What’s the difference between Andy Dirks and Michael Saunders?

The Toronto Blue Jays traded starting pitcher J.A. Happ to the Seattle Mariners for left-handed hitting outfielder Michael Saunders earlier in the week. The Blue Jays also recently non-tendered left-handed hitting outfielder Andy Dirks. Pundits are seemingly fairly fond of Alex Anthopoulos’ acquiring of Saunders to be a part of the puzzle for Toronto in 2015 saying things like this:

“It isn’t a trade that totally changes the dynamic of anything, but for Toronto, it’s a good little move that further supports a division contender.” – Jeff Sullivan, Fangraphs

And this:

“This feels like a steal for Toronto. Happ posted a decent 4.22 ERA in 158 innings this past season for the Jays, but he’s nothing more than a fourth or fifth starter and he’ll be a free agent next winter. Saunders, meanwhile, boasts a 111 OPS+ since the beginning of the 2012 season and won’t be a free agent for another two years. He shores up left field for the Jays on the cheap. He also gives the club yet another Canadian-born player.” Drew Silva, NBC Sports’ HardBall Talk

Michael Saunders had the best offensive season in his career last year, slugging .450 and compiling a 126 wRC+ in 263 plate appearances. The thing is, though, those numbers were the result of a small sample size and should be looked at with a grain of salt – especially when one considers the outfielder produced what seems like an unsustainable .327 BABIP (batting average in balls in play) in 2014. His career BABIP is .290, and it is not hard to see him regressing to the mean in subsequent years due to the simple fact he will probably put a lesser percentage of balls in play.

Now, I am not trying to totally debase his offensive value because in 2012, he put up a 108 wRC+ and in 2013, put up a 100 wRC+; both of which are respectable totals and scream “average production.” He accumulated close to twice the amount of plate appearances in both those years, so it is not erroneous to speculate that he will produce close to this level going forward, not around the very good 126 wRC+ he amassed last season. If that fails to convince you, Steamer/600 (how one is expected to play in 600 plate appearances) forecasts him to post a 108 wRC+, the same number he sported in 2012, in the 2015 season.

(By the way, did I mention wRC+ is park adjusted? Yeah, so the number takes into account that Saunders hit in a really tough park in SAFECO most of his career and neutralizes the number so it evens out as if he were to amass all those plate appearances in a neutral offensive environment.)

Saunders should be a quality stick for the Blue Jays in the future and judging by the fact he yielded a 7 DRS in right field with Seattle last season, he should be a quality defender in left field, too. But they did give up a pretty decent pitcher in J.A. Happ to get him and, truthfully, they may have been better off keeping the southpaw and tendering a contract to Andy Dirks.

Examine:

Career Offensive Numbers

Andy Dirks (1,063 Plate Appearances): .276 Batting Average, .332 On-Base Percentage, .413 Slugging Percentage, 103 wRC+

Michael Saunders (1,919 Plate Appearances): .231 Batting Average, .301 On-Base Percentage, .384 Slugging Percentage, 92 wRC+

Granted, Saunders had an absolutely dreadful 2011 season in which he posted a 19 wRC+; thus, distorting his career marks a good amount. Also, Dirks missed the entire 2014 season due to injury and that had to play a factor in why Toronto did not tender him a contract. But it is not as if Saunders did not come with injury-risk. I mean, the guy played in just 78 games last season.

There is a very reasonable chance that the Blue Jays had inside knowledge on Dirks’ health. In that case it is perfectly understandable they decided not to tender him a contract and instead got Saunders to play left for them. If not, then this really does not make sense to me. Dirks is the slightly superior defender of the two, is not substantially worse with the bat and did not cost a quality starter to attain.

In my humble opinion, Saunders is the better player of the two. He is not, however, better than both Happ and Dirks. The Blue Jays’ fifth spot in the rotation is currently occupied by either prospect Aaron Sanchez — who has never made an MLB start — or the volatile Marco Estrada. As a result of this trade, a previously thin rotation got a little thinner. One has to wonder why Toronto postulated Saunders was the better commodity than both Happ and Dirks. Maybe there’s a perfectly logical reason, but maybe there’s not.