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If I had to give a nickname to Joe Saunders, it would be “The Man Who Single-Handedly Proves The Pitcher Wins Stat Useless.” Admittedly it’s long and rather unwieldy, and if Saunders ever decided to go into the UFC I doubt Bruce Buffer would be able to maintain a level of excitement while running through all that, but despite these negatives, I still think the nickname is fitting. More than that, it’s the truth.
Over the last two seasons Joe Saunders has totaled 33 wins, 16 in 2009 and 17 in 2008. Most people would point to that win total, easily highest on the Angels (and I believe highest in the AL, outside of Roy Halladay), as a sign that Saunders is a quality, top-of-the-rotation type pitcher. Most people would be wrong. Among the 4 regular starters in 2009, Saunders ranked dead last in FIP and xFIP, BB/9, K/9, K/BB, and second to Ervin Santana in ERA, AVG against, HR/9, WHIP, and ERA. To condense all those stats into a simple sentence: Joe Saunders was not very good.
Saunders had a better season in 2008, though a large part of that was a fantastically low .267 BABIP, which was the best on the team. I expected Saunders to regress in 2009, simply based on his skill set and peripheral numbers, and he didn’t disappoint. His ERA ballooned by almost a full 1.20 runs, and despite pitching 12 fewer innings than the season before, he gave up more hits, more runs, walked more batters, and gave up more home runs. To call 2008 anything but a fluke would be to misunderstand the term fluke.
Looking to his 2010, then, I see utterly no reason to expect a return to his 2008 form. CHONE are ZiPS are most pessimistic (or, perhaps, realistic) when it comes to Saunders, projecting him to finish with an ERA of 4.57/4.68 and a FIP of 4.72/4.78, respectively. Both of those, were either to prove true, would end up being worse than Saunders’ career averages. Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with the CHONE-ZiPS projections when it comes to Saunders. I think we’ll see somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-12 wins, an ERA easily at 4.50, and a FIP more in the 4.80-4.90 range. Saunders has been helped a lot the last few years by his defense, which is part of the explanation for the gap between his ERA and FIP, and it’s hard for me to see a way in which the Angels’ defense has improved over the past couple years.
Fans love him, Scioscia seems to love him, but the wheels may finally come off the Saunders train this year. If he fails to even break 12 wins, the most interesting thing will be hearing the reasons for his drop in wins. I’ll bet you’d be able to count the number of times you hear the word “regression” used on your hand.