Joe Saunders undoubtedly went into Monday night’s start against the Milwaukee Brewers feeling good. He had won back-to-back starts for only the second time this year, and in his last six starts he had gone 4-1 with 2 complete games (both against Oakland, one a shutout). Coming back to the Big A, Saunders was set to square off against a Brewers team that was sitting 11 games under .500, with the 18th ranked batting average in MLB.

Those good feelings did not last long. Saunders gave up five runs in the third inning (the big blow coming from Ryan Braun’s booming grand slam), and six runs overall in an unimpressive 5.2 inning performance. He took the loss—his seventh—as the Brewers cake-walked to a 12-2 victory.

As Saunders lights the candles on his 29th birthday cake today, he must be puzzled by his 2010 season.

His record currently sits at 5-7; those seven losses tie his career high (both 2008 and 2009), and it is only June 16th. His ERA is 4.70, which is not too far away from last season’s 4.60 (but quite higher than his career 4.28 mark). His WHIP is 1.49—his career high was 1.52 back in 2007 (in only 18 appearances).

Most troubling of all is Saunders’ control. In 2010 he is averaging 3.9 walks per nine innings, far above his career mark of 3.0. Furthermore, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is an alarming 1.03 (38 strikeouts compared to 37 walks). This number, more than any other, should be cause for Angel fans to be concerned.

While Joe has never been a “strikeout pitcher,” he has always been a pitcher who strikes out many more than he walks. His career K-to-BB ratio is 1.66, and in his All-Star campaign of 2008 the ratio was 1.94 (103 K’s to 53 BB’s). He is currently projected to walk 89 batters this season, which would be 25 more than his career high of 64 last season. At the same time his strikeout projection is just 92. He has never struck out less than 100 batters when making at least 30 starts.

Overall, Joe Saunders’ 2010 season has been  inconsistent. He has been brilliant at times—his 2 complete game victories over Oakland, one by shutout, attest to this. Joe was nearly as brilliant in Toronto on April 17th, when he threw 8 innings and gave up just 2 unearned runs in beating the Blue Jays’ booming bats.

However, Saunders has logged several forgettable 2010 starts as well. Of his 14 starts, Joe only has six quality starts. In seven of his starts he has failed to throw six innings, in three of those he failed to throw five. This is uncharacteristic of a pitcher upon whom Mike Scioscia has been able to rely for over 185 innings each of the last two seasons (198 in ’08, 186 in ’09).

The reason for Saunders’ inconsistency is unclear. Last year’s struggles were rightfully blamed on a sore shoulder (you’ll remember Saunders went on the disabled list with shoulder trouble, and after returning was dominant down the stretch for the Halos). This year, to date, no mention of physical problems has been made. Joe’s fastball velocity is not abnormally off. He has never been a very hard thrower to start with.

Location could certainly be a cause of Joe Saunders’ trouble. For a pitcher like Saunders, who relies on pitching to contact and hitting spots with differing speeds, a loss of command can be deadly. The high walk rate and low strikeout-to-walk ratio this year both lend credence to the idea that Joe’s command has been lacking at times this year.

The gopher ball has been an enemy of Saunders’ in years past, and this year proves to be no exception.

After giving up a career high 29 round-trippers in 2009, the left-hander is serving them up at a similar pace this season. He currently projects to surrender 24 homers—fewer than last season, but higher than any other year. When Saunders does not give up a homer in a start, he is remarkably more effective. Below are his 2010 numbers this year in games where he surrenders a longball, compared to games where he does not:

1 HR allowed (or more): 6 G, 30 IP (5 IP/GS), 46 H, 32 R, 32 ER; 0-5, 9.60 ERA, 2.10 WHIP, 5.1 BB/9

0 HR allowed: 8 G,54.1 IP(6.8 IP/start),43 H, 16 R, 12 ER, 5-2, 1.99 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 3.31 BB/9

These lines look like two different pitchers. One is an All-Star, the other would struggle to keep a job in the big leagues.

There is no question that the home run ball is trouble for any pitcher, but for Joe Saunders it means the difference between quality pitching and an early shower. The control issue comes up again when looking at these lines as well. Saunders is walking two more batters per nine innings in games where he gives up a homer.

The solution for Saunders seems clear from this data, and it is not a novel solution either: throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard.

Mike Butcher needs to work with Joe Saunders to figure out if there is a flaw in Joe’s delivery, or if any kind of adjustment can be made to improve his control. When he is on his game (as the numbers above bear out), Joe Saunders is an All-Star lefty who can anchor any rotation in baseball. When he is not on his game, however, it is unlikely he will be able to gut out a win.

There is another disparity to consider which is rather surprising: Joe Saunders has pitched remarkably better on the road in 2010. While Angel Stadium is considered a neutral park (even favoring pitchers in night games), this has not been the case for the Virginian lefty:

Saunders at Home in 2010 (8 starts): 1-6, 6.75 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 8 HR, 44 IP

Saunders on Road in 2010:(6 starts): 4-1, 2.45 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 2 HR, 40.1 IP

Article continued at LA Angels

Ryan VanderYacht is a feature columnist for LA Angels    

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