One of my favorite things about living in a city with a beloved baseball team is seeing which players stand the test of time with the local fans. I live in Denver, and it’s amazing how for every Nolan Arenado, Todd Helton, or Larry Walker jersey I see, I also find people whose ride-or-dies are D.J. LeMahieu, Ryan Spilborghs, and Andres Galarraga. It’s a fascinating testament to the idea that all sorts of players resonate with us as fans, not just the superstars.
If you’ve read my writing or are members of Pitcher List Discord channel, you already know I was born and raised in Cleveland and am a diehard Indians fan. Anyone from the 216 will tell you there is no shortage of beloved players in Indians history who will remain unheralded in the annals of baseball at large. They’ll tell you stories of Paul Sorrento and Carlos Baerga, of Casey Blake and Coco Crisp, and of Jake Westbrook and Victor Martinez. The list goes on and on.
That player for me will always be Carlos Santana. He is the heart and soul of the Indians, Mr. Dependability. When the Dolans refused to sign him in 2018, I was devastated. So when he was traded back to the Indians this offseason, I was overjoyed. Spring training came along, and there was the Axe-Man at first base like it should always be, but little did I know that I would be seeing a completely different hitter in 2019. The player best known for his steady-Eddie ability had seemingly changed his approach, and at this point in the season, it’s turned him into the Indians best hitter. What I’d like to do is take a look at Santana’s campaign through the 14 or so games we’ve seen this season and figure out if maybe we should pay more attention to him. If we don’t, we might be missing out on a huge season.
If you know anything about Santana, you know about his predictability. In any given year, he is going to hit somewhere between .230 and .260 with somewhere between 20 and 25 home runs, and he’s always going to put together a nice balance of runs and RBI—usually landing around 80 or 90 in both. Death, taxes and Santana’s batting line. Those are the things you can count on in life.
The other thing he’s best known for is his batting eye. To give an idea of how much command Santana has over the strike zone, his career-low in walk percentage is 13.2 in 2017. That’s his worst season. We’re talking Joey Votto-level plate discipline. In fact, let’s take a look at several of his stats over the last few years in order to get an idea what of Santana’s production looks like:
Outside of the average, that’s a solid but unspectacular bat. He’s been pretty much the ideal corner infielder whose value is immensely boosted in points leagues or OBP leagues. If you’re worried about the off year in 2018, it’s worth noting he was apparently miserable in Philadelphia. I know some people will ascribe that to holding up to the Philly media or the weight of playing in a big market, but it seems like a lot of it was simply that he missed his home. He had lived in Cleveland for the last seven years and had likely found a certain comfort there. It’s easy to forget that the players are human, but I can see this having a big effect. Also, it’s hard to knock a season where you walk more often than you strike out, no matter what your batting average says. So now that we have an idea of Santana’s usual production, let’s take a look at his 2019 season through Friday morning.
Well, that is certainly not what I expected. It’s obviously worth noting that much of this is due to small sample size. So far, Santana has a .444 BABIP, which is unsustainable in every way possible—especially for a guy who over his career has only put up one league-average BABIP, back in 2013. The thing is, I don’t expect it to regress all the way back to the .260s either. Why? Remember that change in approach I mentioned earlier? If it sticks, I think we’ll see that BABIP end up a lot closer than in years past. So what exactly is he doing differently this year? The answer lies in his hitting approach. Allow me to show you.
Another classic Santana trait is that he is an extreme pull hitter with a heavy dose of fly balls and ground balls. Here’s his career batted-ball splits over the last four years.
As you can see, the scouting report is pretty spot on. Such a high pull percentage (especially with so few line drives) is pretty much tailor-made for the shift, and that has long been the book on holding Santana in check. Since 2015 the Axe-Man faced a shift in two out of every three at-bats, and it has taken its toll. If you’re going to pull that ball that much into the shift, you better have Joey Gallo-level power, or you’re going to have a rough go. Take a peek at Santana’s 2019 batted-ball numbers for the year.
It’s only been 14 games, but that has all the hallmarks of a player who’s genuinely making a change to their approach in the batters box and getting positive results. I’ve watched all 48 of Santana’s plate appearances, and I’ve never seen him try to drive pitches on the outside part of the plate to the opposite field as much as he has so far. It’s such a common trope for the average fan to throw their hands up in the air and exclaim, “Why don’t they just go the other way!” whenever a pull hitter runs into trouble versus the shift. What most of us don’t realize is that making a major change in approach is incredibly hard, especially when it comes to going the opposite way.
Yet so far this season, Santana has done it pretty effectively. For his career, Santana has hit .250 against the shift while pulling the ball 51,4% of the time into those shifts. So far in 2019, he has hit .433 against the shift while pulling the ball into the shift a mere 30.0% of the time and going the other way 26.7% of the time. If he keeps that up, teams won’t be able to shift him for long. This could lead to one of two things: Either A) teams continue shifting Santana and he continues to beat them by going the other way. This allows him to become a gap-to-gap power threat and could even lead to his becoming a batting average asset, or B) teams stop shifting on him and he can go back to his pull-happy ways without the shift dragging down his average into the .230 range. Notice as well that he has done all this without losing a step in terms of his walk percentage.
