By John Boyle Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Every March, on every Major League Baseball team, a player or two who is coming off a rough year shows promise in spring training, leading to predictions of a breakthrough season.
Whether it’s a pitcher who made an adjustment to his arm angle, a hitter who changed his swing, or a player who is “in the best shape” of his life, it’s easier to find a player on the cusp of turning around his career in Peoria, Ariz. than it is to find a Mariners fan suffering through his first sunburn of the year.
What is far less common is a player who talks about turning things around in March and is still showing signs of doing so in June. Mariners center fielder Michael Saunders, however, is doing just that in 2012 after struggling mightily at the plate in each of his first three seasons.
Saunders showed signs of hope when he was swinging a hot bat in spring training. He said at the time he felt like the changes he made in the offseason working out in a new location, Colorado, and with a new swing coach, Mike Bard, brother of former Mariner Josh Bard, were paying off. But again, hitting well in March is a lot different than doing so over the course of a 162-game season.
And while Saunders knows he has a long way to go, the fact that he is among the team leaders in several offensive categories a third of the way through the season is certainly an encouraging sign.
“I definitely did work hard, not just mechanically but also a lot on my mental approach towards the game,” said Saunders, who is batting .272 with six home runs, 17 doubles and a .792 on-base plus slugging percentage. “Seeing some success obviously is relieving, knowing that what you’ve worked on is helping you out.”
Saunders saw his numbers increase drastically during the Mariners’ recent road trip. Over the span of nine games, he hit .487 with five doubles, two home runs and five RBI. He came back to earth over the past three games, going 2-for-11 in three games against the Dodgers, but even with the ups and downs, Saunders said he’s feeling better at the plate than he ever has in his big-league career — and he expects even more improvement.
“You can’t get too low when you’re slumping, and when it’s going good, ride it as long as you can, but you can’t get too high, because this game will humble you real quick,” he said. “I’m feeling good, and hopefully I can continue this during this homestand … We’re not even halfway through the season yet, the season is young, there’s still a long ways to go, a lot of work to be done. I’m happy with the last road trip, but by no means am I content.”
Saunders’ torrid hitting on the road trip helped bring his numbers up considerably, but he has been an improved player all year long according to Mariners manager Eric Wedge.
“He’s had a very consistent year for us,” Wedge said. “Even when the results weren’t there for him, it wasn’t really an indication of his at-bats, because I feel like he’s put up good at-bats most of the year very consistently. He’s been a tough out. He goes up there and gives himself a chance with each AB. I’ve very pleased for him and with him.”
And while Saunders did make adjustments with Bard to help make his swing more compact, he and Wedge agree the changes Saunders made in his mental approach have been even more important.
“Mainly I think it’s the approach and the attitude,” he said. “I’m just trying to stay aggressive. The last few years, I’ve been letting pitchers get ahead of me and been passive. You can’t play the game that way.”
Being more aggressive doesn’t mean being reckless at the plate — Saunders has 22 walks, third most on the team — but rather staying out of situations where he is behind in the count. As a result, Saunders is striking out at a lower rate and enjoying better numbers across the board.
“Last year I felt like I kept digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole and could never get out of it, almost like I was scared to fail,” he said. “This year I basically took (the) attitude that I was going to stay aggressive and try to do damage up there, and I didn’t care if I got out, I didn’t care about the results, I just tried to barrel the ball up as much as possible. My attitude is, take it to the pitcher instead of letting the pitcher take it to me.”
Wedge, who since becoming the Mariners manager has encouraged an aggressive approach at the plate, likes what he’s seeing from Saunders.
“Yeah he’s made a few adjustments, but the biggest separator for him is the mental part of the game,” Wedge said. “… It just says a lot about his toughness and it says a lot about his belief in himself. All these kids are talented to a great degree up here, some more than others, but the level of talent up here is unbelievable, so more times than not, the mental side is what separates you.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.