Virginia Tech Flashback Friday: Joe Saunders

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 14: Starting pitcher Joe Saunders
SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 14: Starting pitcher Joe Saunders /

Joe Saunders is the most highly drafted Virginia Tech baseball player in the program’s history, but his impact after he left cannot be forgotten.

Major League Baseball is winding down, or cranking up depending on which team you follow. We return to the diamond for another installment of the Flashback Friday series.

Joe Saunders didn’t throw hard and was never a big strikeout pitcher. In many ways, he began his career the same way he ended it — as a crafty veteran who relied on movement to get batters out.

Saunders hails from Fairfax, VA where he attended West Springfield High School. He elected to remain in the commonwealth for college and picked the Hokies. The left-hander quickly made an impression for Tech.

As a freshman in 2000, Saunders posted a team-best 3.92 ERA and tied Jason Bush for the team-high in victories with nine. Saunders led the team in wins by himself with nine in both 2001 and 2002. His team-best ERA improved to 3.48 in 2001 and 2.86 in 2002.

Saunders led the Hokies in innings pitched in 2001 with 116.1 and led Tech in strikeouts during 2001 (87) and 2002 (102).

He posted a 27-7 record during his time in Blacksburg which is third place all-time in total victories. Among three-year starters, Saunders holds the Hokie record for best winning percentage with a .794 mark.

After putting up those kinds of numbers, it was no surprise to see Saunders leave school early to enter the MLB Draft. He was selected with the 12th overall selection in the 2002 draft by the then Anaheim Angels.

The pick marks the highest a Hokie has ever been drafted. He went just ahead of Brad DuVall who was chosen 15th overall by Baltimore in 1987, and Franklin Stubbs who was picked 19th overall in 1982 by the Dodgers.

Saunders missed the entire 2003 season with a left shoulder injury, but he began to move up the ranks on his return. He had a 9-7 record with a 3.41 ERA in single A ball in 2004 which earned him a promotion to Double-A. There he went 7-4 with two complete games. Later in 2005, Saunders bumped up to Triple-A.

He was picked as the Angels organization’s Pitcher of the Year for 2005. He was also ranked No. 37 on the list of top 50 prospects by Minor League News for 2006.

August 16, 2005 saw Saunders make his Major League debut against the Toronto Blue Jays. He went 7.1 innings scattering five hits and allowing two runs and tallied two strikeouts, two walks and received a no-decision after Francisco Rodriguez blew the save.

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Though he didn’t make the playoff roster, Saunders signed a one-year contract and would be recalled to the majors after an injury to Bartolo Colon. He finished 2006 with a 7-3 record in 13 appearances.

Saunders began the 2007 season in the Angels’ starting rotation with Bartolo Colon still on the disabled list.

That spring, the April 16 shooting took place on the campus of Virginia Tech. Saunders received a special waiver from the MLB to wear a Tech hat on the mound in a game just four days after the shooting. He also wrote “VT” on his shoes and drew the school logo in the dirt on the back of the mound before the game.

Saunders went six innings and didn’t allow a run to get an emotional win.

The next two seasons proved to be the best of his career. Saunders won 33 games between 2008-2009. In 2008 he was a career-best 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA and earned his only career selection to the All-Star game.

After being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, Saunders bounced around a bit to finish his career. He had stints with Baltimore, Seattle, and the Texas Rangers before finishing his pro career with a series of minor league deals, the last coming in 2015 with the Kansas City organization.

Saunders finished with a career record of 89-86 with a 4.21 ERA over 229 starts. For fans of advanced stats, he had a career WAR (wins above replacement) of 8.8 which is considered MVP caliber over a single season.

Joe Saunders was a reliably consistent pitcher over 10 MLB seasons who used his craftiness to the fullest. His outstanding changeup routinely fooled hitters even though his fastball topped out between 89-91 MPH.

Without question he’s one of the best Hokies to have played the game and represented the university well at the highest level of competition.