There are two things one should know about former big-league manager Don Wakamatsu: he doesn't give up on players, and he believes many rookies must fail before they can move forward.
Michael Saunders is one of those players, a Canadian outfielder who broke into the majors under Wakamatsu in Seattle in 2009.
Then 22, Saunders had a .221 batting average in 129 plate appearances over 46 games. It didn't get much better for the Victoria native at the plate the next season when Saunders hit .211 and struck out 84 times in 289 at-bats.
In 2011, the left-handed hitting Saunders - a six-foot-four, 225-pounder with a power stroke - reached an even greater low, batting .149 with a .207 on-base percentage and hitting just two home runs in 161 at-bats.
"When Michael first camp up [to the majors] in '09 there were some circumstances that were out of his control that tested him early, like facing five left-handers out of every six pitchers," Wakamatsu, who was fired by the Mariners in August 2010 and is now bench coach with the Toronto Blue Jays, said recently.
Over the years, Wakamatsu added, several different managers and coaches have addressed the issue of Saunders's approach at the plate and the need for change.
"I never felt he totally gave up," Wakamatsu said. "At one point we sat him for a while and told him to make a few adjustments. He came back after two weeks of just sitting on the bench and he swung the bat well.
"Talent-wise, there's no question he has a chance to be a great player. He runs well, is a good defender and has power. A lot of players have to go through [struggles] and realize that what you have done to this point might not get you to where you need to be and I think he's fully aware of that."
So much so, Saunders went outside the box, as he put it, and hired a hitting coach in the off-season for the first time in his career. However, the in-season results haven't been entirely positive as Saunders sported a .229 average through the Mariners' first 15 games.
Saunders talked to CBCSports.ca about his mindset at the end of last season, his changed approach to hitting over the winter and his renewed confidence entering a new campaign.
CBCSports.ca: What were your immediate plans once the Mariners' 2011 season ended with a 2-0 loss to Oakland on Sept. 28?
MS: At the end of the year I needed to get away from the game, not only [because of] on the field [issues] but off the field [dealing with the death of his mother]. My wife and I moved to Colorado and I knew I needed some help [in baseball]. I had a lot of questions that needed to get answered. I was desperate. I've had highlights of success in the major leagues but not consistently and that's what the game's all about.
CBCSports.ca: What is life like when you feel the need to get away from a game that you've played for years and have a passion for?
MS: I think it was time. It was a long year and I just needed to step away from it for a little while. I was burnt out. People don't realize how tough this game is from a mental standpoint. It's a grind day in and day out and my body was beat up, mentally I was beat up.
I ended up going to Venezuela for a month to play [in the Venezuelan Winter League]. When I got home, I didn't think about baseball and didn't go to the gym. I woke up one day, had a jump in my step and said I was ready to get back into it.
CBCSports.ca: What question did you want answered after years of trying to get things right for yourself at the plate?
MS: Hitting. I was tired of getting my ass kicked the last couple of years in the major leagues. There's something I wasn't doing right to continually [have a poor batting average]. I think a lot of it was confidence. I've never had problems [hitting] in the minor leagues. Sure, it's a big step to the major leagues but I feel I'm very athletic, so I should be able to adjust.
CBCSports.ca: You hired a private hitting instructor named Mike Bard, the brother of former Mariners teammate Josh Bard, who has worked with other major leaguers like Matt Holliday and David Freese of the St. Louis Cardinals. What impressed you about his work?
MS: I got drawn to him right away just from his personality. He's an extremely strong person and extremely convicted about what he does, his belief system. He's got a sense of humour. There's something about him that drew me to him and made me feel extremely comfortable. It really made me believe in him and start believing in myself. I really feel like he changed my career.
CBCSports.ca: Mike Bard introduced you to resistance bands that you wrapped around your knees and shoulders to force your body to stay compact. You also swung a 60-ounce bat to help transform your long, looping swing to a shorter stroke. How do you describe that adjustment?
MS: I was dog cussing these [resistance bands] for a good week. I hated them. The whole goal was to shorten up [my stride], stay more compact [in my batting stance], stay in my legs and utilize my lower half [of the body]. Basically, become a shorter, more compact hitter. I'm really long limbed so I can easily have a tendency to get a long swing.
You can get away with that in the minor leagues but in the big leagues it's consistent pitching day in and day out and [pitchers] exploit it once they find it. I know the book's out on me and it's something I needed to change.
CBCSports.ca: How did Mike Bard help you with the mental side of the game?
MS: I was extremely passive last year and scared to fail. I just felt like I kept digging myself in a hole deeper and deeper that I couldn't get out of. I felt lost, and he basically taught me to exude confidence in whatever you do. I came into [spring training] this year very confident in the work that I put in. I was extremely aggressive.
My whole mindset was if I'm going to go down I'm going to go down swinging like a man and expect to do damage.
CBCSports.ca: It seems rather obvious for a big guy like yourself to have had someone suggest that you make your swing more compact. Are you disappointed this wasn't brought to your attention earlier?
MS: People were trying to. At certain times you can talk to three, four different people. They all mean the same thing but one person says something and it clicks. I've been trying to shorten my swing for a few years with a few different hitting coaches but it's always been heavy into spring training or during a season. I've never had an off-season just to [work on] it and not have to worry about anything like playing a game that night, and I think that certainly helped.
CBCSports.ca: How did you feel about your hitting approach once the Mariners broke camp in Phoenix?
MS: Having the off-season and all those months to work on [my swing] I felt I could trust it in a game. The limited results I have had are encouraging to me. I definitely took a few steps back and trusted what I was working on. I was lost at times but I stuck with it and I'm seeing results.
I'm really happy I came across this [in the] off-season because I feel it was now or never. Baseball's a game that before you know it your career is over and I'm just trying to do everything possible that I can to make myself a better baseball player. I still have a lot of work to do.
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