The Baltimore Orioles are unlikely to be very good in 2020’s abbreviated season, and as a result, they are seldom shown much in interest in fantasy baseball. An already abysmal team that finished each of the past two seasons with a top-two pick in the MLB draft, the Orioles seemingly could be even worse.
On offense, their offseason was highlighted by dealing away Jonathon Villar and the unfortunate news of Trey Mancini’s health forcing him to miss the season. Chris Davis is easily the most recognizable name among batters, despite being more than three seasons removed from being any good. Under the surface though, one name should catch baseball fans’ eyes, and that is 25-year-old, Anthony Santander.
Who is Anthony Santander?
Santander was originally in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system and bounced between a few low levels of their minor league system between 2012-2016. Over that time, Santander flashed some power, but never got above A+ ball, and was selected by the Orioles in the 2017 rule-five draft after Cleveland chose not to protect him. A combination of injury and poor performance limited Santander to just 13 games in 2017 and 33 games in 2018, but Baltimore kept him on the roster for the necessary amount of time to avoid having to return his rights to Cleveland. Because the Orioles were (and still are) in the early stages of their rebuild, there was little to lose by letting Santander stay on the 25-man roster in 2017-2018, and little reason not to let him have a chance to be an everyday player in 2019, following his promotion from the minors in June.
Santander can do serious damage when he gets into one, as evidenced by one specific homer against the Tampa Bay Rays last September. Hitting from the left side, the switch hitter belted an absolute laser down the right-field line. The exit velocity off the bat was measured by Statcast at 112.9 mph, good for the hardest-hit homer any Oriole had all year.
This isn’t just a way to poke at the Orioles for not having anybody with a high peak exit velocity homer either, that 112.9 mph maximum ranked in the top 25% of the entire MLB in 2019. Santander’s average exit velocity was also well above-average as well at 89.9 mph compared to the 2019 MLB average exit velocity of 88.2 mph.
Santander is listed officially as being 6’2”, 225 pounds, and he is able to leverage that mass into power. Santander only received 380 at-bats in 2019, yet still belted 20 homers and another 20 doubles as well. Santander’s approach at the plate is conducive to picking up extra-base hits, as his average launch angle in 2019 was right in line for power production at 15.3˚. Outside of the obvious benefit of being more likely to pick up an extra-base hit, Santander also helps avoid falling victim to well-hit outs by getting the ball in the air, especially from the left side of the plate where he frequently was shifted against in 2019.
Santander quietly improved last season in a number of other ways that can help hitters reach better batted-ball outcomes. 2019 saw Santander set a career-high in both FB% (43.2%) and HR/FB% (15.6%.) With the juiced ball, it seemed like everybody increased this number and hit dingers, but Santander also dropped his IFFB% (infield fly ball percentage) down to a career-low 12.5%. Santander additionally set a career-low in his soft contact rate at 19.1% while beating his career 36.7% hard contact by logging a 37.9% figure in 2019, per Fangraphs’ Batted Ball data. None of these changes are especially drastic, but rather they show the culmination of what can happen when a player slightly improves in a number of areas.
A deeper look into Santander’s profile from each side of the plate supports him as being slightly better as a righty, but that he was productive from both sides in 2019. In 244 at-bats batting left-handed, Santander hit .254/.290/.463, good for a solid but unimpressive 92 wRC+. In 136 at-bats hitting right-handed, Santander hit .272/.310/.500, equating to a slightly more laudable 108 wRC+. This development was somewhat surprising as Santander’s limited playing time in 2017-2018 had seen him perform worse from the right side, and supports a young player making sustainable improvements to an area of weakness.
Santander also managed to drive the ball to all fields from both sides, shown in the below spray charts of his batted ball events against right-handed pitchers:
And here is his batted ball events against left-handed pitchers:
What’s Holding Him Back?
One area where Santander does still need to make adjustments though in his offensive profile is in his plate discipline, as he managed a meager 4.7% walk rate in 2019. For all that Santander did well last season, he still finished with an OBP under .300, which is simply unacceptable for an everyday player. One factor that limited his ability to pick up walks was his aggression at the dish, as his 51.8% swing rate was well above the major league average and played a role in leading to Santander not getting deep enough into counts to earn free passes. That approach also led Santander to only strike out in a respectable 21.2% of his plate appearances.
While it would be tempting to say he also avoided some potential strikeouts by not going deep into counts, Santander’s swinging-strike rate was impressively low, at just 9.7%. Sure it would be nice to see him walk more, but Santander legitimately doesn’t have a significant problem with making contact, something rare among hitters with his ability to hit for power. If Santander can continue his offensive development by being a little more selective at the plate, he likely would more than be able to offset any potential increase in his strikeout rate by raising his on-base percentage while also giving himself a chance for more hitters’ counts.
Now that you know about what Santander is capable of and has already done, get ready for a reason to be even more optimistic about the Venezuelan outfielder. Santander’s numbers from last season are slightly dulled down from how well he was playing for the majority of 2019, as a shoulder injury last September contributed to a late-season slump. The significance of the injury on his offensive production is demonstrated well by the following graphic from Baseball Savant, showing Santander’s Rolling Expected wOBA from 2019:
Santander’s wOBA plummeted over the course of his final 50-60 plate appearances once he injured his shoulder, and his traditional stats reflected it as well. After slashing .291/.328/.520 in his first 74 games, Santander managed only a meager .155 batting average over the final 19 games of the season before he was shut down. Back in February, Santander explained that after the season ended last fall, he learned from medical testing that he avoided any structural damage. After two and a half months off, resting from his regular offseason training, Santander was confident he had recovered and was cleared to resume full baseball activities.
Another factor to note for Santander is that when it was announced the season would play, he was delayed reporting to the Orioles summer training. Santander revealed earlier this month that he tested positive on July 1st for COVID-19, and while he has since passed the MLB protocols of two negative tests taken 24 hours apart, he was not able to report to the team until last Tuesday, July 14th. Thankfully, Santander reported mild symptoms while he had the virus, and on a Zoom call last week he expressed confidence that he is ready to go, saying “Now, I’m healthy, I’m not contagious. Happy to be back on the field with my teammates”. It’s phenomenal to hear that Santander didn’t have severe symptoms, though with just over a week to prepare for Opening Day, it will be critical to get his reps in and timing down to avoid a potentially slow start.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Even while playing for the team projected to finish with the worst record in baseball will not guarantee Santander playing time if he regresses. His defense, while passable in the outfield corners, has graded out mediocrely even in spite of Santander’s above-average sprint speed, which ranked in the 64th percentile last season according to Baseball Savant. In Ryan Mountcastle, Yusneil Diaz, Austin Hays, DJ Stewart, and Ryan McKenna just to name a handful, Baltimore has a number of potentially useful corner outfielder/designated hitter types already with the big league team or knocking on the door of the majors. It will be important for Santander to produce, to ensure that he continues to be a fixture in the middle of the lineup.
Santander possesses a higher ceiling than most baseball fans may realize, especially if he is healthy and fully recovered from the shoulder injury that dulled his overall 2019 stats. He’s been a late-round selection in a number of my fantasy leagues already this season given that he’s practically free to acquire and will likely be hitting in the meat of the order for a team playing half their games at Camden Yards. If nothing else, bookmark his name and keep him on your watch list because if he gets off to a hot start that looks like his pre-injury .848 OPS-ing self from last season, you’re going to want to be joining me on the rapidly-filling Santander bandwagon.
Featured image by JR Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter)