Joe Saunders doesn’t blow hitters away, he simply beats them. The 28-year-old left-hander has logged unimpressive 4.68 and 4.89 K/9 rates the past two seasons, but thanks to an ability to mix his pitches and throw quality strikes, he has been an effective member of the Angels rotation. His 33 wins over the 2008 and 2009 campaigns are the most on Los Angeles’ staff. He’ll never be mistaken for Sandy Koufax or Steve Carlton, but when Saunders takes the mound on Saturday night, the Yankees will be facing a pitcher who usually finds a way to win. He may not look pretty doing it, but for the crafty southpaw, that’s not the objective. Saunders talked about his game when the Angels visited Fenway Park in mid-September.
David Laurila: How would you describe your personality, both on and off the field?
Joe Saunders: My personality is laid back and very low key. I like to have fun, and I like to hang out and be with family and friends. Then, once I get on the field, everything changes. I don’t think about any family, any friends, any babies, or anyone at all. Once I’m out there on that mound, I’m all business. I don’t think about anything except getting that hitter out any way I can.
DL: What type of pitcher is Joe Saunders?
JS: I’m a guy who likes to attack the strike zone and likes to get early groundball outs; I pitch to contact. I can get the strikeout when I need to, but I’m primarily going to pitch to contact and throw strikes.
DL: How do you define “pitching to contact”?
JS: Being aggressive in the strike zone early on. I think that guys who throw a lot of pitches in a game often try to be too fine, or they try to make the perfect pitch too early. I’m a guy who trusts my stuff. It doesn’t always happen that I get the out, but I trust my stuff and let my defense work for me.
DL: Your bio in Baseball Prospectus 2009 said that it will be hard for you to consistently match last year’s success unless you can improve your strikeout rate. Do you agree with that?
JS: No. Last year was a good year for me; it was a breakout year, but it was only my first full season. In spring training, I was fighting for a job, and I was healthy. This year has been a little tougher. I had an injury in spring training, and I tried to pitch through it. I went on the disabled list in August, and missed most of that month, but then I came back strong, and, knock on wood, have pitched pretty well since.
DL: What about your strikeout rate? Is that important to your success?
JS: Strikeouts are strikeouts, but, I mean, what’s the difference between a three-pitch strikeout and a three-pitch ground ball? I don’t think there is any difference in that, or…you know, I’d rather get a first-pitch ground-ball out than a five- or six-pitch strikeout. That’s the way I pitch.
DL: Do pitch more to hitters’ weaknesses or to your own strengths?
JS: I’m a guy who likes to pitch to my strengths. I mean, I’m going to know what their weaknesses are, and they’re going to know what my arsenal is, or whatever, but I’m going to pitch to my strengths-I’m going to pitch my game. It might vary to each hitter, depending on what their strengths and weaknesses are, but I’m going to go about it my way.
DL: When a hitter steps in the box, are you thinking things like, “First-pitch fastball hitter, has trouble with sliders away?”
JS: We have all of that stuff. We have scouting reports that say, “This guy likes to be aggressive,” or “Swings at first pitch with runners on base,” or whatever, and then you are a little bit more careful, but other than that, every pitcher pitches their game. It’s all just in the back of my head. I’m not thinking out there. You kind of know without thinking about it. You know what to do, where to throw the pitch, or what the situation dictates.
JS: No, they’re good. I mean, I’ve known them since I got drafted and they’ve caught me ever since I’ve been with the Angels. They know me and I know them. I know what they’re going to call 99 percent of the time, and they know what they’re going to get out of me 99 percent of the time, so I think that we match up with each other really well.
DL: If you somehow didn’t already know which one was behind the plate, could you tell by how they set up or how they receive the ball?
JS: Oh, yeah. They have their different little ways of catching; they have their different little tendencies. But other than that, they’re great defensive catchers behind there, and I trust them.
DL: When your pitching coach, Mike Butcher, visits the mound, what does the conversation tend to be about?
JS: It depends on how the game is going. Sometimes it’s, “Hey, you’re throwing the ball great, I’m just giving you a breather,” or it’s “Hey, let’s pick it up a little bit; let’s get more aggressive,” or something like that. If he sees something that I’m doing wrong mechanically, he’s obviously going to come out and say, “Hey, you need to stay a little more closed and you need to pick up the glove a little earlier,” or “You need to stop flying open,” or whatever. Whatever he sees that I’m doing, he’s going to come out and tell me.
DL: Do Mike Butcher and Mike Scioscia differ at all in their approach to pitching?
JS: Not really. I think that they…when I got drafted, they knew what they were drafting, and then it took them time to see me, and then they kind of knew what my game was. I had to prove it at the major-league level, and ever since it’s been fine.
DL: Last night, Brian Fuentes threw what probably should have been a called third strike to end the game, but the umpire ruled it a ball, forcing in the tying run. As a pitcher, how difficult is it to retain your focus when something like that happens?
JS: In that situation, it’s tough for anybody. You know, in that situation, if an umpire…I know they’re human, but in that situation, he blatantly missed a strike. But I’m not a closer, so I don’t know how I’d dealt with that one in particular. I do know that I’d be pretty [ticked] off, personally. You can try to forget it, but it’s not easy. You’re out there to win.