Joe Saunders is probably never going to be able do anything to justify his presence in Arizona. His arrival was at the expense of a beloved, ace level pitcher in Dan Haren, and the justifications for bringing him here were derided gleefully as naive. Jerry Dipoto, on why Saunders was the right fit for Arizona, said, "...a guy who quite frankly has been one of the winners in Major League Baseball." He then mentioned Saunders' playoff experience, especially odd given how seemingly far away the Diamondbacks were from competing on July 25, 2010.
Saunder didn't start this season too hot, making the move seem even more nonsensical. In April he went 0-3 in 5 starts with a 5.93 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP. Opponents were hitting .333 off him, and a slugging % of .543. The Diamondbacks hadn't yet made their push to legitimacy, but the team seemed to be in danger of having two emerging aces in Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy, and then 3 question marks.
A funny thing happened on the way to the narrative Saunders being a waste of a roster space. He turned his season around, and has improved every month to finally post a marvelous July.
He's improved in nearly every possible way each subsequent month after April. His ERA? It dropped from 5.93 to 3.96 for May, 2.91 for June, and 2.12 for July. Ian Kennedy, who is untouchable to criticism most times, hasn't posted 2.12 in a month yet. That's not to take anything away from Kennedy, who didn't have a very good July, but to highlight how he gets a pass while Saunders will never be accepted. It wasn't just the ERA that he improved, though.
His WHIP went from a horrendous 1.73 in April to a straight 1.00 for July. Opponents were batting .333, in July they batted .207 off him. In April the slugging % was .543, but in July they only slugged .355. And nearly every number that has improved to July got better each month. That doesn't mean we should expect a Pedro Martinez from 1999 performance in August, but should take a moment to acknowledge just how much he has improved over the season.
You'll forgive me if I feel last night's game was a bit of a capstone for Joe Saunders. 99 pitches for a complete game, and outside of a home run to the penultimate batter, he was as perfect as Joe Saunders can be. Sure, you could say that the stat of only giving 3 pitches or less to 24 batters in the game an indication that he isn't striking a lot of people out. Well, who cares? When has Saunders ever been a strikeout pitcher? And his 5 strikeouts for the game matched Ian Kennedy's last start, who would not be leveled the same faux criticism.
Of course, the doubters will be quick to blunt any praise of Saunders with any variety of qualifiers. Make no mistake, this is not about Saunders turning into a Cy Young candidate. This is acknowledging his recent play. In the long term, he'll be a 3 or 4 spot pitcher. But people focus too often on aces. They forget that most teams are not constructed like the Phillies where nearly every member of the rotation is a 1 starter. You need good a 3 starter, and Joe Saunders has been one this year.
Maybe he won't keep it up. But today we can take a second to praise him.