The Seattle Mariners have suffered from the loss of three starting pitchers for large chunks of the 2014 season. Hisashi Iwakuma missed all of April, James Paxton made two starts and then hit the disabled list with no return in sight and Taijuan Walker has yet to appear in a big-league game due to shoulder issues. Left-hander Danny Hultzen, who would have been a candidate for a rotation spot in March, had shoulder surgery and will miss all of 2014.
Still, the M’s are 28-28 for the year and while many are singing the praises of right-hander Chris Young, and the veteran has been very solid in filling a spot in the rotation, the same praises can be bestowed upon rookie left-hander Roenis Elias.
The 25-year-old skipped Triple-A Tacoma and has been able to adjust to major-league hitters and sustain some early-season success through his first 12 starts. In nine of those 12 outings he’s yielded three earned runs or fewer and allowed just four baserunners in Sunday’s complete-game, three-hit shutout versus the Detroit Tigers. He walked just one and struck out eight in what was his best performance yet.
After the game manager Lloyd McClendon was quoted as saying Elias “has as good a stuff as any left-hander in the league,” and while there is some assumed hyperbole attached to that in the eyes on many, the skipper isn’t all that wrong. Yes, I know, ‘wrong’ is an absolute. Managers, however, often speak in a way in which the listener has to realize the level of hyperbole. McClendon may not have intended for any hypberole, but he’s not that far off no matter which way one analyzes it.
Elias, versus the other left-handed starters in the American League, has comparable stuff to most. The few that stand out above Elias are just that — few. Chris Sale comes to mind as one whose stuff is a tick above, as does 2012 Cy Young winner David Price. That may be it. Derek Holland? Elias’ stuff is comparable, if not flat out better. C.J. Wilson? Same story. Mark Buehrle gets by with guile, smarts and command. Elias’ ‘stuff’ ranks above.
There is a nice group of lefties with good stuff. But only the aforementioned two go beyond Elias’ to fare incomparable. Not CC Sabathia, not Tyler Skaggs. Not Martin Perez, pre-injury, not Jason Vargas, not Jose Quintana, Tommy Milone, Drew Pomeranz or Hector Santiago, not John Danks or Wei-Yin Chen.
Dallas Keuchel? Nope. He has better command, for sure, which sets him apart. Elias is comparable in stuff to Jon Lester. Scott Kazmir, too. Both have better command and more consistent third pitches, but in terms of pure stuff, Elias is right there.
The Cuban is living 90-93 with the four-seam fastball, occasionally mixing in a 90-91 mph two-seamer. He throws an average slurve-like breaking ball to left-handers but the curveball is plus — sometimes plus-plus — and his changeup, which began the year as a very inconsistent 35-grade offering, is flashing plus and more often is traveling to toward the plate as an average or better pitch. He showed that Sunday to the Tigers’ right-handed dominant lineup.
Essentially, Elias has given the Mariners as much or more than they could have expected, not only from him, but from Paxton, Walker or Hultzen, too. He’s rocking a below league-average FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is averaging more than six innings per start and ranks in the Top 25 in the AL in fWAR among starting pitchers, No. 4 among rookie starters.
Outfielder Michael Saunders just finished the second-best full month of his career when he ended May with a .318/.357/.477 triple-slash, including four doubles, two triples and two home runs. He drove in 18 runs, drew seven walks and struck out 18 times in 100 plate appearances.
For the year, Saunders is batting .275/.327/.435, all of which rank above the league-average for right fielders, the position Saunders is charged with more often than not. What’s one month mean, you ask? Not a whole lot. Hitters have good months often, yet to don’t back it up with more months of production. But Saunders isn’t a one-month wonder, really.
In April, McClendon used Saunders sparingly — 36 sporadic at-bats. Throw that month away and add his May performance to his production the final three months of 2013 and what do you get? A .277 average .342 OBP and .455 slugging percentage. That’s a player, especially considering Saunders plays solid corner-outfield defense and runs the bases well.
Among AL outfielders with 140 plate appearances or more, Saunders ranks No. 15 in fWAR and only one player ranked above him has fewer PAs — all others have 68 to 109 more trips to the plate.
Sometimes players figure it out in their mid-to-late 20s. Jose Bautista didn’t better those numbers until 2010 at age 29. Carlos Gomez was 27 before he broke out at the plate.
I’m not claiming Saunders is an all-star, but the 27-year-old has been productive when in the lineup for more than a half-season of plate appearances. That .277/.342/.455 line over nearly 350 PAs is comparable to what Adam Jones and Shane Victorino put up last season. It’s better than what Starling Marte and Alex Rios posted — the latter in significantly better lineups and home ballparks — and it’s also better than the likes of Andre Ethier, Nick Markakis and Torii Hunter.
Michael Saunders is showing he’s a big leaguer.
Jason A. Churchill
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