PEORIA, Ariz. - Michael Saunders looked up at the approaching media, and smiled.
“I knew you guys would be coming,” he said sitting in front of his locker before Saturday’s morning workout. “I knew it.”
It’s not every day during spring training that a player fighting to make the 25-man roster walks into a game and uses a different batting stance.
On Friday, that’s just what Saunders did. And it wasn’t a one-time thing. Saunders used the modified stance in all three trips to the plate during a game against the Cleveland Indians, going 1-for-3 with a single.
But what brought about such a change? What is it supposed to remedy? And why do it halfway into spring training?
The first hints of Saunders doing something different at the plate came before he took batting practice Friday.
He stepped into the area where pitchers throw bullpen sessions and stood in the batter’s box timing pitches – not a normal occurrence.
Instead of his customary stance with his hands high, circling the bat before the pitch, Saunders stood in a wide stance, bat on his shoulder, completely still. As the pitcher delivered, he raised his hands and bat up slightly – cocking them.
With several members of the media standing around to watch pitcher James Paxton, what Saunders was doing piqued curiosity.
“I saw all you guys there watching me, and knew I’d be talking to you later,” he said.
Still, it could have been one of the hundreds of hitting drills baseball players use to work the most minute part of their swings.
But then Saunders stepped into the cage for batting practice. Again, he kept the bat still on his shoulder at the start, then cocked his hands during the delivery before taking a swing. No more high hands, no more waggle. Gone.
Later that day when Saunders stepped to the plate in Goodyear, Ariz., to face Cleveland’s Mitch Talbot in the second inning of the Mariners’ Cactus League game, he employed the same modified stance and singled to right.
“I started it two days ago in the cage,” he said. “I had a day off and worked on it. We were just trying to figure out a way to get my hands in more of a consistent position to fire from, a way to make sure my hands are back.”
The best way was to start from the beginning of the swing, and go to the basics, he said.
“We tried to narrow it down to the simplest way to do that,” he said.
Mariners infielder Chone Figgins employs a similar start to his stance and swing. But from the left side of the plate, and with Saunders size, the best comparison is to Texas’ Josh Hamilton.
The AL MVP has one of the most simple movement-free stances. The bat rests at the start, his hands move up slightly and cock back and then he unleashes on the pitch.
Saunders also mentioned fellow Canadian and Twins left-handed slugging first baseman Justin Morneau as having a similar stance.
“They all start out with it on their shoulder, then they set their hands and then they stride,” Saunders said. “It allows them to stay back and see the ball. It really slows the fastball down and allows me to stay back on the breaking ball.”
This isn’t the first time Saunders has made tweaks to his swing. Over the past two years, a variety of hitting coaches have tried to find ways to keep him from jumping at pitches and keep him from having his swing glide through the strike zone.
They worked on his leg position, keeping him more upright, but nothing seemed to help him find consistent success.
There were stretches of games last season where Saunders would tantalize the Mariners with his combination of power and athleticism. On July 25, he crushed a massive home run off of Boston ace Jon Lester.
But those stretches were often followed by longer ones of soft fly balls, rollover ground balls and strikeouts. He finished the season hitting .211 with 10 homers and 33 RBI.
“I know I have the tools to do it,” he said. “It’s a matter of putting it all together and being more consistent.”
Will this stance allow him to do it?
Saunders believes it will.
“I’ve done a lot of different things with my swing, but this is the most comfortable I’ve felt,” he said. “I feel like I can only get better.”
While it looks odd not seeing Saunders start with a waggle of the bat and his hands held high, the principles of the stance are still the swing. The waggle was a way to “trigger” the swing. And once the swing was triggered, his hand would drop into the firing position.
Now, he’s removing the waggle and getting his hands cocked into firing position sooner and with less movement.
“It may look drastically different, but it’s not that much different,” Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss said. “All we did is change his hand position, so he doesn’t have to worry about the path of his bat through the strike zone.”
When Saunders was hitting well with his old stance, he would get to that firing position and drive through the ball. But when he was struggling, the pre-pitch movement often left his hands late in reaching the firing position, leaving him off balance and his swing disjointed.
“When the bat is wiggling and moving around when the pitch is on the way, you are going to have an inconsistent path,” Chambliss said.
The new look will change that. Saunders admits it would have been better to make this change in the offseason and work on it before spring training. But it needed to be done.
“I know it’s going to work,” he said. “I just have to trust it. I know I’m going to have ups and downs, and that’s what’s involved in changing things. In the long run, you take a step back, you take two steps forward.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org