Now, something else that really stands out is the drastic cut in Santana’s K rate. His 6.3% would have led the league last year and represents nearly a 7.4-point decrease from 2018’s figure. Obviously, I’m skeptical that holds, but he has improved his strikeout percentage every year for the last four seasons, and with a mere 7.1% swinging-strike rate the last two years, his improved 6.9% says he is still getting better in that department. Despite the impressive gains, though, it’s not a big enough improvement for the lower K rate to seem believable.
So what is going on that could justify cutting one’s K rate nearly in half? Let’s look at his plate discipline numbers.
My suspicion is that a lot of the K-rate leap is early-season noise, but there are still signs that he might be improving his strikeout potential. He made incremental improvements in most of his plate discipline stats, but it’s worth noting that he’s seeing more pitches in the zone, and while he is swinging at fewer of those pitches overall, he is making much better contact with the ones he is swinging at. Combined with the lower swinging-strike rate, I could see him knocking another half a percentage point or so off that K rate. That may not seem like much, but it makes a huge difference in points leagues that penalize for strikeouts. With that in mind, it’s not unreasonable to expect another season where Santana walks more often than he strikes out.
One other classic characteristic of a Santana season is that he is a stereotypical slow starter. Here are some of his numbers broken down month by month:
Clearly, he is a player who starts off at a sluggish pace and ramps things up as the season gets going. This makes his early-2019 production even more worth noticing as it seems like his hot start is a sizable break from his normal production. Even if he can bump that monthly batting average for April up to .250 or .260, we’re talking about a major bump in seasonlong AVG, wOBA, and wRC+ ,which could be just the thing Santana needs to be truly fantasy relevant.
If you remember from my debut article on Lorenzo Cain, oftentimes changing your approach to start going the other way can have a radical effect on a player’s Statcast numbers, and so one has to wonder if the same has happened to Santana. Here are his numbers in the Statcast era:
|Year||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||xSLG||xwOBA||BBL%||Hard Hit%|
The new approach certainly seems to have created a bit of a trade-off for Santana. Exit velocity and hard-hit rate show that he is hitting the ball harder than ever but at the expense of his launch angle and BBL%. If he continues this approach for the entire season, I suspect that his launch angle will start to come back up, as his historical data suggests that he tends to ramp up his power as the season wears on. On the flip side, have the opposite-field hits been responsible for the boost in hard-hit rate and exit velocity? Look at the last four balls Santana hit the other way.
|Result||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity|
So not only is he hitting the ball to the opposite field, but lately, he’s been hitting it HARD the other way. That’s a recipe for success every time. Of the 12 batted balls he’s hit to the opposite field, only three of them have an exit velocity below 80 mph. Of the nine balls he pulled, he only hit two of them in the 80s in terms of mph. Everything else has been hit at least 90 mph or higher, with five of them being hit at 100+ mph. That’s a hitter who is just straight mashing the ball. If he starts hitting a few more of these balls in the air, then we could be in for quite a season.
Now it’s time to pull back for a moment and throw some cold water on the situation. It’s only been 14 games. Hitters have 14-game hot streaks in the middle of the season all the time. So far, he has a 51.4 ground-ball rate, which has me concerned even if I believe that will go down as the season continues. If he doesn’t start hitting the ball in the air, we could see a big drop in his home runs, which would really hurt his value. Finally the offense he’s on flat-out stinks. The Indians are so bad that he has either scored or driven in literally HALF of his teams runs so far in 2019. That’s unsustainable. The good news is that Francisco Lindor should be back at the end of the month and Jose Ramirez should get back on track soon, so the offense should greatly improve sooner rather than later. None of these things turn me off of Santana at this early point in the season, but if we’re going to keep an eye on the good, then we also need to make sure we’re keeping an eye on the red flags as well.
So all this considered, what should we expect from Santana for the rest of the season?
If he continues with this approach and continues to find success with, I feel like we could reasonably expect something along the lines of a .275 to .280 average with somewhere right around 20 home runs and 85+ runs and RBI. In Roto leagues, it essentially flips his value from a decent power guy to a decent/above-average source of batting average out of your CI or UTIL slot. It makes me think of the days when James Loney was a sneaky-good fantasy player. In OBP leagues, he becomes a starting-level first baseman and could even sneak into the Top 10 to 12 at the position. In points leagues? He could become a must-start, near-star-level player as his OBP starts to rise closer to Votto territory. Then it’s a whole new ballgame.
Now it’s still entirely possible that this is all just white noise through this early part of the season. We’re going to have to wait and see if the approach sticks and if it even continues to work. What we do know is that we are currently seeing one of the leagues smartest hitters make a marked change to his hitting strategy, and through 14 games, it has him looking like a potential All-Star both in real life and in fantasy.
There isn’t much worth watching about the Cleveland offense, but the Axe-Man might be worth the price of admission on any given day in 2019. I know for sure Indians fans like myself have long appreciated his talents and leadership. Perhaps this is the time finally for the rest of the league to be able to do the same.
(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)