let's all be condors
I don't remember where the whole Eric Wedge/aggressiveness thing got started, but it could have been received better than it was. All Eric Wedge was trying to say, I'm pretty sure, was that he wanted his hitters to be more aggressive instead of passive on pitches in the strike zone. Maybe I'm wrong about that, because again I don't remember where this started, but that would be a sensible thing to say, and I doubt Wedge wanted his players to be more aggressive in all facets of the game. Anyhow, regardless of what Wedge meant, his remarks became a point of mockery and sarcasm. This is a natural defense mechanism of ours, which we need in order to survive each day asfans, but maybe sometimes people get too cozy with it.
As an aside, "aggressiveness" and "aggression" are very closely related, obviously. They share the same root word, and by and large mean the same thing, but I think "aggression" seems a little more malicious. If Wedge wanted his players to show more aggressiveness, he'd be understood to mean he wanted to see more swings at strikes, and maybe more ballsy steal attempts. If Wedge wanted his players to show more aggression, he might be understood to mean he wanted to see more guys screaming and like hitting the catcher in the head with bats. Be careful with how you use words, because even seemingly equivalent synonyms can convey different impressions.
Now away from the aside and back to the main point. If we're willing to poke fun at Eric Wedge when we perceive that aggressiveness has gone wrong, then we should be equally willing to credit Eric Wedge when it seems that aggressiveness is going right. And one place where aggressiveness is going right is within the corporeal form of Michael Saunders.
They've been talking about this a lot on the broadcast recently. Forgive me for doing my own independent research, though, because you can't always believe in the things they talk about on baseball broadcasts. Even baseball broadcasts that occasionally drop acronyms like UZR and DRS. Consider this a statistical confirmation of what Dave Valle was talking about for three days.
Michael Saunders was bad at hitting
Michael Saunders now seems to be at least decent at hitting, and maybe better
Between 2009-2011, Saunders posted a .569 OPS over 635 trips to the plate. Over those plate appearances, Saunders swung at the first pitch about 20 percent of the time. The league average is about 26 percent. Last season, when Saunders was a complete and utter disaster, he offered at 18 percent of first pitches. A lot of fans are okay with patience, if not downright encouraging of it, but Saunders clearly needed to change some things.
This year, Saunders has posted a .776 OPS over 272 trips to the plate. Over those plate appearances, Saunders has swung at the first pitch about 33 percent of the time. This doesn't put him anywhere close to the league lead - Freddie Freeman has literally swung at more first pitches than he's taken - but Saunders' rate is well above average. He's right in there with Hanley Ramirez and Justin Upton, for whatever that's worth. Saunders has batted 16-for-28 when putting the first pitch in play.
Beyond first pitches, we can look at overall plate discipline. Thanks to FanGraphs! And thanks to PITCHf/x, which informs FanGraphs. FanGraphs is basically the science writer to PITCHf/x's research article in Acta Crystallographica. But anyway, you're all familiar with O-Swing% and Z-Swing% by now. Swing rate at balls, swing rate at strikes. Elementary stuff for the Internet baseball fan in the 21st Century. I present to you Michael Saunders.
Saunders has been swinging more this year than ever before. The overwhelming majority of those extra swings have come against strikes. Last season, his rates were 30% / 57% / 44%. He isn't really any more prone to chasing than he used to be, but he's been more aggressive about going after strikes, and it stands to reason he's therefore been more successful against pitches in the strike zone. A strike taken generally does a hitter no good, unless it's a perfect strike. For Saunders, something clicked.
Now, things! Increased aggressiveness is not the only reason for Saunders' improvement. In fact, it might be a consequence of something else, that being Saunders' improved ability to cover the entire plate. Somewhere over the offseason, Saunders learned how to punish pitches over and beyond the outer half, and so maybe that's freed him to swing at more pitches over and beyond the outer half. Swinging more has presumably helped Saunders, but learning to go up the middle and the other way has also helped Saunders, and maybe the former was urged by the latter.
Additionally, remember that Saunders went outside the organization for help last winter. It was Josh Bard's brother who got Saunders doing some weird shit that none of us thought would work until it started to work. So while Saunders has shown increased aggressiveness, who's to say that's on account of Eric Wedge and his coaching staff? Maybe Saunders' increased aggressiveness is Bard's brother's doing, or Saunders' own doing.
Whatever the case, Saunders is swinging more - at strikes - and his numbers have climbed way up. He seems better than he probably actually is on account of the guys around him in the lineup, and Michael Saunders should probably not be a team's best or second-best hitter, but he has easy power, and he's showing it more often. One wonders if increased aggressiveness might be the key for Dustin Ackley, since his swing rate at strikes is treacherously low. He has his cold zones that shouldn't be cold zones. But this is a post about Michael Saunders, and if we're going to talk about the downsides of perceived aggressiveness, then it's only fair to look at the other end too. Saunders has been a lot more aggressive. Saunders has been a lot more productive.