Bruce’s struggles?

Apr 26, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Michael Saunders (21) at bat against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While there are other factors at work, the knee is certainly a large reason why he has regressed at the plate. Much like Saunders, the knee Bruce injured was his back leg knee when hitting. Unfortunately for both players, much of their power is generated from the torque they produce on that back knee.

The decline in power is not the only thing that suffers because of the back knee, though. Generally, a hitter tends to make less solid contact when their back knee bothers them, which is exactly what we saw with Bruce last season when he posted a career-low .654 OPS, a career-high 45.2 percent ground ball rate, a career-low 34 percent fly ball rate, and a career-high 48.9 percent pull rate. While some may not view the pull rate as a big deal, it does support the notion that Bruce’s timing was off, which could stem from him starting his swing earlier to compensate for his back knee, which also explains his high ground ball rate because he “rolled over” during a lot of at bats last season.

Before I go on a tangent here with the numbers, you can see how the back knee really affected Bruce last season. His power diminished, he made less quality contact and he was a glaring weakness in the Reds lineup all year. Although some of the numbers this season suggest Bruce should progress back to his career averages shortly, he is still a great example as to why the Blue Jays should tread carefully with Michael Saunders.

Of course, Saunders is no Jay Bruce. We all know that.

But when healthy, he is a very dependable corner outfielder that provides a nice combination of power and speed that could easily post 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases. However, this lingering knee injury has put a huge dent in his production and could have a Jay Bruce-like effect on his entire season.

At 28 years old, we can probably scratch the stolen bases off Saunders resume this year, especially since he only stole four bags with Mariners last season. But what about the power?

Well, over the last three years, Saunders has posted an ISO of .185 in 2012, .160 in 2013, and .177 in 2014. While those aren’t exactly power hitter kind of numbers, they do suggest that 10 to 15 home runs was certainly doable this season.

Unfortunately, through nine games Saunders has posted a .000 ISO this season. We all know the knee is to blame for that abysmal number, but when you compare that with the numbers he’s produced over the last three seasons, should we really expect him to post power numbers once he comes back?

Probably not.

If the knee is going to hinder his speed, power, and range in the outfield, why would the Blue Jays not rest Saunders until he is healthy? Playing through any lingering pain essentially relegates him to a poor man’s Kevin Pillar, minus the outstanding defence.

I know it’s very difficult for a player to sit out, especially at the professional level, but if the Blue Jays ever needed a reason as to why they should be cautious with Saunders, it’s Jay Bruce. Just look at how long a “simple meniscus procedure” has hampered Bruce.

Do the Blue Jays really want to risk placing Saunders down a similar path? I doubt it.

Next: Should Jose Bautista go on the Disabled List?