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Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders entered the 2012 season armed with a new swing.
By Kieran O’Dwyer
This past offseason Michael Saunders reached a boiling point. He had had it with his swing. Frustrated for having failed to stick at the Big League level over the past couple of years due to inconsistent hitting, Saunders could have packed his bags and headed home to dwell on his misfortune. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, the 25-year-old outfielder went searching for answers, determined to prove that he belonged in the Majors. “The failures over the past two years had really driven me to say, ‘I know I can do this. I have the ability to do this. Why am I not doing this?’” said Saunders, who entered this season with a .196 career batting average in 204 Major League games. “I was sick and tired of it, so I went out to try to find some help.” Saunders search ultimately led him to the brother of former Mariners teammate Josh Bard. Over a two-month stretch, he and Mike Bard essentially reinvented Saunders swing. Even now, Saunders admits there is still work to be done, but he believes he’s in a much better place at the plate now than ever before. Mariners Magazine recently spoke with Saunders about the overhaul of his swing. 22
Mariners Magazine: What possessed you to pursue a total makeover of your swing? Michael Saunders: Over the last couple of years, I was tired of the performances I’ve had on the field. It’s really driven me to go out and find something that can help me get better. Josh introduced me to his older brother, Mike, who happens to be a hitting coach. In the offseason my wife and I moved to Colorado, and that’s where he’s based. So I decided to talk to him and get a feel for his approach and see if this is something I want to do. I was looking for anything. MM: What did he offer or say that helped make a connection for what you needed? MS: We talked quite a bit about hitting and the way he described how important it is to simplify hitting really made sense to me. He put me through a lot of hitting drills. I narrowed them down to things that I liked and we threw away things I didn’t like. So I started hitting with some bands around me to help keep my swing short and compact, and force me to “stay in my legs.” I started swinging a heavy bat
which forced me to use my lower half so I don’t swing with just my arms and hands. So that’s where we narrowed it down. MM: Obviously getting more hits is the goal, but what other things are you looking to accomplish with the change? MS: Ultimately, I want to create room for error so I don’t have to be perfect all the time, and be on time with every pitch and catch it in that perfect spot in order to be able to drive the ball. I want to drive the ball from numerous positions, whether I’m late or early. Just try to create margin for error. MM: What did you do to determine the isolation points that you wanted to focus on? MS: Basically, we took my at-bats in the Majors, videotaped them and had Jimmy [Hartley], our video coordinator, do a front and side view of them. He analyzed everything. Then we took the best hitters in the game and started asking, ‘Why are these guys so successful? Why do they consistently hit .330? What are they doing right and what am I doing differently that is
Michael Saunders celebrates with teammate Jesús Montero after Saunders hit a grand slam home run in the 10th inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 27, 2012.
not allowing me to do this? Then we put my video next to theirs and started breaking it down. From there, we started understanding the swing. MM: What was it like to go back to ground zero after years of swinging your bat a certain way? MS: You really have to learn yourself and learn what a swing really is. I have a long body, long limbs and it’s easy for me to get a long swing. So we started using different contraptions, then used the bands. At first I was double-gussing these things, I hated them, but they forced me to revamp my swing. They kept me honest and really showed me when I was doing something wrong. I’d have a band around my knees, not allowing me to come up out of my swing. And I’d have a band wrapped around my left side and then wrapped around the outside of my right shoulder, which kept me compact and short. (continued on page 24)
(continued from page 23) MM: When did you start noticing the difference and in what way? MS: It took me a few days to get used to it. It wasn’t natural. I could see that when I made good swings they were starting to get toward where I wanted them to be at, so by a week’s time I was a lot more comfortable. The ball was jumping off my bat in a way that I hadn’t felt before. What caught my eye was being able to stay consistent with my swing on a pitch on the inside part of the plate and using not necessarily the sweet spot of the bat but still catching it on the barrel and seeing the ball still jumping off. I want to create as much mass as I can through impact so I don’t have to be perfect. I can get jammed and still be able to hit a line drive somewhere. I still have a ways to go but I’m seeing results and I like them. MM: When you’re swinging without the bands, do you visualize how they are helping you? MS: My biggest thing is to still concentrate on staying short and compact, stay in my legs, and allow my hands to be the last thing that comes through the zone. It needs to get to the point where I leave that all in the batting cage and no longer concentrate on it in a game. My mentality has changed. I have confidence and I expect nothing but success. MM: What else are you noticing about your at-bats during a game? MS: I’m seeing the ball well, not only off righties, but off lefties as well. I’ve done alright in the minor leagues, but my split is more success off righthanders in the minors. But in the Big Leagues you have to work for success on both sides. MM: How have you brought hitting coach Chris Chambliss into the discussion about what you’ve done with your swing? MS: Chris just wants to be kept in the loop and asks, ‘Hey, what can I look for so that when you’re not doing it I can see that.’ We’ve talked extensively about what I did in the offseason. It’s really tough to learn these things during the year when you have to go out every night and play. He’s been extremely supportive. 24
He just wants me to use my lower half, have a shorter stride and get my hands working better. MM: And the support you’ve received from the organization? MS: They know just as much as I do that I am able to be successful in the Big Leagues. They’re behind me 100 percent, which is really good, just like they were behind me 100 percent when everything was going on with my mom last year. [Ed’s Note: Saunders mother, Jane, passed away last August after a long battle with breast cancer.] They’ve been supportive of me with everything since they signed me and for that I’m really grateful. As well as being very patient with me. Ultimately they want me to be the player they know I can be and that I know I can be. The failures over the past two years drove me to say, ‘I know I can do this. I have the ability to do this. Why am I not doing this?’ MM: Shift gears for a moment and talk about the pride you take in your defense in the outfield. MS: Not many people know this but I was drafted as a third baseman. I got moved to the outfield pretty quick though and never even played a professional inning at third. Growing up in Canada, I played third and pitched and the outfield, where it was just, ‘Hey, go out there and catch the ball.’ It’s actually not easy. I had to learn quite a bit. I had some great coaches coming up. Now I have Mike Brumley who’s one of the best. He’s taught me so much. Getting that first step is so important. And getting reads on balls. That was my biggest thing, when a ball was hit [that was heading] directly behind me, taking my eye off it and running it down, going to the spot where I
Armed with a new swing, Saunders looks to create a margin for error and be able to drive the ball from numerous positions.
thought it would be. Watching guys like Ichiro and Gutierrez do it all the time has helped a lot, too. MM: There are a lot of young players on this Mariners team. What do you like about this group? MS: We’re extremely talented and I think when [general manager] Jack Zduriencik and the guys in the front office came in they had a goal in mind from the beginning, ‘Hey this is what we’re going to try to do.’ There’s a lot of young, talented guys here and now it’s up to us. We’re not going to be the team relying on the three-run homer. We’ve got to rely on moving the runners over and getting them in. We’ve got the pitching and defense to shut teams down. From an offensive standpoint, what happened last year was unacceptable. I hope this core of guys can move forward together over the next handful of years. We can all play and I think we can compete with anyone in the Big Leagues.
Kieran O’Dwyer is a freelance sportswriter based in New York.
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