By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
Maybe those slow-motion scenes at the end of baseball movies aren’t so hokey after all.
There may not be orchestral music swelling in the background, but Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders (Victoria, B.C.) says when he’s locked in at the plate, the game really does slow down.
“I know a lot of people won’t understand what I’m talking about, but it’s exactly how it sounds: when you’re feeling confident in the box, the game literally slows down,” Saunders said.
“You see the baseball a lot better. You typically find yourself in hitter’s counts more because you’re not trying to chase or do too much. You know what you do well at the plate and you’re looking for that pitch.
“I know the game looks slow from the stands and from up in the press box, but when you get down on the field the game really speeds up. And I think the best players find a way to slow that down.”
Considering that hitters only have a fraction of a second to decide whether to swing, being able to better see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand can be the difference between a hot streak and a slump.
“When you’re locked in, the game’s easier. You feel like you’re going to barrel up every ball,” Saunders said. “But that’s part of the grind. We play 162 games, and we play every single day. There’s going to be times not only physically but mentally that you’re not feeling great.
“And I think that’s why some guys’ slumps last longer than others, because you start thinking too much out there, or you start trying to change your routine or do too much, rather than just understanding what you do well and knowing why you’re here in the first place. I think that’s what separates the great players from the good ones.”
Saunders lived two extremes last season. His .298/.372/.551 first-half batting line – along with 16 home runs – earned “Captain Canada” an all-star nod. But he scuffled in the second half, hitting just .178, though he was a solid contributor in the playoffs.
Hoping for a repeat of his all-star form, the Philadelphia Philles brought Saunders on board for one year at $8 million, but his struggles continued and he was released in June. That’s when the Blue Jays, whose outfield depth had been gutted by injuries, came calling with a minor-league contract.
“It’s been great. Feels like a homecoming,” the native of Victoria, B.C., said of his second professional go-round north of the border. “It’s practically the same team it has been over the last couple years, so the relationships I’ve created over the years – not just with the players but the coaching staff and the front office – made it really easy.”
What wasn’t so easy was going to triple-A Buffalo – Saunders’ first trip to the minors since 2011 – to rediscover his hitting stroke. Saunders admits he put too much pressure on himself in his first few weeks with the Bisons.
“I think when I got there I was so concerned with getting back to the big leagues. Knowing what I had to do in order to do that, I felt like every day I woke up my mindset was, okay, I’ve got to get three hits today, instead of just realizing that, hey, I’m in Buffalo for a reason. Let’s take it one at-bat at a time,” he said.
“I can’t concern myself with what’s going on up there (in Toronto), I have to concern myself with what’s going on here right now. I think once I did that, I took the pressure off myself and started having fun again, and the game slowed down for me.”
Saunders’ bat eventually did pick up, though he felt his timing start to lock in before the results showed up in the box score.
“Box scores can be misleading sometimes,” he explained.
“Anyone can look at a box score and say someone had a good game or someone had a bad game, but that’s not always the case. Some guy could go 0-for-4 and line out three times, and some guy could have two broken-bat bleeders that just fall in somewhere. I’ll be the first one to tell you I’d rather have the hits, but at the same time I’d rather barrel the ball up. It gives you confidence.”
That’s a perspective on hitting that the veteran player came to understand later in his career.
“You can’t chase hits. I think when you chase hits, you get into trouble. What you need to chase is professional at-bats,” he said.
“Once the ball leaves your bat, you can’t do anything about it. What you can control is barrelling up the baseball and getting a good pitch to hit and taking a good swing at it. When you consistently barrel the ball up, usually you’re going to have the numbers you want.”
The Blue Jays liked Saunders’ numbers with Buffalo (he slashed .275/.322/.408 with two home runs) enough to bring him back to the majors as a bench player when rosters expanded in September. He’s recorded three singles and a pair of walks in 20 plate appearances with Toronto.
In a game built on failure, steady production is prized above occasional flashes of excellence. That’s why Saunders says his primary goal is to be consistent.
“That’s the biggest thing. It’s one of those things where you have to check yourself every day and just try to stay mentally consistent,” he said.
Just as the game slows down when things are going well, Saunders said when he’s slumping the ball moves more quickly, both at the plate and in the field.
“The game speeds up on you real quick, and that’s when you start to make mistakes (like) throwing the ball to the wrong base. And when you’re not confident out there, it seems like the ball always finds a way to find you,” he said.
“Everyone goes through those times, but the best ones find a way to stay consistent every day.”
To Saunders, consistency isn’t simply a matter of physical repetition, but of cultivating a good attitude.
“Not only does it take a physical toll on you, playing every day for 180 days, it’s a mental grind as well. And I think honestly that’s the toughest part,” he said.
“People sometimes don’t understand that we have families that we leave behind. We have our own problems. It’s not just stuff that we do on the field. For me, that’s been the biggest adjustment this year. My daughter started kindergarten and I haven’t seen my family in two months, so that’s a different side of it.”
Shortly after this interview, Saunders went home to Colorado for a few days to be with his wife Jessica for the birth of their third child.
“Being a dad’s more important than being a baseball player, but this is what I do, and we knew we were going to have to make some major sacrifices. Hopefully when I retire I’ll be able to catch up on it,” he said.
In the meantime, Saunders concluded, “I try to stay consistent every day through the good and the tough times. Over the course of a six month season you’re going to have those ups and downs. But once you step between the lines, you’ve got to find a way to forget about it and play baseball.”