Don't misread the headline of this post - there is a rational case for re-signing Joe Saunders. It's well understood on this site. Saunders is as close to a sure thing as we can sign for 200 league-average innings, to stabilize a rotation full of question marks. The rational case, however, is not the one I'm interested in discussing.
The Orioles' August acquisition of Saunders was mostly well-regarded, but few considered it a game-changer. We knew we'd be getting someone who could take the ball every fifth day and keep us in the game, even if he was no ace (and this at a time when every day's starter was a mystery with our eight-man rotation and constant Norfolk shuttle). That's exactly what we got, on a statistical level, but we got so much more.
The day Saunders was traded, he tweeted a fairly standard goodbye to the Diamondbacks, but an unusually warm hello to Orioles fans:
Thanks for the warm welcome @orioles fans! Excited to be close to my hometown and join the team I grew up watching...— Joseph Saunders (@J_saundo) August 26, 2012
At the same time, he changed his Twitter profile picture to the Oriole bird. Not himself in an Orioles hat. He put a bird on it. This is when I started wondering if we had picked up something more than an innings-eater.
At this point, I should probably explain myself a bit. I'm a native of Northern Virginia, an area where no one is a native. When I was growing up, being a sports fan in either DC or Baltimore meant rooting for the Orioles and the Redskins. People in Northern Virginia now just assume that I should be a Nationals fan, but I grew up rooting for Ripken, Segui and Hoiles - certainly not for the Expos. Joe Saunders went to high school in Fairfax County, just like I did, and graduated just a year earlier. So in my mind, he gets it. Athletes stop being fans pretty early in their journeys, I'm sure - but if the stars align business-wise and they can pitch for their childhood team, I'm sure the journey is that much more rewarding.
So Saunders was an Oriole. Remarkably, he moved from the NL West to the AL East and actually upped his game - he pitched to an ERA+ of 117 in 44.2 regular season innings. We won four of his seven starts. After his first start (where he showed some obvious nervousness), every start was a quality start. And around Saunders, the magic of the Orioles' 2012 season happened, landing us a postseason berth.
To put it simply, Saunders came up nails in the postseason (I think that's the sabermetric term). The Orioles had to put it all on the line to even force a one-game wild card play-in, and when they got to that game, it was Saunders' turn. He was up against Yu Darvish, who came in with far better stuff - and lost. Saunders gritted out 5.2 innings of one-run ball and got us into the ALDS, bringing postseason baseball back to Baltimore.
In the ALDS, Saunders did the exact same thing - 5.2 innings, one run - in Game 4, a game that ran 13 innings and ended in a dramatic blow to the evil empire. But it also produced one of the most memorable images of the postseason for me:
After he came out of the game, Saunders spent that game rallying the troops, spurring on the Orioles Magic and eventually forcing a Game 5 that we won't talk about here. The hats on the dugout railing, the Gatorade bottles - it felt like Saunders was just plain willing the team to win.
If baseball was nothing but numbers, I wouldn't care whether the Orioles had pursued a Joe Blanton or Brett Myers in place of Saunders. But baseball is more than numbers. Saunders could put up the same numbers as those two guys next season, and I'd be twice as happy to have him on my team. Somewhere in my mind, if I had spent more time in high school playing and learning baseball (instead of, say, playing and learning Nintendo 64) - I could be Joe Saunders (in reality, my ceiling was probably Brandon Fahey, but hey). So I'll root for him that much more. The fact that he actually makes sense for this team, at this time, is nice too. Get it done, Duquette. I want to meet Joe Saunders at FanFest.